Celtics

Celtics draft sets tone for need to have a big (man) summer

Celtics draft sets tone for need to have a big (man) summer

BOSTON -- With the NBA draft a thing of the past now for the Celtics, the team’s focus turns towards what they hope will be a big summer - literally. 

Because if there’s one thing we can take away from the way the Celtics went about navigating through the draft Thursday night, is that they weren’t all that interested in the big-man prospects. 

The Celtics finished the night with a total of four draft picks - two in the first round, two in the second - with all being perimeter, wing-type players who are 6-foot-7 or shorter. 

And remember, this is a Celtics team that is reportedly on the verge of losing Al Horford to free agency.

Boston also came to terms on a trade with the Phoenix Suns that sent Aron Baynes and the Celtics' 20th overall pick (Virginia’s Ty Jerome) to Phoenix for a 2020 protected-pick via the Milwaukee Bucks. 

The move was done in part to create additional salary cap space that gives the Celtics more flexibility to go out and sign a player to help fill the void left by Baynes and the likely departure of Horford. 

Because right now, the Celtics’ big-man depth is about as shallow as we’ve seen this time of year in quite a while. 

Robert Williams III, at 6-10, is the team’s only true center. Boston also has 6-9 Guerschon Yabusele as well as 6-7 Semi Ojeleye, who has shown the ability to defend bigger players despite his height. 

That big-man rotation is simply not going to be enough to compete, let alone complement, Boston’s wing-friendly roster. 

And that has created a lack of clarity as far as what the Celtics will look like roster-wise, a roster that as of now is devoid of impact players in the frontcourt. 

While Danny Ainge acknowledges this offseason is one that roster-wise isn’t quite as set in stone as years past, he doesn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. 

“I’ve always said that, if somebody goes someone else gets a new opportunity,” said Ainge, C's president of basketball operations. “And we’ve seen that happen here many times. I’m very excited about what the possibilities are over the next month. We’ll be able to hopefully talk more about it in the next month.”

However the roster shakes down after free agency, there’s little doubt that it has to be one that includes at least one difference-maker in the frontcourt if the Celtics have any hopes of remaining at least within striking distance of the top teams in the East. 

Ainge said the team has a lengthy list of bigs that they are going to consider pursuing via free agency. And while he did not reveal any by name, you have to think that Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic will be on the team’s short list. 

The 7-foot Vucevic, coming off a season in which he was named to his first All-Star Game, is likely to garner a starting salary around $20-$25 million, which Boston is in a better position to absorb in part because of the Baynes trade. 

The C's might also look into trying to add a lower-salaried big such as DeAndre Jordan, Ed Davis or Dewayne Dedmon, in addition to potentially bringing back Daniel Theis.

There are those who believe that the value of having big men isn’t what it used to be in part because of the NBA becoming more about spacing and positional versatility and skills that don’t necessarily come to mind immediately when it comes to big men. 

And while the role of big men in the NBA may be different, there’s no getting around their importance if a team is serious about winning at the highest of levels or in the case of the Celtics, establishing a new foundation. 

We’ve seen in recent years here in Boston first-hand the importance of having a big man with difference-making ability. 

Kevin Garnett was a major factor that fueled a change in culture for the franchise, not to mention playing a pivotal role in Banner 17. 

The Celtics have been among the better teams in the East the past three seasons and the play of Horford and Baynes was one of the keys. 

In the NBA Finals, Kawhi Leonard was brilliant in winning his second NBA Finals MVP. But the play of Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam was also important in bringing the Toronto Raptors their first NBA title. 

“We have no clarity in who we’re getting, right?” Ainge said. “We have a long list of bigs and we’ll make a priority list and go from there.’’

And that could lead to a big (man) summer for Boston - literally. 

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In quest for an Embiid stopper, Celtics best option might be what they've got

In quest for an Embiid stopper, Celtics best option might be what they've got

Joel Embiid’s dominant two-way performance Thursday night in Boston won’t do much to ease fans who remain convinced that Celtics bigs aren't stout enough to hold up in an Eastern Conference in which many of Boston’s primary rivals — including Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Indiana, and Toronto — have All-Star talent at frontcourt positions.

From this vantage point, Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis held up about as well as could be reasonably expected. Yes, Embiid put up 38 points and 13 rebounds, all while limiting his turnovers and made some a couple key defensive plays late in the game (including absolutely smothering a Theis dunk attempt). 

