Tristan Thompson

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.


 

Celtics Mailbag: Why trade proposals for Kevin Love, others probably won't work

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NBC Sports Boston Illustration

Celtics Mailbag: Why trade proposals for Kevin Love, others probably won't work

Sunday is widely regarded as the start of NBA trade season. Most of the players signed by teams this summer — and there were a LOT of them — are eligible to be traded on December 15, which will open the floodgates for teams to start roster maneuvering.

You can always sense trade season is approaching when the Celtics Mailbag begins to brim with questions about potential swaps that Boston could make. Most are just pipe dreams that lack any financial reality, but some do make you think.

With that in mind, we figured we’d open this week’s ‘bag with a quick reminder on a few key points:

1. RESTRICTIONS

On December 15, the trade restrictions lift on Kemba Walker, Enes Kanter, Vincent Poirier, and Javonte Green. Daniel Theis, also signed this summer, can’t be traded until January 15.

The Celtics are hard-capped after landing Walker via sign-and-trade but are unlikely to trade anywhere close to that mark, with no desire to wade into the luxury tax, which they are steamrolling towards in future seasons.

2. DRAFT ASSETS

The Celtics have as many as six potential picks in the 2020 draft. Alas, half of those could be eliminated due to restrictions, and the ones they do end up with won’t be anywhere near as glitzy as recent seasons.

Boston currently projects at picks 28 (its own), 30 (Milwaukee’s first), and 49 (via the Nets). Memphis owns the sixth-worst record in basketball and the new lottery format could add some intrigue to whether that pick conveys this season (Boston might be just as content for it to roll over to unprotected next year despite the young talent on Memphis’ roster). The Atlanta second is floatsam and Boston’s own second should end up in Charlotte if the team finishes among the East’s elite.

After watching the 2019 Kings pick plummet in value, should Boston aggressively shop that Grizzlies pick? Should the Celtics move their late first-round picks or save them for swings of the bat on low-cost talent that will be needed to fill out a very costly top half of the roster? These are the tough decisions ahead for Boston’s front office.

3. MOVABLE SALARIES

Here’s the biggest hitch in any Boston maneuvering: They don’t have a lot of mid-tier salaries. They’ve got really expensive contracts — Walker and Hayward are both at $32.7 million — but then it drops to Marcus Smart at $12.5 million. It’s hard to piece together deals that make sense for Boston given the price it would have to pay to acquire established talent. And it’s the reason we think that, outside of a minor splash, the more likely play is for Boston to scour the waiver wire later in the year.

But we’re in for a lot of questions about any and every available big. For instance: 

Do you think Danny kicks the tires on a Kevin Love trade? — @jfesgreen

Sub out “Kevin Love” for whatever 6-foot-9 and taller player becomes available next. But, since Love is in the headlines for his desire to get out of Cleveland, let’s run down why his next destination won’t be Boston:

  1. Love makes $28.9 million in the first year of a long-term deal. The Celtics would have to give up Hayward — or Smart and a whole bunch of assets — to make the money work. Neither is happening.
  2. Love’s long-term deal (and his injury history) makes his pact prohibitive for many teams, but especially a Boston team that’s already got $95 million in guaranteed salary next season, and that’s while prepping for Jayson Tatum to ink what will almost assuredly be a max-salary extension next summer. If Hayward comes back, that number really balloons.
  3. Love is an excellent rebounder, but he’s not the Joel Embiid/Giannis Antetokounmpo stopper that everyone seems to think this team needs come playoff time. Yes, Love is a great outlet passer and offensive talent, but Boston ranks seventh in offensive rating already despite rarely having its full complement of players.

CONCLUSION

All of this is to highlight that, if Boston makes a move, we’re assuming it’d be one with smaller salaries and picks to try to upgrade their bench or big-man depth. We don’t see a big-splash move that doesn’t come without the pain point of sending out one of the team’s top five players.

With all that in mind, let’s rip through some letters:

Who do you think the Celtics are most likely to trade for? — @_smurph22

The name you’ll hear ad nauseam is Wizards backup big man Davis Bertans. It’s a digestible salary ($7 million expiring) for a team that should desire to fetch future assets. The Latvian Laser gives you another floor-stretcher with a penchant for 3s. But we’re not sure he offers much of an upgrade, defensively, over someone like Daniel Theis when it comes to the bigs the Celtics will be tasked with defending in the playoffs. But if there’s a move made, our guess it would be someone akin to Bertans who could fill a role off the bench or provide a scoring burst if bench scoring doesn’t improve when the Celtics are at full health.

