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The Celtics Have Some Decisions to Make

The Celtics may be best served by arriving at a few important decisions sooner rather than later, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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Everybody loves a Cinderella team. A real underdog who never lets lower expectations get them down. Though it may have ended in heartbreak, the 2018 Boston Celtics had one of the more enjoyable Cinderella runs that the NBA has seen in recent years. But now it’s over. As impressive as this season was for the Celtics, they now must turn their attention to the off-season.

Enough has already been made about the Celtics’ potential in the long run. Unless they go through the same astoundingly high number of injuries over the next couple of seasons like they did in this one, their future is very bright. They have max contracts invested in the right guys, they have young stars on rookie contracts, and they have one of the best young coaches in the NBA. What’s not to like?

Well, they might be in a little more trouble then one might think. As impressive as they’ve been, they may be too loaded with talent for their own good. Kyrie Irving’s and Gordon Hayward’s return should primarily benefit the team, but it also leads to a minutes crunch. The Celtics may have to make some moves that they won’t want to make, but will be for the greater good of the team. As evidenced by the deals he made last summer, Danny Ainge is no stranger to making tough decisions, which he may have a few to make a few more this summer.

Keep in mind that while some of these decisions may not have to be made until next year, it might be easier to make a few of them sooner rather than later.

Marcus Smart

Smart is in a little bit of a pickle this off-season. He’s going to be a restricted free agent in an off-season where not a whole lot of teams are going to have money to spend. Our own Lang Greene pointed out that Smart may not have a strong market because of his sub-optimal shooting numbers and his inability to stay on the court as well.

What makes the Celtics’ situation with Smart even funkier is both the roster they will have next season and what Smart has done off the court could badly hurt Smart’s chances of a long-term extension. Smart has been quite the impactful player for the Celtics since being drafted by the team, but both Irving’s and Hayward’s impending return next season could make Smart expendable.

Smart provides defensive energy and quality playmaking for the team, but something to remember about him is that for the past couple of seasons, the Celtics have put him on the court with their finishing lineups because he was one of the team’s five best options. When Hayward and Irving get back, Smart won’t be in the top five anymore. The Celtics are going to be one of the toughest teams to stop next season when they start Irving, Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford, and they would be foolish not to have those guys out there finishing the game, which would plant Smart on the bench.

That would make Smart not as much of a necessity as he’s been in the past, which could make re-signing him that much less of a priority. The Celtics would definitely like to keep Smart long-term, but they’d be hesitant to invest much in him if his role is reduced.

Smart’s other option is to look at other teams who would be willing to give him the money he would want, but Smart shot himself in the foot this summer when he had his little incident mid-season. For those who don’t know, Smart punched a glass frame because of a personal matter off the court, which sliced up his hand. Smart himself said his season could have ended right then and there had the glass reached his tendons, but he lucked out.

As lucky as Smart was, incidents like that hurt young players’ chances at getting a big payday because they expose that particular players’ lack of maturity. Teams do not want to invest money on guys who can’t handle themselves off the court, and impending free agents who suffer potentially season-ending injuries that were completely preventable fall into that category. This ordeal could very well be a one-time thing with Smart, but the incident’s recency could really hurt his value this summer, especially since Smart has shown to be injury-prone.

When all is said and done, Smart’s best option may just be to take the qualifying offer and ride it out for one more year with the Celtics. Whether he does could influence another Celtics decision this summer below.

Terry Rozier

Unlike Smart, Rozier still has one more year on his rookie deal before his upcoming restricted free agency next summer. Also, unlike Smart, Terry has shown significant progress. Scary Terry’s performance in his final game this season may have left a lot to be desired, which unfortunately overshadowed his brilliant performance in the previous game, but his overall playoff numbers were pretty impressive.

Averaging 17.2 points, 5.8 assists, 5.3 assists while shooting 42 percent from the field including 37 percent from three while only surrendering 1.2 turnovers a game is pretty good for someone who was expected to be the team’s fourth guard this season. In fact, it’s a little too good.

Rozier may not have played up to the standards of a Kyrie Irving, but he did prove that he could be a productive starting point guard on a playoff team that was one win away from the NBA Finals. Whether or not Rozier can get better from here is up in the air, but if he does, it may not be with the Celtics.

When Kyrie comes back next season, Terry will be relegated to the bench again, but he’s proven that he’s better than that. With the performance he just had, young guards like Terry deserve more minutes, not fewer. He’s basically an overqualified back-up on a team that already has plenty of talent, which could mean a trade could be in the works this summer. Luckily, if there’s one general manager who knows how to cash in on a player’s value, it’s Danny Ainge.

