The transformation is nearly complete.
Here sit the Celtics, in the midst of a facelift that’s seen the two most recognizable players on the team shipped off to paradises known as Western Conference contenders. The comings and goings and second round picks and buyouts and just general flux looks to have emboldened those who have remained as well as the coach, who finally has a sense of a set group that he can attempt to reach for more than a couple weeks.
So what if the team Brad Stevens now sees every day is even worse than the one with which he began the season? For our purposes here, that’s a good thing. As depressing as it would have been in the moment to see the Celts not get that miracle 3 from Evan Turner to beat Portland on Thursday after totally blowing four straight trips that could have given them the lead, in the long term, that win along with Friday night’s victory in Denver, brought them within two games of the dreaded 8-seed in the east. That’s a fate far worse than another trip to the lottery.
That’s a well-trodden path at this point, though. The “To Tank or Not to Tank” argument isn’t worth rehashing here yet again so instead, let’s examine how much work Danny Ainge and the Celtics have left to accomplish before they can finally be done maneuvering and make their way into prime position for what promises to be one of the most important summers in franchise history.
Step 1: Trade Brandon Bass
This will be sad to watch if/when it ever happens. Bass is such a pro, such a tough player and positive role model for younger guys to look up to in terms of how hard he plays and how high his basketball IQ is. It’s a shame he has to go. But he does – the only question is why he’s not gone yet. Seeing as how the Celts aren’t going to consider moving someone like Kelly Olynyk or Jared Sullinger (more on him later) so a solid but unspectacular vet in the last year of his contract like Bass can get more minutes on a team undergoing an extreme makeover, it’s a no-brainer. The fact that he’s been moved back into the starting lineup likely means either something’s up or he’s being showcased.
A team like Golden State or Portland or even the Clippers (if they were able to free up any money/had anything to trade back) could take a giant step with someone like Bass coming off the bench, spotting up for mid-range jumpers like they’re layups and defend multiple positions. And since he’s a free agent, there’s always the possibility, however remote, that if the Celts can cash in some portion of their truckload of assets for enough talent to speed up the rebuild, maybe Bass will come back to be the same kind of stabilizing force/added depth that he was when Ainge initially heisted him from Orlando for Big Baby and Von Wafer in 2011.
That last possibility may be pushing it but Bass has more than enough value to add something(s) at least slightly significant to Asset Mountain. And his departure would clear more time for someone like James Young. Which leads us to…
Step 2: Please Brad, Play James Young
Stevens said the Celtics still believe Olynyk’s injury is just a sprain. James Young will be active due to numbers but no promise he’ll play
— Jay King (@ByJayKing) January 24, 2015
Young, who has had no luck as he’s battled injuries and now illness in his rookie year, was active on Friday night against the Nuggets after missing three games but for some reason, Stevens won’t play him. It’s really strange that Young can’t find his way beyond that last seat on the bench given what a potentially significant part of the future he is as well as the fact that he’s had a pretty positive effect on multiple occasions when Stevens has taken the shackles off.
So what gives? Either Young is so incompetent at practice that Stevens can’t bring himself to play him in actual games unless it’s out of desperation or the Celtics are really (gulp) trying to win? When you think about these past few games, that scenario might also explain why Bass is again a starter.
Of course, that would be absurd. The Celtics may have enough assets at their disposal over the next few years to make some moves but sneaking into the playoffs in the horrid Eastern Conference so they can be swept by Atlanta or whatever team winds up with the top seed is a terrible idea especially when the alternative is adding another lottery pick to the stockpile.
As Marcus Smart’s minutes have deservedly increased since Rajon Rondo left town, so too should Young’s. He should be playing at least 25 per night (if not 30) and developing as he goes. If that’s the difference between the Celtics finishing with between 20-25 wins vs. say 28-32 then so be it. Young learning how to play in the NBA as soon as possible should be a far greater priority than making the playoffs at 18 or so games under .500.
If making room for Young means making more deals as well, then go ahead and make them. This team should not be keeping any of its primary young talent out of the rotation at this stage of the game.
3. The Sully Dilemma
His overall numbers may not bear it out, but watching Jared Sullinger this season has occasionally become too much like watching Jeff Green before he was mercifully sent to Memphis. The amount of time Sullinger spends drifting around the perimeter settling for bad jumpers instead of using his size to either make things happen in the paint or get to the foul line exceeds logical limits. He should be getting to the line far more than twice a game. And watching him hoist up a long 2, then a deep 3, then try to take someone off the dribble from the elbow at the end of the Portland game with the Celts down just one possession was borderline horrifying.
Sullinger’s frequent absence from the paint seems to be part of an overall strategy endorsed by Stevens, but it’s tough to understand why that is. This is a guy with a litany of post moves who can use his width and girth to muscle his way to the rim while offsetting his lack of traditional power forward size. Why anyone thinks he may be better served trying to be Kevin Love 2.0 is a mystery.
All this loitering around the three-point line has in turn appeared to affect Sullinger’s motor, and subsequently, his mood as well. Like Green before him, he tends to disappear for stretches. If he stayed in the post more frequently, not only would the Celtics get more chances for easier baskets when running stuff through him and not only would he make more trips to the stripe, he’d likely be more consistently engaged.
Now’s probably a good time to mention that Sullinger is a lousy shooter from deep (he was at 32 percent going into the game against Denver before bricking all four of his 3-point attempts) and far more productive playing down low. He shoots 54 percent from within 12 feet of the basket according to NBA.com, but he scores only 2.6 close shot points per game (points scored on a touch that starts within 12 feet excluding drives). That smells funny.
Sullinger is a very good player who has some star potential. He’s averaging a solid 14 and eight and has put up some big games, the biggest of which was his 27-point outburst last week against Anthony Davis and the Pelicans. His PER is a tidy 18.1 and he’s come a long way since the awful slump he suffered through back in December. But the keys for him are staying in the post and staying engaged. Someone with his touch, his footwork and who plays with the kind of control he’s capable of around the basket should be anchored there most – if not all – of the time.