To talk about the Boston Celtics in this 2016/17 season, is to talk about Isaiah Thomas. The ex Washington Huskies is the smallest player in the Nba at 5-9 and is having an unbelievable season. He is in the conversation for league MVP. He is averaging almost 30PPG and over 10 points in the 4th quarter alone. He is the key to every Boston win. But the offensive identity the team developed this season came at the expense of their defense. Things are not working as well as the second place in the Eastern Conference might let you think. The loss in Sacramento on Wednesday night is the perfect example. And Thomas might be the source of the team’s troubles. That has been discussed in depth in this column by Matt Moore.
There are two glaring issues for the Boston Celtics, and both of them lead to defense for a team that is 17th in points allowed per game (105.8 OppPPG): rebounds (41.5 RPG, 28th of 30) and the size of their perimeter players. The latter is the most interesting part. The starting guards are Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley. Thomas is 5-9, Bradley is 6-2. Both of them are undersized for the point-guard spot, having the on the floor at the same time means Bradley will be facing 6-6 guards every night. They are also two of the best players on the team. Bradley was voted First Team All Defense last season and is the second best rebounder on the team (11% overall, 18.5% defensive rebounds), which is not far from what 6-10 Al Horford is doing. Unfortunately, Bradley has been out with an Achilles’ injury since January 18th, and coach Brad Stevens has been forced to experiment with lineups. Without Bradley, lost three in a row, against the New York Knicks, Portland Trail Blazers and Washington Wizards.
On the fourth night, Stevens chose Jaylen Brown as the starting shooting guard. Thrown into a game against James Harden and the Houston Rockets (not that he ever guarded him, except on a few switches. Ariza was his assignment). The Celtics were suddenly bigger, stronger, longer and more athletic than with Bradley or Marcus Smart, who had taken Bradley’s place in the 3 previous losses. The Celtics went on a 7 game winning streak with Brown as a starter before losing one to a Cousins-less Kings team on a bad shooting night and lack of defensive effort for the Cs. Still, in this 9 game span, the ex Cal has been playing well. He had showed earlier in the season that he could take advantage of smaller players in the post (in the clip below, against ex Duke JJ Reddick last Sunday)
but the biggest improvement came from behind the arc. He is not a real threat (29.2% from three in the last 9) but he did improve his shooting mechanics. Just compare a few college highlights
to the highlights of the last few weeks.
His shot is quicker, he does not flings his elbows around as much, he sets his foot better and the overall shooting form looks better. There is a lot to work on, but it already projects as a shooter every defense will have to respect in the near future (think of Jae Crowder and how much he improved on his shot). When that will happen, his athleticism will become a huge problem. It is really hard to stay in front of him on his first step. He has to improve his ability to finish around the rim in traffic, he cannot handle contact just yet but he has the physical tools to score and get fouled. Despite being the fifth option on offense, he already learned how to use backdoor cuts, bring smaller players in the post and be ready on corner threes.
But the real improvement for the team came on the defensive end. 9 games are about 10% of the whole season, but before Brown cracked the starting lineup the Celtics had 108.5 Offensive Rating and 106.6 Defensive Rating. In the last 8 games that changed to 112.4 OffRtg and 104.4 DefRtg. Yes, it’s a small sample size, but it is a huge jump. It can’t be all because of Brown, either. He has a -2.3 in plus/minus and -1.4 NetRtg, although he is catching 10.4% of available rebounds, which is not that far from what Bradley was doing. Considering Bradley also has a negative NetRtg, he is worth almost as much as Bradley on defense.
Jaylen Brown is not and and should not be considered as good as Bradley, not just yet. At the same time, this kind of runs don’t just happen. The Celtics had a home-heavy schedule of late, faced weaker opponents and the few top level teams they played had to deal with fatigue and injuries of their own. Boston has been playing well, of course. But the defensive struggles are real, and the Celtics clearly need bigger and longer players on the wing to make up for Isaiah Thomas size issues. Even Marcus Smart, despite being taller and heavier than Thomas or Bradley, is undersized at the shooting guard spot in the Nba. Brown, on the other hand, has been good and was of huge help to the team. He was even included in the top50 under-25 players in the Nba.
There is one data that might give the full impact of Jaylen Brown on the Celtics: winning the first quarter is more strongly associated with winning the game than any other quarter. In the 8.4 minutes Brown has been playing in the first quarter of these 9 games, he has a 15.7 NetRtg and a +2.2 plus/minus. Every other quarter has negative numbers.
Both statistics and the eye test suggest the team is playing better with Jaylen Brown as a starter and with Marcus Smart coming off the bench. Obviously Bradley will be the starter again, once healthy (he will be out until the All Star Game). When the Celtics can play their starting five they have a 16-6 record, while they are 18-13 when at least one of them is missing. But what will happen afterwards? Once Bradly will be cleared of any minute restriction, will he average 34 minutes per game as he did before the injury? Will Brown get some of his minutes? Brad Stevens might want to give it a chance, even during the playoffs.