NBA

Boston Celtics: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown need help – but where can Brad Stevens find it?

By Sports Desk July 26, 2021

After a seventh-place finish in the Eastern Conference was followed by a first-round exit in the playoffs, the Boston Celtics decided it was time for change.

Danny Ainge, the long-time director of basketball operations, is out. Brad Stevens' reign as head coach is over too, though he has switched from orchestrating plays on the sideline to making deals in the front office. His replacement on the bench, Ime Udoka, is an experienced member of supporting casts who finally gets a chance to take on a lead role.

The revamp was not just restricted to team staff, either.

Kemba Walker – seen as a major addition in 2019 – was deemed expendable amid concerns over both his long-term health and salary number. The deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder came at a cost – Boston had to give up their first-round pick in this year's draft as a sweetener – but it may not be the final move for a franchise aiming to regain momentum.

For so long, the Celtics were viewed as a team on the rise. A plethora of burgeoning talents were allowed to develop under the highly rated Stevens, a graduate from the college system who steered them to the Eastern Conference Finals on three occasions between 2017 and 2020.

However, 2020-21 was undoubtedly a step back. A 36-36 record in the regular season, albeit amid the backdrop of a global pandemic, was a surprise. Losing to the Brooklyn Nets in five, however, was not. In fact, the only shock was that they managed to avoid being swept.

So what happens in the next chapter of the Celtics story? Stevens must work out the path for a team that, after playing the long game, has quickly been left behind by its rivals

Boston's double act offers hope

Capitalising on a plethora of draft picks stockpiled over time, the Celtics had sculpted a roster that appeared a step away from moving onto the next level. Major moves were made to try and tip the balance: Kyrie Irving appeared the perfect marriage only for the relationship to flame out, while Gordon Hayward endured a hugely unfortunate start and never completely recovered.

Walker has gone now too, leaving Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as the two fundamental pillars in place for Boston to build around.

Brown finished with a career-high 24.7 points per game at the end of the regular season, a figure aided by shooting 39.7 per cent from deep when averaging 7.1 three-pointers an outing. He attempted more shots in general, with his 19.2 field goals up from 15.6 in the previous campaign. There was also an upturn in assists as well.

However, a wrist injury meant he missed the series against the Nets. Tatum fought a lone hand, including a 50-point performance in Game 3. He became the third Celtic to reach a half-century in a regulation playoff game, joining a select group that also includes John Havlicek and Sam Jones.

Yet that stunning performance merely delayed the inevitable. In putting together a big three, the Nets had jumped the queue in the East. Boston were one of only two teams to have a pair of players finish in the top 20 for points per game in the regular season. The other? Brooklyn, of course.

Tatum averaged an impressive 26.8 points per 75 possessions to continue on an upward curve. Kevin Durant described the third overall pick in the 2017 draft as a "tough, tough cover" after trying to keep him quiet during the first-round matchup. Like Brown, the 23-year-old showed his all-round capabilities by setting career-high averages for points, rebounds and assists.

His usage rate of 30.8 per cent for every 75 possessions was both a sign of his growing status and also a by-product of an ever-changing cast around him. The Celtics used 37 different line-ups – only three teams topped that figure – as injuries and the added wrinkle of the NBA's COVID-19 protocols left Stevens consistently shuffling the deck on a nightly basis.

However, the absences should not paper over the cracks: Brown and Tatum - whose absence from an All-NBA team cost him $33million in his rookie extension – need help.

 

Moving on from Walker

Boston hoped Walker would be a multi-dimensional scoring guard who could also facilitate for others. The issue was he did not play nearly enough to merit holding on to that ideal any longer.

Walker was restricted to 43 appearances in the regular season, during which he averaged 19.3 points per game – his lowest total since 2014-15. The team was marginally better with him on the court – they scored at 113.2 points per 100 possessions, compared to 109.6 without – though played at a slightly higher pace when the former Charlotte Hornet was absent.

Taking into consideration the likelihood of the four-time All-Star utilising his player option for the 2022-23 season, there was over $73m left on his deal. Boston did get something in return from the Thunder, as a familiar face returned for a second spell (more on that later).

Walker's departure provides some cap relief, of course, but it also leaves a sizable hole in the roster. Marcus Smart appears the in-house option to start at point guard, yet he is heading into a contract year and is still yet to demonstrate how he can be relied upon for consistent offensive production.

His 14.2 points per 75 possessions ranked him 222nd in the league, although a player with a reputation for being a pest to opposing teams posted a defensive rating of 112.8, the highest of his NBA career. As he heads into his eighth season, Smart is a solid contributor capable of making plays without the ball, yet also someone opposing teams do not fear having possession in crunch time.

The same may well be said for Al Horford, even if the Celtics are not quite getting the same player who said farewell to Boston in 2019.