Basing off of Ainge’s trade history, his best option might be to trade Rozier now while his value is at its highest. Rozier’s performance in these playoffs combined with his upcoming restricted free agency will make him an appealing trade asset to teams interested in his services. The Celtics could keep him and cross that restricted free agency bridge when they come to it, but they have even bigger decisions to make next season, so it might be best to do handle Rozier’s situation now while they can still get the most out of him.

Marcus Morris

It was obvious how much Marcus Morris loved playing in Boston. Despite struggling with injuries and dealing with a smaller role than the one he had in Detroit, “Mook” embraced his role and loved every second he played for the Celtics this year. Morris may have been the Celtics’ most erratic player, which is impressive, but he played a huge role in their playoff run.

But that might not be the case next season. Much like Rozier, the difficult decision with Morris stems from the number of minutes that he will get next season. Mook saw his minutes-per-game average go from 32 in Detroit to 26 in Boston this season, and that number should only plummet further next season.

It’s not that Morris should play less for the Celtics. It’s that his skillset as a scorer and wing defender won’t be as necessary to the team next season. Hayward will be coming back, and the Celtics will continue to develop Tatum and Brown, all of whom are better options than Morris. Morris was a team player for the Celtics, but his contract is up after next year, so playing fewer minutes in a contract year may not sit well with him, especially in a league that emphasizes having two-way wings. It may be better for the Celtics to clear up their potential logjam with their wings next season before it could potentially be a problem. If they’re not going to trade Brown or Tatum for a superstar, then Morris might have to go.

No one is denying that the Celtics’ future is bright no matter what happens. They’ve got a great collection of talent that teams would only dream of, but that doesn’t mean it will all be easy for them from here on out.

These decisions are just the tip of the iceberg of many key decisions management’s going to have to make in the next couple of years, but as many already know, Danny Ainge should be up for the challenge.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Can the Milwaukee Bucks be Real Contenders?

Do the Bucks now have the talent and coaching to legitimately contend for this year’s championship?

Shane Rhodes

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The Milwaukee Bucks weren’t very good in 2017.

While they had one of the best players in the world, Giannis Antetokounmpo, on the court at almost all times, they struggled to win games under then Head Coach Jason Kidd. While things improved with the transition to Joel Prunty, Milwaukee and its underperforming roster ultimately fell to the Boston Celtics, sans their two best players, in the first round of the postseason.

But with Mike Budenholzer, one-time Coach of the Year award winner and former head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, in the fold along with some new personnel, are the Bucks good enough to challenge the top teams in the NBA?

If their 2018 debut is anything to go by, the NBA needs to be on alert.

On the road against the Charlotte Hornets, Milwaukee looked completely dominant at times with the Greek Freak leading the charge in a 113-112 win. Antetokounmpo was his usual dominant self and finished the game with 25 points, 18 rebounds and eight assists.

The most important take away from their season debut, however, has nothing to do with Antetokounmpo. It’s the fact that he got a sizeable amount of help from his supporting cast.

The Bucks often looked like a one-man show last season, with Antetokounmpo doing his thing while the rest of the team failed to pull their collective weight. They often looked slow and were worse than average, defensively; Milwaukee was just 20th in pace-of-play and 18th in defensive rating last season. And, amidst the NBA’s three-point revolution, the Bucks ranked just 25th in three-point attempts and 22nd in three-point percentage.

In a nutshell, the Bucks system wasn’t an ideal workspace for its star player. Antetokounmpo, who isn’t a great long-range shooter himself, needs all the spacing he can get in order to be the best version of himself. And that is why the 2018 version of the Bucks could be so dangerous.

Going back to the 2013-14 regular season, Budenholzer’s first as the Hawks head coach, here is how Atlanta ranked compared to the rest of the league in three-point attempts: 2nd, 7th, 7th, 16th, 7th. Budenholzer has instilled that same three-point happy offensive system in Milwaukee. Not only have they played faster, but they are shooting more; the Bucks attempted 34 shots from beyond the arc, 10 more than they averaged per game last season.

More importantly, the Bucks have the players to take advantage of that system and clear the interior as much as possible for the multipositional and uber-athletic Antetokounmpo.

Khris Middleton, the often underrated two-way wing, is a career 39.2 percent three-point shooter. Eric Bledsoe, who struggled at times last season, has been solid from behind the arc for his career as well. Free agent additions Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, two big men who have steered into the three-point evolution of the NBA, have both shot 34 percent or better from three-point range over the last two seasons. Even rookie Donte DiVincenzo, who went two-for-four from three-point range against Charlotte, was a long distance specialist at Villanova and shot 37.8 percent from three during his three years with the school. The roster is loaded with more shooters than ever and they are being put in a position to shoot the long-ball, thanks to the gravity that Antetokounmpo has on the floor and Budenholzer’s system.

