The 2013-14 season was a rough one for the Boston Celtics. They won 25 games. Rajon Rondo missed a lot of the season as he recovered from a torn ACL, finally returning in January to play basically every other game the rest of the way. Chris Johnson was prominently involved. They tanked to get a top three pick, and ended up with No. 6. In short, things started ugly, finished ugly, and didn’t really get any better in between.
But I’m not going to lie. I love this team in 2014-15. I don’t care if they only win 20-25 games again.
There are a lot of reasons to not only watch these guys, but to actually root for them and—gasp!—enjoy the way they play basketball. And it all starts at the top with head coach Brad Stevens.
The former Butler boss owns a career NBA head coaching record of 30-68 (as of 12/4/14), but don’t let the horrific win percentage fool you. This guy is a winner, and the players have totally bought into his system. Stevens knows that his team has a lot of holes, and is doing a pretty remarkable job covering them up. He spent the offseason studying the Spurs and the way they push the pace on offense, and has spent the early part of the year getting the young Celtics to try to emulate it.
As you might imagine, they have not quite had the same results of the Spurs. Jared Sullinger ≠ Tim Duncan. Avery Bradley ≠ Manu Ginobili. It’s a work in progress, but it’s entertaining as hell to watch. Stevens has the Celtics running the floor and whipping the ball around on offense, working for either a three pointer or a layup. That's a great idea when you've got a knockdown shooter like Danny Green, but less so when that guy is Jeff Green. As a team, the Celtics are shooting just .324 from beyond the arc—fourth worst in the NBA—so while "D and threes" is a good strategy for the Spurs, maybe the Celts need something a little more basic.
Rajon Rondo's return, however, has helped make this team fun to watch even when their shooting is a tragedy. The point guard may not be able to keep his balance in the shower, but he can still pass a basketball better than pretty much anyone in the NBA. The trigger-happy Celtics offense means lots of assists for Rondo, who currently leads the NBA in dimes with a 10.9 per game average. Earlier this year, he became the only player in NBA history to amass at least 35 rebounds and 50 assists through his team’s first four games of the season. He’s not Oscar Robertson, but right now Rondo is in the vicinity of averaging a triple-double every night (8.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 10.9 APG).
All this from a guy many thought wouldn’t even be on the roster at this point. A free agent to be, Rondo is playing for a new contract or enhancing his value for a potential trade. But right now—after all the chatter in and around Boston this summer was that the team should trade their only legitimate star—he looks like someone they absolutely must keep. He’s too damn fun to watch, and makes every single player on the team better.
When they trot out a Rondo-Bradley-Smart backcourt, the results are incredible. Mind you, per 82games.com, the Rondo-Smart-Bradley-Green-Sullinger lineup has only played 13 minutes together all season, but I can assure you it was glorious. Defensively they can lock down pretty much anybody on the perimeter, and their ability to run the floor makes them at least frisky on offense. This group might not necessarily help them win, but if/when they lose they make it fun to watch.
If the games this season lasted only 36 minutes, the Celtics would be in great shape; they average a +1.5 point differential through three quarters, 12th in the NBA and better than playoff contenders like Atlanta and Chicago. It's just in the fourth quarter where everything goes terribly, horribly wrong. In the final 12 minutes, the Celtics surrender an average of 28.6 points per game while scoring just 23.1, a -5.4 points per game margin that is by far the worst in the NBA.
Watching a Celtics game this season is an incredible exercise in patience. They play hard, but they do not play smart. They open up huge leads and look like a potential playoff team, only to crumble at a moment's notice. While this inconsistency is wildly frustrating (even if it's a staple characteristic of a young team), on the plus side in most of their games there hasn’t been a minute where the Celtics didn’t look like they could win. How many teams in the top 10 of next year’s draft will be able to say that?
Almost everybody in the supporting cast does something well, too. Sullinger owns probably the biggest butt in the NBA and is absolutely relentless rebounding the ball. Kelly Olynyk made the All-Rookie Second Team last year and despite his recent struggles is a rarely-seen seven footer with 23-foot range. Smart is already a defensive stopper who dives into the crowd after loose balls and is rapidly becoming a fan favorite (other than that flop). Jeff Green is redefining the chasedown block game this season. Gerald Wallace is doing an awesome job handing out high fives, never actually playing, and collecting his massive paychecks. Everybody has a skill, and while they also all have serious shortcomings, each member of the roster at least contributes something.
Some teams suck and are just painful to watch (Lakers), or are so undermanned that they never really have a chance in most games (76ers). This Celtics team has talent and effort to match, and while they are severely lacking in the skill and execution departments, they prove every night that they’re at the very least going to be well-coached and try their hardest. And if you don’t want to suck in the long term, that’s a great place to start.
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