Still, Kanter and Theis both put up season highs for scoring while pairing up for 36 points and 14 rebounds. As coach Brad Stevens suggested after the game, " I guess I'd take 38 to 36 in that matchup.”

The lingering question is whether the Celtics, now 0-2 against Philadelphia this season, should feel confident in their ability to match up with the 76ers should the two teams cross paths in the postseason.

Two more regular-season matchups — one in Philadelphia early in the new calendar year (Jan. 9) and another in Boston on Feb. 1 — will offer more chances for the Celtics to gauge where they stand against Philly. Both sides were missing key parts — the Celtics without Marcus Smart; Sixers without Al Horford — and full-strength rosters will offer a better sense of whether Boston’s frontcourt can hold up in a seven-game series.

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Ultimately, the Celtics might have no other choice. A lack of tradable contracts means they can’t deal for a top-line center without sending out one of the team's core players. Theis, at 6-8, despite giving up size in matchups against players such as Embiid, has been excellent this season and the Celtics need a 5-man that is content to do the little things and take open shots when they come in the rhythm of the offense.

Looking around the league, particularly at those players that might be able to best joust with Embiid, it’s hard to find a player that the Celtics could reasonably target as an in-season addition.

In the quest to identify players that have best held up against Embiid in recent seasons, we parsed the NBA’s defensive tracking data. First, we examined every player that has defended Embiid for at least 20 partial possessions this year to find players that have had the best individual success. Ten players emerge, a snapshot of the names: 

MARC GASOL

The dreamiest of in-season additions — just ask the defending champion Raptors — Gasol has defended Embiid for a total of 14:23 this season and has allowed a measly 2 points and ZERO field goals on 12 shot attempts while creating seven turnovers. Some Celtics fans came into the season dreaming of a scenario in which the Raptors struggled early, started moving pieces, and maybe Gasol and his $25.6 million salary somehow landed on the buyout market. That’s definitely not happening now with the Raptors right on Boston’s heels and playing some incredibly inspired ball this season during a Kawhi-less defense of their title.

TAJ GIBSON

One of the more interesting names on the list, the 34-year-old Gibson has only 6 minutes of matchup minutes this season against Embiid but has limited him to 6 points on 2-of-9 shooting. Embiid’s offensive rating is just 100 in the 25 minutes that Gibson and Embiid have shared the court this season, all the more impressive given the sorry state of the Knicks. Gibson is earning $9 million this season with a nonguaranteed salary. He’s exactly the sort of piece that the Knicks should yearn to move for future assets. The question is whether Gibson’s success is a small sample and whether you get enough value out of an in-season acquisition. On the positive side, he is a 10-year veteran with eight years of playoff experience and played with Kanter in Oklahoma City.

DON’T EVEN BOTHER DREAMING ABOUT THESE GUYS

Among the top Embiid stoppers this year: Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert (pictured), All-NBA big man Nikola Jokic, and Knicks swat-happy youngster Mitchell Robinson. You’re not getting any of these guys, so let’s just move right along despite the fact that they’ve all held Embiid to 37.5 percent shooting or less.

TRISTAN THOMPSON

Slowly becoming the leader in the “If he gets bought out, the Celtics should swoop him up!” references among Boston fans. But the data isn’t quite as bullish. Thompson has defended Embiid on 50.7 partial possessions this season and allowed 31 points on 12-of-21 shooting over 14 minutes of matchup time. That’s the second-worst mark among high-volume defenders (in front of only LaMarcus Aldridge). Thompson is still an intriguing option because of his rebounding abilities, his playoff experience, and his potential to impact the offense as a fourth or fifth option. Alas, Thompson has his limitation — as seen in Boston when he went 1-for-7 at the free-throw line and committed five turnovers. He was minus-22 in a game in which he went 8-for-11 with 17 points and 11 rebounds.

STEVEN ADAMS

A popular option among Celtics fans entering the season, at least when ignoring the fact that he’s making $25.8 million this season. Boston would have to move someone like Hayward as part of a trade. That’s not happening, and especially not with the way Adams has defended Embiid this season. In nine minutes of matchup time, Embiid has put up 24 points on 9-of-16 shooting, making four triples against Adams, too. Data from 2017-18 season confirms his struggles, Embiid shooting 60 percent (12 of 20) in 19:37 of matchup time.

