Celtics Storylines: Five keys for the defense
Celtics Storylines: Five keys for the defense
BOSTON -- It’s clear that this Celtics team is getting plenty of praise and adulation from fans as well as the media, with some pundits predicting this will be the year that Cleveland’s run atop the East will come to an end.
And it’ll be the Celtics knocking them off that perch.
Adding Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward certainly provides the Celtics with more firepower. The two have a combined five All-Star appearances which is more than the rest of the entire Celtics roster (four).
Still, as much as we’ve seen the need for superstars to win in this league at a high level, the same is true for having teams that can defend.
In fact, the last team to win an NBA title and not rank among the top 10 in defensive rating that season was the Los Angeles Lakers in 2001.
The past decade has seen six of the 10 NBA champions rank among the top five in defensive rating, which includes the 2008 Celtics, whose defensive rating of 96.2 was tops in the league that year.
So, as much as the Celtics have bolstered their offensive firepower, the hopes of planting their flag atop the Eastern Conference mountain and getting back to the NBA Finals hinges heavily on their ability to defend.
Here’s a look at five keys to what the Celtics hope will lead to a successful season defensively:
The fifth-year coach gets lots of love for all those great after-timeout plays he calls that work to perfection more often than not. Still, the real challenge for Stevens will be finding the right combinations that can not only score, but play defense. That’s why when it comes to starting lineups or even rotations, don’t be surprised if the Celtics this season look a lot like last season’s group in terms of no rotation spot being safe. And while Stevens didn’t hesitate to make a change to bolster the team’s offense (Gerald Green entering the starting lineup in the playoffs), we could see similar moves made this season to strengthen the team’s play defensively.
When you talk about the biggest concerns with Boston's defense, all eyes immediately lock on the team’s perimeter. More than any position, the Celtics roster was absolutely gutted this summer when it comes to perimeter defenders with the trades of Avery Bradley to Detroit and Jae Crowder to Cleveland.
Boston’s defense finished 12th in the league in defensive rating last season, with its best month defensively being March when it ranked fifth.
And you want to know why?
He missed 27 games last season, but only three were in March when Boston went 11-5 and had a defensive rating of 102.9.
The lone standout defensively on the perimeter still on the roster is Marcus Smart. Coming into training camp 20 or so pounds lighter than he played last season will certainly give the 6-foot-4 guard a chance to be even more impactful when it comes to harassing ball-handlers with more heft. But even with the added weight a year ago, Smart’s defense was still pretty damn good. And with that added weight, he was able to slide over and still be physical enough to handle small forwards. Can a lighter Smart still physically battle with the likes LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard?
Al Horford has been a solid defend throughout his NBA career. But for the Celtics to take another step forward both as a team and defensively, Danny Ainge and the rest of Celtics’ brass realized he was going to need some help.
They went out and got that help in the form of Aron Baynes, who may turn out to be one of the more important offseason signings that very few outside of New England have been talking about.
As we pointed out earlier, teams that are contending for championships have a strong defensive foundation.
And if there’s one thing Baynes does consistently well, it is defend at a high level. Last season in Detroit, he appeared in 75 games and had a defensive field-goal percentage of .466, which ranked third among centers in the league behind Rudy Gobert (.438) and Dewayne Dedmon (.445).
In addition, Baynes’ defensive rating of 98.5 ranked third among all NBA players who appeared in at least 75 games last season.
And Marcus Morris, another addition from Detroit, is also an above-average defender who when paired with Baynes, ranks among the best 1-2 defensive tandems in the NBA.
Adding those two guys to the mix gives Boston a much-needed defensive option in the frontcourt that will be important in their quest to make another deep playoff run.
When it comes to having a unit that stands out at one end of the floor, it always involves someone emerging from seemingly out of nowhere. In San Antonio, we all know how good Kawhi Leonard has been. But the emergence of Jonathan Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon made them one of the best defenses in the NBA because of their talent and versatility.
When looking at this Celtics roster, they will need at least one or two players to have similar breakout seasons this season.
At the top of that list should be Jaylen Brown, a player who the Celtics have identified as being someone who needs to emerge as an elite defender this season for this team to have the kind of success they are looking for.
Boston has plenty of scorers now. But Brown has the length, size and strength to guard three or four positions. If he’s capable of doing that at a consistently high level, Boston becomes a scary-good team rather than one that on paper at least, ranks among the better teams in the league.
Three other players that are generating little to no attention right now but are worthy of watching their progress defensively: Terry Rozier, Semi Ojeleye and Abdel Nader.
Rozier was a surprise selection when the Celtics took him with the 16th overall pick in 2015, but his quickness and overall toughness has been a pleasant surprise. And with his quickness, he has the potential to be a pesky defender – the kind of agitator that Boston needs on defense this season.
Ojeleye is a bigger version of Jae Crowder who can play above the rim if you sleep on his athleticism beyond his muscular build. At the NBA Combine in May, Ojeleye had a lane-agility time of 10.58 seconds, which was tops among all non-guards. That kind of speed enables him to keep players in front of him and thus contest shots, regardless of their size.
Nader was the Gatorade League rookie of the year last season and has a scorer’s mentality with the frame to be a 3-and-D guy in this league. That’s the role he will have to play and master if he’s going to stick in this league, let alone with the Celtics.