You can call me, Al

Life in Philadelphia did not pan out for Horford following his move in free agency two years ago, with him stuck as the odd man out in a crowded front court where Joel Embiid rules the roost. His time in Oklahoma was short-lived, but now he is back in familiar surroundings.

The 14-year veteran returns having become a more frequent three-point shooter since his first stint – his average of 5.4 attempts in 20 games for the Thunder was a career high, a stark contrast to the player who tried 18 shots from beyond the arc across his first six years in the league.

His playmaking abilities will help lighten the load on Brown and Tatum, while his experience should be invaluable to promising big Robert Williams, whose effective field goal percentage of 72.1 left him behind only DeAndre Jordan in the entire NBA.

Williams also showed he can be a presence on defense, with only five players averaging more blocked shots per game. The third-year center is a low usage, high-value finisher when close to the rim who is primed to take on a starting role.

In general, however, Boston's defensive numbers suffered a dip. Having ranked second in the category in 2019-20, giving up 107.3 points per outing, they fell outside the top 10 this term, their points against number finishing up at 111.2

The Celtics also have a decision to make over Evan Fournier, the trade-deadline addition who is now a free agent. Outside shooting is a must in the league, and the Frenchman was successful with 46.3 per cent of his three-point attempts in the regular season following his arrival from the Orlando Magic.

Last year's first-round selection Payton Pritchard, who shot 46.7 per cent when averaging 2.5 catch-and-shoot three-point attempts, showed signs of promise, but Boston still needs more shooting depth.

 

Verdict: Evolution

The revolution may have already occurred in Boston. After over 600 games as the head coach, Stevens wasted no time in making an impact following his change of roles.

However, a full re-shaping of the team would require trading away one of the core pieces he has worked so closely with over recent years. Smart, who makes just over $14m on an expiring deal, appears the most trade-friendly asset: the Celtics know the clock is ticking.

Whether Smart sticks around or not, Boston needs more to aid their dynamic duo in Brown and Tatum. The cap situation suggests dipping a toe into the free agency waters, rather than diving right in. There is no point pinning too much faith on the draft process for help either, as their first-round selection is now sitting in the Thunder's treasure chest of picks.

Stevens will survey the landscape and acknowledge standing still is a risk. Brooklyn have their big three, Giannis Antetokounmpo is ensconced in the East with Milwaukee and the Atlanta Hawks have suddenly found their wings to make a run to the Conference Finals.

His final year saw Boston average 1.18 points per possession, behind only the Sacramento Kings, while their effective field goal percentage of 63.3 ranked fourth. There is much to like about this group, yet also a feeling that standing pat is a risk with few potential rewards.

If there is a shortcut to potentially becoming a title candidate, it could be in the form of a frustrated superstar ripe for picking off in a blockbuster trade. That, however, would require a change of mindset when it comes to how they have gone about team building in recent years.

Moving Walker was a fine start, but Stevens the GM has to get creative if Boston are to get back involved in the title race again, rather than just making up the playoff numbers.

Related items

  • Spurs stun Curry's Warriors, Bulls rally past Nets Spurs stun Curry's Warriors, Bulls rally past Nets

    After snapping the Phoenix Suns' franchise-record winning streak, the high-flying Golden State Warriors crashed back down to earth in a shock 112-107 defeat to the San Antonio Spurs.

    In the second of back-to-back games, having halted Phoenix's memorable 18-game run, the league-leading Warriors (19-4) were unable to rally past the Spurs on home court in the NBA on Saturday.

    The Spurs (8-13) used an 8-1 run to close out the game for their fourth consecutive victory, fuelled by Dejounte Murray's 22 points and 12 rebounds.

    Stephen Curry scored 27 points for the Warriors, who had won 11 successive home games – tied for their longest home winning streak since they claimed 54 straight from January 2015 to March 2016.

     

    Bulls battle past Nets

    The Chicago Bulls went on a rampage at Barclays Center, where they overturned a double-digit deficit to trump the Eastern Conference-leading Brooklyn Nets 111-107. Zach LaVine (31 points) and DeMar DeRozan (29 points) inspired the Bulls in the Eastern Conference blockbuster. Kevin Durant led the Nets with 28 points, while James Harden had 14 points and 14 assists.

    Jayson Tatum (also 10 rebounds) and Dennis Schroder scored 31 points apiece to lead the Boston Celtics to a 145-117 blowout of the Portland Trail Blazers, who were without Damian Lillard.

    Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic put up 32 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in just 27 minutes as the Denver Nuggets beat the slumping New York Knicks 113-99.

    No Giannis Antetokounmpo? No worries for defending champions the Milwaukee Bucks, who defeated the Miami Heat 124-102. Bobby Portis sparked the Bucks with 19 points, 16 rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks. He is the first Bucks player with a 15/15/2/2/2 game in under 30 minutes since 1984.

     

    George unable to lift Clippers

    Paul George finished with a double-double but it was a rough night for him and the Los Angeles Clippers following a 104-99 loss at the Sacramento Kings. George only made five of his shots from the floor, while turning the ball over five times on the road.