You gotta think the Celtics can pry someone like Cauley-Stein from Golden State. Low salary, team's going nowhere, why not throw a first-round pick in a deal? — @PGliddy85

A first-round pick might be a steep price for a playoff rental who can move on after the season and, yet, these are the sort of moves the team will have to consider. The question again: Is this player enough of an upgrade over what you have to warrant moving a pick for him?

Give me Tristan Thompson. — @Wsutt

Now there’s a Cavalier big that makes sense in green. Alas, the Celtics would have to hope he reaches the buyout market to have any realistic shot at acquiring him. Boston could make a strong playing-time pitch to a quality big man with the hope that that player would be intrigued by a playoff run.

How will the Celtics manage the roster for next year with upcoming picks?  —  @theonlyssg

The Celtics have only nine guaranteed players for next season, but that number could jump up in a hurry if Hayward and Kanter opt into the final years of their deals and if the team elects to hang onto players like Theis, Semi Ojeleye, and Javonte Green (and their two-way players — Tacko Fall and Tremont Waters — are seemingly ticketed for the parent club next year). Still, Boston would probably want to keep a pick or two to maintain a steady flow of young, cost-controlled talent as the price of the roster balloons.

Is it humanly possible to trade Marcus Smart if you’re the Celtics? —  @brycesburner

Danny Ainge would trade one of his kids for a future pick. But there would be riots if they traded Smart. Let’s move on. And fast.

Thoughts on which rookie earns the most minutes by season's end? — @jwaks

It’s gotta be Grant Williams, assuming good health for Boston’s perimeter players. Even when Romeo Langford gets a solid stretch of decent health, it will be tough for him or Javonte Green to crack the wing rotation regularly. Carsen Edwards could make a push if he starts to consistently knock down shots. Even though he’s struggled with his own shot, Williams can impact the game positively in other ways, particularly his screening. The Celtics don’t have a lot of minutes at the big-man spots given their penchant for small ball, but Williams is the only rookie who’s been trusted in crunch time so that speaks volumes about Stevens’ trust in him.

Yes or no on the Green Goblin nickname for JB? I still like Trouble 07 for JB and JT. — @BostonsportZ

Green Goblin is terrible. Just awful. I’ll listen to the idea of calling him the Green Lob-lin when he throws down and/or delivers an alley-oop. Downtown Jaylen Brown is perfectly acceptable after 3s. I would also be OK with green-lighting an NBC Sports Boston series where we follow Brown around as he babysits Tatum’s son in the new series, “Deuce and Juice."

What pieces still do the Celtics need to be legitimate championship contenders? Who we do trade for? — @trepDbest

There’s a case to be made that the formula to title contention might be as simple as health, chemistry, and development. The Celtics, with the progress made by players like Tatum and Brown, and the return to health of Hayward, have a lot more pure talent than maybe we gave them credit for entering the season. If some of the young pieces develop consistency, this team might be ready to compete with what they’ve got.

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Tristan Thompson doubles down on his Kyrie Irving Hall of Fame take

Tristan Thompson doubles down on his Kyrie Irving Hall of Fame take

Tristan Thompson thinks very highly of his former teammate, and no amount of blowback will change that.

The Cleveland Cavaliers big man recently claimed Kyrie Irving will be a first-ballot Basketball Hall of Famer, insisting there's "nothing to argue" when you look at the Boston Celtics guard's résumé.

Late Tuesday night, Thompson reiterated that stance.

First-ballot Hall of Famers aren't exactly a dime a dozen: Only 44 of the 395 current members were inducted in their first year of eligibility. And considering Irving is just 26 years old, some wondered if Thompson took his praise of the ex-Cavs guard a little too far.

But we think Thompson has a pretty good case with Irving. The dynamic point guard likely will make his sixth All-Star team this season and already is both an NBA champion and Olympic gold medalist, playing a central role on both title teams.

If Irving continues to play at such a high level into his 30s, he should be a lock for the Hall of Fame, and one or two more NBA championships could be enough to get him on the first ballot.

Kyrie certainly isn't looking that far ahead, though; he's just trying to get back on the court after suffering an eye injury Monday against the San Antonio Spurs.

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