Celtics

Celtics

BOSTON – There are many ways for NBA teams to become major players and compete for championships.

But if you’re looking for the path with the fewest amount of speedbumps along the way, becoming an elite team defensively is the way you want to go.

The Boston Celtics have made no secret about their desire to be among the NBA’s better teams defensively, a top-10 defensive team if you want to put a number on it. Last season, Brad Stevens’ bunch made significant strides towards that goal, finishing with the 12th-best defense in the league which as you would expect, played a role in them getting to the playoffs.

But what they are seeking to do now is move up at least a couple spots, which is much easier said than done. That's especially so for a franchise that’s trying to make that jump while developing a style of play and a system by which they can remain among the best defensive teams for years to come.

Few teams have that kind of staying power in the NBA today.

Not surprisingly, the San Antonio Spurs are one of them. In fact, San Antonio has had a defensive rating in the league’s top-10 in 13 of the last 15 seasons.

Currently, the Memphis Grizzlies have the longest active streak (five years in a row) of finishing with a top-10 defense.

What do they have common?

Yeah, they are regulars in the playoffs with the Spurs often making deep playoff runs that often don’t end until sometime in late-May or June and the Grizzlies continuing to be a team that’s talked about as a title contender.

They have done it with different personnel through the years, but the defensive-minded system has remained relatively the same.

Teams playing more small ball and wanting to play with better spacing and passing is all good, but ultimately success at the highest, championship-caliber level comes down to how well a team defends.

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens understands the balance that has to be struck, which is in part why the team’s current starting five – Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley in the backcourt, Jae Crowder at the wing position with David Lee and Tyler Zeller in the frontcourt – has worked so well.

Smart, Bradley and Crowder give the Celtics a tough, defensive-minded presence on the perimeter with very specific strengths at the offensive end that Boston can utilize.

Lee provides a necessary playmaker who can score around the rim, shoot facing the basket and trigger transition opportunities immediately after he grabs a rebound.

Zeller is the team’s only true center, but he runs the floor like a perimeter player which allows him to get some easy baskets from time to time and not get beat down court defensively.

And when you start to examine Boston’s bench, once again you see balance between guys who are primarily scorers (Isaiah Thomas, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk) and those who can defend (Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko) at a fairly high level.

We’re nearing the halfway mark of training camp, so there’s still plenty of work to be done and roles to be established. But for the Celtics to have the kind of consistent, long-term success they are seeking, strides have to be made defensively.

For years, Golden State ranked among the worst teams defensively. But they have had a top-10 defense two of the last three seasons which included them finishing with a league-best defensive rating of 98.2 during this past season which ended with them winning an NBA title.

And the Celtics?

The last time they had an NBA-best defensive rating was 2008 – the year they brought home Banner 17.

So for all the talk about effective shooting percentages and scoring off the dribble or from the corner shooting 3s, the surest path to winning a title is to become an elite team defensively  - a primary goal for this year’s Celtics team.