5 Random Thoughts on the Boston Celtics

They aren’t the two best teams in basketball – yet – but the Lakers and the Celtics have the two most interesting futures, which is great for the league (Minnesota and Philly’s futures are just as bright, if not brighter, but not as interesting). If each team plays their cards right, they may be in position to recreate their rivalry in the Finals once Golden State is eventually deposed. We will cover the Lakers next week, but since I’m a Celtics fan, they get first billing. Here are 11 of the random thoughts criss-crossing the recesses of my mind as Summer League begins to wind down and we look toward training camp.

In no particular order of importance…

1. Ante Zizic Isn’t Who I Thought He Was

A Dennis Green situation, but in reverse. Watching Zizic toss around Real Madrid defenders like rag dolls last year in EuroLeague gave me false hope that he was more ready for the NBA than he was. Real Madrid has traditionally been one of the best non-NBA teams in the world, and his performance against them, combined with David Blatt singing his praises as an NBA prospect after coaching him in Turkey, convinced me that he had an NBA game. Which he does, if the definition of that is being an NBA player.

He certainly doesn’t look like the answer to the Celtics, big man shortage, though. The Summer League game is clearly too fast for him, and I don’t want to imagine him hedging against Kyrie Irving (or really anyone else) while defending a pick-and-roll next spring. Real Madrid has a lot of skill, but nowhere near the speed or athleticism you find on this side of the pond. And David Blatt is a loser who probably thinks the skill level is better over there. Zizic is only 20. He will get better. He knows he needs to, but it won’t happen overnight. And with the direction the NBA is headed, that’s a problem. Anything beyond decent backup minutes from Zizic will be a bonus.

2. I Still Think Guerschon Yabusele IS Who I Thought He Was

Maybe I should learn my lesson from Zizic, but I think Yabusele is different for a variety of reasons and may be able to fill the Olynyk/Jerebko/Sullinger role off the bench, perhaps from the get go. For one, his game fits the league. Despite being a big dude (6’8, 260 give or take), he is pretty athletic and possesses a natural talent for rebounding and a pretty three-point stroke. He also came over this past spring and played in the D (now G) League, dominating Tyler Hansbrough (see above) and generally looking like an NBA player.

The D-League competition clearly isn’t in the same as the NBA, but there are a lot of long, athletic players who may not be as skilled as their NBA brethren, but are in the same league as them physically. The same can’t be said for the EuroLeague. If the “Dancing Bear” can stay on the court on defense, it’s hard to imagine him not being a productive offensive player. His size/touch/athleticism combo is just too good.

3. How Will Jayson Tatum Adjust to the Celtics Offense?

Wow. Let’s just take a second to marvel at this kid. When was the last time anyone entered the NBA with this level of offensive sophistication? We know he can create his own shot. We know he can finish at the rim, especially in transition. We know he has tremendous touch, at least out to 18 feet or so. And we know rebounding won’t be a problem.

But we also know that he loves to operate in one-on-one isolation sets, usually on an island with a defender, with that half of the floor cleared out. We know he’s a fan of long twos, usually taken with a hand in his face, often while falling away. We know he likes to take his time setting up his own shot. We know he isn’t a guard – he could barely bring the ball up the floor against (the admittedly excellent) Donovan Mitchell – and that his ball-handling and passing skills need improvement.

He won’t be a bust, and he will be able to score and rebound in the NBA. Write that down. The question is whether he’ll be a good player or a fucking star. And I’m grading on a tough curve because of his immense talent/polish. The biggest questions for me – which Rob Mahoney from SI covered well here – are whether he can extend his range beyond the arch (almost certainly yes) and whether he can implement his elite offensive package into Brad Stevens’ quick-paced, ball-moving offense and become more of a playmaker.

There are plenty of great examples to study of great isolation players of similar position who learned to fit in with well-coached team offenses. One is Gordon Hayward, with whom Tatum will spend at least the next ten months. The others are Paul Pierce and Kevin Durant. If he can focus on three areas of improvement, he should be in good shape: ball handling, moving without the ball, and most importantly, speeding up his process so that within a second he is either deciding to continue swinging the ball, going to the hole, or shooting.

One-on-one scoring is fine in Stevens’ offense as long as it’s efficient, but dribbling the ball into the floor on one side of the court for ten seconds while you set up your move (which turns out to be a long, contested two) is not. My gut tells me that Tatum will adjust, while continuing to improve his one-on-one scoring skills, and eventually turn into an efficient, high volume front court scorer who doesn’t stop the ball too much and also contributes on defense. A.K.A. the most valuable players in the league.

4. Are They Playing for Now or Later?

The Celtics’ strategy appears to be to get as good as they possibly can without giving up Brown, Tatum, the 2018 Nets pick, or the 2018 Lakers/2019 Kings pick. The only way I see them straying from that philosophy is if they can either get good value for the worst of those assets – say if the Lakers start the season well and they deal that pick and Jae Crowder for a legit big man of some sort at the deadline – or more likely, if they can bundle them all into one monster package for a superstar guaranteed to put them on a similar level as the Warriors, a la Kevin Garnett in 2007. Someone like Anthony Davis or Giannis Antetokounmpo would do the trick, but there obviously aren’t very many of them.

Otherwise the Celtics are stuck praying that LeBron James or Steph Curry or Durant get hurt or that their young players get good soon – as in, before their rookie deals kick in – giving them five or six All-Star level players. Neither of those possibilities are that outlandish, so they do have a chance to win a title in the next four years (the length of Hayward’s deal), albeit a small one. The Celtics’ best chance to win a title in the next ten years, though, is by developing their young talent (primarily Brown, Tatum, and those two picks).

If they can get elite players with both of those picks (say Michael Porter and Mo Bamba), then they can develop all four guys simultaneously. A big money guy comes off the books each year, and that money is used to sign the young stars to their second contracts. That way they’ll always be good, and their best chance to get to the elite level will come after the Warriors have faded, while their four young guys are all hitting their prime. OKC could have had this with Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka. They would be the Warriors, with a few titles in the bag, and the money they spent going into the luxury tax would be more than covered by the massive revenue from home playoff games and additional merchandise sales (not to mention inflated ticket prices, etc.).

So do whatever you can to make the next few years enjoyable, Danny Ainge, but don’t fuck with the future or you could end up being too cute by half and not winning now or later.

5. Jaylen Brown Should Start at Shooting Guard

Avery Bradley is out, shipped to Detroit for Marcus Morris. In his place the Celtics have a few options. They could start Hayward at the two, Crowder at the three, and Morris at the four (with Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford). They could start Marcus Smart at the two, Hayward at the three, and Morris at the four. They could do the same with Crowder at the four, making for one small-ass lineup. OR they could start Jaylen Brown at the two, Hayward at the three, and Morris at the four, with Smart, Crowder, and Tatum coming off the bench. I think fear they will choose the first option, but I hope they choose the last.

I could go into a whole convoluted explanation of the ideal role for each guy, but I’ll leave it at this: Brown is already a great defender, improving rapidly on offense, and totally comfortable not getting many shots. He’s also your future, and a player Stevens was comfortable starting at shooting guard last winter while Bradley was out with an injury. Don’t overthink it.

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