  • Struggling Seahawks activate Peterson for 49ers clash Struggling Seahawks activate Peterson for 49ers clash

    The Seattle Seahawks activated veteran running back Adrian Peterson off the practice squad for Sunday's clash with the San Francisco 49ers.

    Struggling Seattle had signed future NFL Hall of Famer Peterson earlier this week but elevated the 36-year-old on Saturday, despite only two days of practice.

    The Seahawks (3-8) brought in the 2012 MVP and seven-time Pro Bowler – who was waived by the Tennessee Titans – for depth due to a growing injury list.

    "Adrian had a good week," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said on Friday, with his team amid a three-game losing streak. "It's probably hard for people on the outside to understand the impact a guy with his kind of background can make.

    "At a time where we're battling to try to win a game and get going, he jumped in here and had a remarkable influence on the week. With three guys banged up at the spot, we'll see how it goes on the weekend. He had a really productive week for us, and it was fun having him here.

    "It's a rare opportunity for our guys to see somebody like that, that has that kind of background, but stands for so much more than just the numbers and the stats and all of that.

    "He's been a remarkable competitor forever. It was so obvious. It was really a boost for a bunch of guys, the young guys in particular. He's serious about playing. He's not just here for show. He's here to come here and try to help us win a game."

    The Seahawks have lost eight or more games in a season for the first time since going 7-9 in 2011. The nine straight seasons with seven of fewer losses is the longest streak in team history with the previous record being five straight seasons (2003-2007), according to Stats Perform.

    Russell Wilson led the Seahawks in rushing with 16 yards in their 17-15 loss to the Washington Football Team. It was the lowest number of rushing yards for the team's leading rusher since Week 9 of 2016 when Tyler Lockett led the way with 13 rushing yards against the Bills.

  • Madrid not LaLiga champions yet as Ancelotti warns there's a long way to go ahead of derby Madrid not LaLiga champions yet as Ancelotti warns there's a long way to go ahead of derby

    Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti insisted there is still a long way to go in the LaLiga title race after Los Blancos moved eight points clear ahead of next week's derby.

    Vinicius Junior and Luka Jovic scored in the second half as leaders Madrid defeated Real Sociedad 2-0 away from home on Saturday.

    After defending champions Atletico Madrid were stunned 2-1 by Real Mallorca earlier on Saturday, Ancelotti's men are now 10 points above their city rivals heading into the December 12 derby.

    However, Ancelotti knows there is still plenty to play for after 16 rounds, with Atletico boasting a game in hand, while Sevilla – who have also played a match less – sit second in the standings.

    "I think it was just a good day for us," Ancelotti told reporters. "The league continues and results have shown that we still know there are a lot of teams that are competing at a high level in this league, but they are very even matches, we're competing at a good level as well.

    "Hopefully we can continue. And as for Karim [Benzema], he had a bit of pain early on in the game and he didn't want to aggravate any possible injury, so we opted to replace him. We'll see how he feels in the next few days, but I don't think he'll be able to play on Tuesday, but he could be fit for Sunday."

    Pressed on people labelling Madrid champions already and whether it is exaggerated, Ancelotti replied: "Yes, because we are a team that's fighting for the league title and we are first.

    "We're playing well, but it's far from over, and I do think we're playing well and we have another big exam in three days time. 

    "So today's game is a good performance, but we have to work well in our next fixture. I'm thinking about our next game against Inter [in the Champions League]."

    Madrid will welcome city rivals Atletico to the Santiago Bernabeu in their next league fixture and Ancelotti added: "We are confident because it's a special game as well, because a derby is always a special game, and in these kind of games there are no favourites.

    "So we're going to show our quality against their quality. I think it's going to be a great game, a complicated game as well. And we'll see what happens."

    Madrid are the first team from Europe's top five leagues to have two different players with 10 or more league goals this season – Karim Benzema 12 and Vinicius 10.

    Vinicius scored the earliest second-half LaLiga goal (46:47) for Madrid away from home since December 2010, when Angel Di Maria netted at Real Zaragoza (46:36) thanks to an assist from Xabi Alonso, the current Real Sociedad B manager.

    Meanwhile, Jovic – who replaced the injured Benzema – was also impressive after teeing up Vinicius' opener before scoring a goal of his own.

    The last time Jovic had a goal and an assist in the same league game was for Eintracht Frankfurt against Hannover in the Bundesliga in February 2019.

    It also meant the Serbia international forward scored and assisted in the same game for the first time in all competitions (41 appearances) and was involved in the same number of goals than in his previous 22 games (one goal and one assist in 462 minutes).

    Madrid midfielder Luka Modric praised Jovic, saying: "He put in a very good performance. He provided an assist and scored after having gone a long time without playing. He showed that we can count on him. We're very pleased with his performance and his goal."

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.