The Celtics have fallen short of lofty expectations to start the 2016-17 regular season, as they battle to stay in the playoff picture in a competitive Eastern Conference. With frustration starting to bubble up internally, the pressure is starting to mount on Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to make some changes.
“Our team feels like we’ve given a few games away this year, and my feeling is we won a few games that we sort of stole and were fortunate to win,” Ainge told WBZ’s Adam Kaufman. “Winning and losing in the NBA right now, unless you’re one of those top elite teams, it’s hard. There is a lot of parity in the NBA and the difference between winning 40 and 50 games is very fragile.”
The return of Isaiah Thomas to the lineup on Friday night should assist in getting the Celtics back on track, but there is still plenty of room for tinkering, without blowing up the team’s core with a blockbuster deal. Here are five ways that Ainge and head coach Brad Stevens could look to shake things up and find some consistency heading into 2017.
1. Start Jonas Jerebko: Stevens has already flirted with this possibility, giving Jerebko the start situationally against the offensive-minded Houston Rockets last week. However, the head coach should give full-time consideration to a Jerebko/Horford frontcourt pairing. Amir Johnson is playing less than ever (just 19.2 minutes per game) as his productivity declines both offensively and on the glass. Meanwhile, Jerebko is a versatile defender, a better defensive rebounder than Johnson and helps to give the Celtics maximum floor spacing around Isaiah Thomas thanks to his 41 percent 3-point shooting.
Taking away Jerebko from the bench unit would weaken the perimeter shooting within that group, but Stevens should be more worried about finding the best group he can count on to start and finish games. Jerebko at the 4 could very well be that unit.
2. Make a minor trade: There are a number of flaws scattered throughout the Celtics’ 15-man roster this season. The obvious ones (rebounding) are on display on nearly a nightly basis, while others (shot creation, wing depth) loom large when injuries pop up to key members of the rotation.
Ainge, who has been well aware of these issues since training camp, has a stash of future draft assets that are probably burning a hole in his pocket. While it makes sense for him to reserve his biggest trade chips (the Brooklyn picks) for a blockbuster move, sacrificing a future first- or second-round pick for a player that can fill at least one of Boston’s needs is a fair demand for a team that is sputtering a bit. The Celtics aren’t going to have room for all of their upcoming future draft picks anyway, so there’s no need to delay using a few now.
3. Only play Marcus Smart at point guard: One positive that has emerged out of a lackluster start to the year for the green has been the development of Marcus Smart as a primary ballhandler. The third-year guard is averaging a career-high 4.3 assists per game and has been able to run Boston’s offense effectively in place of an injured Isaiah Thomas for extended stretches.
Problems have arisen for Smart when Stevens has used him in small-ball units on the wing. The Celtics’ defense has been roasted during many of these situations and Smart’s horrendous 3-point shooting (27 percent on the year) has made him a liability for Boston’s offense as well. With Isaiah Thomas returning to the fold, Smart is best positioned to serve as his reserve point guard, nothing more.
4. Give Jaylen Brown more consistent minutes: The rookie has dealt with plenty of growing pains during the first couple months of his NBA career, but he’s become a more consistent contributor in December. The 6-foot-7 small forward is shooting 58 percent from the field since Dec. 1 and has posted double-digit point totals in two of his last four games despite failing to play more than 22 minutes in a contest during that stretch. With the numbers showing that Smart is best served to play in the backcourt (as discussed above), more minutes should open up on the wing for the No. 3 overall pick. Stevens should give the athletic 20-year-old a little bit of a longer leash and try to develop him more as a bench scorer (and trade chip).
5. Cut Gerald Green or James Young and bring in a free agent: Despite injuries and uneven play from their fellow benchmates, Young and Green have failed to see meaningful playing time on the court for roughly a month now. The shooting numbers are ugly for both players and neither appear to have a future in green with their contracts expiring at the end of the season. With plenty of free agents (particularly shooters) being signed across the league over the past month (see: Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans) and Young/Green having no real trade value, finding a fresh face for the bench unit could help to shake things up in a positive way.