Celtics player power rankings: Defensive struggles may force Brad Stevens to shake things up

The Celtics have the second worst defense in the NBA after six games.

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens speaks to guard Avery Bradley (0) and guard Isaiah Thomas (4) during a preseason game against the Knicks.
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens speaks to guards Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas. –AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Before the season, Avery Bradley believed this year’s Celtics had the potential to be one of the best defensive teams in the league.

While many experts concurred with Bradley’s assessment, Boston’s defensive performance after six games has Bradley and his teammates searching for answers. The shorthanded Celtics rank 29th in the NBA in points allowed over the first two weeks of the season, a mark that can be partially attributed to the absence of key rotation members during that stretch.

Still, Brad Stevens pointed to a lack of effort as one of the main factors in Boston’s struggles on Sunday.

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“I think anytime that you have a year where you achieve relative success on one end of the floor, there’s slippage that’s bound to occur because shortcuts are bound to be taken,” Stevens said. “What’s most disappointing to me is the lack of physicality. But that’s on me, like I told you. I’ve got to play the guy that play more physical, like, that’s just the way it goes.”

Which players have been the biggest liabilities on the defensive end? And who stands to have their playing time cut with the impending returns of Al Horford and Kelly Olynyk looming? We’ll explore it all and more in this week’s edition of the Celtics player power rankings.   

Not ranked

Kelly Olynyk — The fourth-year center got in a week’s worth of practice after being cleared for contact following offseason shoulder surgery. Stevens says it’s possible he’ll make his season debut as soon as Wednesday’s game against the Wizards: “I think he’s getting close,” he said Sunday. “Certainly we want him to feel 110 percent. The target date in the back of our minds has been mid-November, and we’re not quite there yet.”

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14. Demetrius Jackson — One of the few silver linings in Boston’s blowout loss to the Nuggets on Sunday? The second round pick looked solid in his NBA debut. Jackson posted eight points, three rebounds and two assists in a mere 11 minutes of action.

13. James Young — On the surface, Jae Crowder’s ankle injury created a potential opportunity for some meaningful minutes for the third-year wing. Brad Stevens has only turned to Young for 12 total minutes of action in three games since Crowder went down however, a sign that Young is still languishing at the bottom of the team’s depth chart.

12. Jordan Mickey — Al Horford’s absence (concussion) allowed Mickey to earn his first string of consistent rotation minutes as a member of the Celtics this past week. The early returns from the 6-foot-8 man on the floor have been largely mixed. While he’s shown some nice finishing ability in the pick-and-roll, Mickey needs to show more strength on the glass. The 22-year-old has grabbed just five total rebounds in 43 minutes of playing time this year.

11. Jonas Jerebko — The Swede’s rough start to the season continued during this past week. Jerebko shot just 41 percent from the field over the past three games and the Celtics were outscored by 37 points during the 54 minutes he was on the floor. That mark is far and away the worst plus/minus for any player on the roster over that stretch.

10. Gerald Green — The veteran was brought to Boston for his outside shooting capability and he’s started to produce on that front over the past week, going 4-of-8 from 3-point range to raise his shooting percentage on the season to a respectable 33%.

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9. Terry Rozier — The bench unit has largely been a disaster during the past week and Rozier deserves his fair share of blame for that, particularly on the defensive end. Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay roasted the second-year on several plays during his 24 point first quarter on Sunday night, which helped to open the flood gates for Denver’s blowout win. The second-year guard must do a better challenge containing opposing point guards, particularly on the perimeter.

8. Tyler Zeller — The absence of Olynyk and Horford this past week turned Zeller from a borderline rotation piece to a starter. The seven-footer has held his own on the offensive end by shooting 50 percent while manning the middle, but skilled big men have exposed the 26-year-old defensively. Zeller has been whistled for a team-high 11 fouls in the past week.

7. Marcus Smart — Brad Stevens wasted no time getting Smart starter-like minutes once he returned from his ankle injury last Wednesday. While Smart’s individual numbers look decent, the guard’s struggled to stabilize a shorthanded second unit against most opponents, highlighted by his on-court plus/minus of -23 on the season. With Boston’s defensive issues looming large, don’t be surprised to see Stevens insert him into the starting five in place of rookie Jaylen Brown to help jump start the first unit.

6. Amir Johnson — The veteran big man has struggled the last two games, but he nearly carried the Celtics to a win by himself against the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night. The 6-foot-9 center hit all four of his 3-point attempts in the 23-point performance. Those four makes from downtown were a career-high and just six makes short of his total 2015-16 season output from beyond the arc.

5. Jaylen Brown — It’s hard to be consistent when you are a 20-year-old rookie in the NBA and Brown’s uneven play in the last week is a terrific example of that. The No. 3 overall pick wowed the basketball world with a career-high 19 points in his first start against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The followup effort against the Nuggets? A mere four points in 21 minutes that included a benching to start the second half from Stevens.

4. Al Horford — A hit to the head from one of his teammates in practice on Monday resulted in concussion-like symptoms for the All-Star. He was seen jogging at practice on Saturday and appears to have a good chance of returning to the floor on Wednesday night against the Washington Wizards after missing three games.

3. Jae Crowder — The Celtics’ defense allowed an average of 125.5 points per game in the two contests that Crowder has missed since going down with a sprained ankle. Watching the struggles has not been easy for one of Boston’s best defensive stoppers. “It’s always tough just to sit back and watch the guys that you go to war with each and every night, and not to be there,” Crowder said Sunday. “It’s tough just watching.”

2. Avery Bradley –– The 6-foot-2 shooting guard is still doing more than his fair share for Boston on the glass, leading the team in rebounds with 8.7 per game for the second consecutive week. His hot shooting start has trailed off quickly though as he’s hitting just 22.2 percent of his 3-point attempts in the last three games.

1. Isaiah Thomas — With three of Boston’s top seven players sidelined during the past week, Thomas has taken it upon himself to carry a heavier offensive load. He’s posted team-highs of 27.7 points and 7.0 assists per game over that stretch while also attempting 30 free throws. That total matches the combined output of free throws attempted by all 14 of his teammates during those three contests.     

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