Now, as with almost everything, there could be some complications.

While shooting more shots per game could equate to more makes and, therefore, more points, it could, by the same logic, yield more missed shots as well. The Bucks aren’t a strong defensive team, nor have they been for the last four seasons or so, and those extra possessions for the opposition could kill the Bucks in the final stretch of games. Likewise, playing quickly can lead to more turnovers, creating further opportunities for opponents and hurting Milwaukee even further.

But, for now, the benefits seem to outeight the risks, and Antetokounmpo can cover up a lot of mistakes with the talent he possesses.

One game may seem like a small sample size to go on, but, if the Bucks can limit their offensive mishaps and defensive blunders, they have the chance to be a legitimate threat to win the Eastern Conference crown and, perhaps, the NBA title.

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NBA Daily: Kings Starters Show Promise Despite Loss

The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.

Spencer Davies

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The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.

Yes, a 25-9 lead was squandered and the game was lost to the Utah Jazz. Marvin Bagley III confusingly played fewer minutes than 14 of his fellow rookies in his NBA debut. They also forced more miscues than they committed, yet were still outscored 24-13 in points off of turnovers.

All of that makes it seem like Wednesday was the start to a long, frustrating season for the Kings, but don’t be so quick to judge. There was a ton of good to come out of the team’s season opener at the Golden 1 Center.

First off, what a night for Willie Cauley-Stein it was. He had the unenviable task of going head-to-head with Rudy Gobert, the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, to begin the fourth season of his career. We know that the 25-year-old isn’t necessarily a go-to scoring option, however, you wouldn’t have figured that to be the case if you watched the game.

Finishing with the third-most attempts for Sacramento, Cauley-Stein wasted no time and went right at Gobert when he touched the ball. Not once did he hesitate to put it on the floor, showing an improved, tighter handle on drives to the basket. Likely coming from film study, the 7-foot, 240-pound center excelled at using his body to get his shots up and over the “Stifle Tower” with great timing.

Cauley-Stein was determined to attack the paint all game long and showed no fear. He scored 19 of his 23 points with Gobert on the floor, including a thunderous alley-oop slam over the Frenchman following a screen-and-roll. To put the significance of this in perspective, his eight field goal makes are more than he’s had in each of the previous three seasons with Utah’s big man on the floor.

The Kings’ starters, in general, were especially solid, as all five players scored in double figures and had their squad’s best plus-minus ratings.

De’Aaron Fox swiped three steals, showed his playmaking skills and shared the love with his teammates, recording seven assists in addition to his 21 points. A candidate for a breakout year, Buddy Hield looked like the most comfortable player on the floor despite some lazy passes early, knocking down his signature off the dribble, mid-range fadeaways with ease.

Nemanja Bjelica used the threat of his outside shot to make his way to the basket for better looks and poured in 18 points. Starting at the wing, Yogi Ferrell held his own defensively against Donovan Mitchell and added a couple of threes to the mix as well.

Sacramento gave a double-digit led game away, but the players never gave in. During the fourth quarter, they got stops but just couldn’t seem to take advantage on the other side. It was the recurring theme of the night. The chances were there in transition. Now, they’ve got to work on completing those sequences and turning them into points.

Kings head coach Dave Joerger played essentially a nine-man rotation and got little out of his bench players. Justin Jackson struggled at the four spot and carved out 30 minutes of playing time in spite of it. Other than that, though, everybody in the second unit was on the floor for less than 17 minutes. It’s likely because of how well the starters performed, but they’ll need more out of those guys eventually.

There’s already a topic of discussion on the front of development vs. wins in Sacramento. Joerger’s addressed the matter with Bagley after the game and said it’s going to be hard to allocate minutes for a roster heavy with big men.

The counter-argument to that is simple—he’s the second overall pick of the draft. You have to find time for him, period. There should be no excuse not to regardless of who’s on the team. Don’t forget about Bagley being so talented that he re-classified to play with an age group above his own and still dominated as the ACC Player of the Year at Duke. He was a true freshman!

Aside from that whole debate, the Kings did not roll over and quit when they blew a 16-point lead and trailed by 14 soon after. In a game of runs, their young group hung in there and battled until the clock hit zero. Keep in mind this is a ballclub short of last year’s starting shooting guard still, too.

There may not be a whole lot of winning to come by in Sacramento—what with competing in the Pacific Division and Western Conference—but the season could be easier on the eyes if this is the type of effort they’re going to give on a nightly basis. Of course, we’ve got to be careful here since it’s only one game.

Even so, consider this writer in on “Kings SZN.”