AND BACK TO THE CELTICS

Then, of course, there is Kanter (pictured), who has limited Embiid to 38.9 percent shooting (7 of 18) in 12 minutes of matchup time this season. Kanter held up particularly well on Thursday, especially when you consider that Embiid shot 77.8 percent against all other Celtics defenders. For all the complaints about Kanter’s defense, it’s his struggles in the pick-and-roll that fall in the spotlight and he actually does well in post-up situations.

It's fair to be skeptical about whether Kanter can hold the fort for a seven-game series. Kanter has been on the floor for 46 of Embiid’s 60 minutes against the Celtics this season and the Philadelphia big man has an offensive rating of 109.3 in that span. The thing is Embiid’s offensive rating spikes to an absurd 142.9 in the 14 minutes with Theis as primary defender instead of Kanter.

Having Smart might help, though Philadelphia’s offensive rating was still elite (114.7) in the 16 minutes that Embiid and Smart shared the court in the first matchup.

To be certain, Boston did not lose either of the first two matchups against Philadelphia because of an inability to defend Embiid. He hurt Boston not only with his scoring Thursday but with an ability to pass out of double teams that Boston sent and the Celtics simply have to be crisper when they commit extra bodies.

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Is there anyone else out there available at a reasonable price that could help Boston’s frontcourt defense? We rolled the defensive data back to last year’s regular-season and crunched to players with around 20 Embiid field-goal attempts defended. Yet again, a who’s who of Eastern Conference bigs emerged from Horford (14-37 FG, 37.8 percent) to Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic (13-31, 41.9 percent) to Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner (a combined 25-52, 48 percent). 

Some of the names that fared well and might be available would include Cody Zeller (11-26, 42.3 percent in 21 minutes of matchup time) and Willie Cauley-Stein (8-20, 40 percent in 13 minutes). One completely random wild card to throw in here: Old friend Ante Zizic, who defended Embiid for 12:16 last season and limited him to 5-of-17 shooting (29.4 percent) with five turnovers. It was the lowest shooting percentage among any player with at least 15 shot attempts defended. A small sample size? Probably. Though, in a measly minute of defensive matchup time earlier this season, Embiid went scoreless while missing two shots.

The question becomes whether the Celtics should sacrifice future draft assets and risk tweaking the chemistry on the team in hopes of what might only be a marginal upgrade. It’s also prudent to want to see this team at full strength before declaring just how much of an issue the big-man depth could be. 

Remember, too, that Robert Williams' development could be huge here. Grant Williams’ ability to play small-ball 5 against bigs could dictate the desire for a move. Maybe Vincent Poirier gets an opportunity to show whether he can joust further out.

For now, the best option seems to be for the Celtics to stick with what they’ve got and find a longer-term plan to beef up that 5 spot, especially given the talent their primary conference rivals have in their frontcourts.


 

How Tacko Fall, Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford and Tremont Waters fared for Red Claws on Friday

How Tacko Fall, Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford and Tremont Waters fared for Red Claws on Friday

The Maine Red Claws had plenty of star power for Friday night's game vs. the Iowa Wolves. 

Tacko Fall, Carsen Edwards, Tremont Waters and Romeo Langford each suited up for Maine in its 127-121 victory. It marked Edwards' first game with the Red Claws, as well as both Tacko Fall and Romeo Langford's first game back from injury.

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Here's how the four Celtics rookies performed:

TACKO FALL

Tacko made his mark in his 14 minutes played on Friday night. The 7-foot-5 phenom contributed 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting while bringing down 5 rebounds.

CARSEN EDWARDS

Edwards was solid in his first game in a Red Claws uniform as he racked up 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting (2-for-9 from 3-pt).

ROMEO LANGFORD

Langford was slow out the gate, but picked it up in the second half to finish with 8 points, 3 assists and 3 rebounds. The Celtics' No. 14 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft will look to simply stay healthy going forward, as he's dealt with a nagging ankle injury all season.

TREMONT WATERS

Waters, the G League Player of the Month for November, was relatively quiet in this one. The LSU product dropped 8 points while adding 3 assists in 27 minutes.

Also with standout performances were Yante Maten (26 points, 16 rebounds), Kaiser Gates (17 points, 7 rebounds), Bryce Brown (15 points, 4 assists) and Justin Bibbs (12 points, 6 rebounds).

Next, the Red Claws will take on the Grand Rapids Drive on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.