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NBA Daily: Offseason Acquisitions Making An Early Impact

Basketball Insiders takes a look at five players on new teams who had a big impact in their respective season openers.

Drew Maresca

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Starting a new job is hard: new co-workers, new processes, new expectations, etc. Most of us have done it, and we can attest that it’s challenging on both a personal and professional level. It’s no different in the NBA. Sure, there is greater familiarity amongst players than for, say, a software engineer jumping from Facebook to Google, but the stakes are also higher. Most people are cut some slack initially due to a lack of familiarity, but not in the NBA. Players are expected to hit the ground running, and are judged harshly for getting off to slow starts. 

Even still, some players are simply so skilled that their impact is immediately obvious. With that being said, let’s analyze the top five debuts of players who changed teams this past offseason. 

  1. Kawhi Leonard — His post-game comments may have been understated Wednesday night, but his on-court performance was not. Leonard received an incredible amount of support from the Raptors crowd, and he did not disappoint. He posted 24 points and 12 rebounds and was +13 for the game. His offensive arsenal was on full display; he demonstrated his athleticism on dunks, his shooting prowess and range and his willingness to do some dirty work on the glass. No surprises here, but it is encouraging that he came back from the quad injury and looked mostly unchanged. Bonus points to Kyle Lowry for going the extra mile to get Leonard the ball (e.g., passing on an easy transition layup to feed Leonard). 
  1. DeMar DeRozan — While Kawhi did his normal thing, DeRozan may have had his foot on the gas a bit more — or maybe his performance was more a result of greater necessity. Either way, DeRozan delivered. He scored 28 points on 7 for 11 shooting, with four rebounds and four assists in 38 minutes. Similar to Leonard, no one should be surprised by DeRozan’s debut, especially given how upset he was initially with the trade. It’s even less surprising when you consider that he transitioned to playing for Coach Gregg Popovich, whose system is tried and true. If he keeps this up and all goes well for San Antonio, it could re-ignite questions about the Leonard-Popovich-Spurs snafu that resulted in the trade in the first place. 
  1. New New Orleans Pelicans (Julius Rande and Elfrid Payton – tie) — While Anthony Davis continues to be the main story line for the Pelicans, both free agents signings made their mark in the team’s season opener. Payton did so by posting a triple double in his first outing, demonstrating the versatility and promise that led the Pelicans to sign him in the first place; he notched 10 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds in route to an impressive +23. Randle’s performance was probably a bit flashier, but maybe less impactful on the whole. Nevertheless, Randle proved his worth in his first game with the team, finishing with an impressive 25 points on an efficient 9 for 15. He also chipped in eight rebounds and showed his versatility, leading fast breaks and dishing three assists. Concerns over the Pelicans may have been a bit overblown — but that might have more to do with Davis’ impact than the supporting cast. Time will tell.
  1. Brook Lopez — How did the perception of a former top-tier center slip so far so quickly? Just 17 months ago, Lopez was wrapping up another typical Brook Lopez-esque season: 20.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.7 blocks per game. Sure, the league has passed by centers who can’t extend the defense and switch onto guards in the pick and roll, but Lopez introduced an effective three-point shot in 2016-17, shooting .34.6 percent from deep. And yet, one year on the Lakers bench was all it took for the league to begin to overlook and/or underrate Lopez. That was a mistake. Lopez seems to be the same player he’s always been. He’s no longer a go-to option, so his scoring will likely be down from his 17.8 points per game career average; but he will contribute on offense and block some shots on defense. In his first game with the Bucks — with whom he signed for the bargain salary of $3.4 million — he scored 14 points and grabbed three rebounds in 21 minutes of action. Lopez should continue to aid the already talented Bucks. Can he push them deeper into the playoff? If he does, he would likely secure himself one more pay day.
  2. Dennis Shroder — Shroder’s performance may have been inflated by the absence of Russell Westbrook. Correction — Shroder’s performance was definitely inflated by the absence of Westbook. But he demonstrated his value all the same. Oddly, the Hawks decided they wanted to part ways with the 25 year old point guard. Their loss. He notched 21 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out six assists in 34 minutes of action. And it will get easier for him considering the Thunder opened against Steph Curry and the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Shroder gives the Thunder a third playmaker — exactly what they were lacking in last year’s playoffs against the Jazz, and exactly what they hoped Melo could be.

One thing all the guys on this list have in common (beyond being above average players) is their willingness to take on a challenge. Nothing in sports — or life — is guaranteed. But we will have a clearer picture if their respective changes of scenery were made for better or worse. If they were done successfully, they can shift the balance of power in the league, and rework the competitive balance to a pretty crazy extent.

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