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NBA Daily: Why The Boston Hype?

The Celtics’ hype train got rolling a bit during the NBA’s hiatus. Matt John explains why many seem higher on Boston than they were before, and why that train may still need some brakes.

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Excuse me while I do my best Carnac the Magnificent impression. *Puts an envelope to his forehead* The Milwaukee Bucks, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Los Angeles Clippers.

“Name the three teams most likely to be crowned champion of the 2019-20 NBA season.”

Okay that bit might be way too old for you youngins to get, and honestly, that may have been the worst possible tribute to such a classic sketch, but you know what we’re getting at here. When people think about the safest picks to win it all this season, it’s those three without question. With Golden State’s juggernaut down for the count, the Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers have stood out as the three teams most likely to be the last one standing when (or if) the season finishes.

Yet, there seems to be a question that’s grown exponentially since the NBA’s hiatus – “Why not Boston?”

When word got out that the season was going to be resumed after all, national media types started picking the Celtics to be the surprise team to come out of the east. Shortly after that, gambling odds started to favor them a little more too. This narrative became so popular that, in their case, the term surprise in surprise pick didn’t sound accurate anymore. The Bucks were (and still are) the safe pick to win the Eastern Conference, but the Celtics suddenly became the sexy pick.

In all fairness, when you compare them to the crème de la crème in the NBA, they split the season series with the three top teams in the league – although that will change when Boston and Milwaukee face off on Friday – and five of those games were must-watch thrillers. The only exception being when the Celtics spanked the Lakers on Martin Luther King Day.

So, is the growing hype around Boston justified? Yes and no. The Celtics have for the most part been an excellent squad this season – impressive seeing how much firepower they lost, especially on the defensive side – but they have been hot and cold. One game they are giving the Lakers all they can handle on LA’s home turf – without Kemba Walker no less – and the next they are blowing a 17-point fourth-quarter lead to the very undermanned Brooklyn Nets at home. The good stretches have outweighed the bad stretches, but the bad stretches still stand out.

That of course explains why Boston is viewed as more of an underdog compared to their three elite competitors instead of being right there with them. Still, the fact that the Celtics have risen up to the occasion against the best of the best does make picking them to make the finals appear not as irrational as some may think.

Really, the fascination with the Celtics stems from the fact that their ceiling remains somewhat mysterious. We still haven’t really gotten to see what this squad looks like together when everyone is healthy. Boston’s top four players – Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, and Kemba – have played all of 19 games together. Just as one would come back from injury, another seemingly would get hurt shortly before, during, or after the return.

The shame of it all is that when those four have shared the floor, the Celtics have a scorching near-121 offensive rating together – the best among Boston’s four-man lineups that have played at least 200 minutes. By the way, just to point this out, the fact that the Celtics have gone 31-14 in games with at least one of their core four out speaks volumes as to how invaluable Marcus Smart has been for them.

The Celtics don’t have a duo of players on their squad that match the talent of LeBron James/Anthony Davis or Kawhi Leonard/Paul George or James Harden/Russell Westbrook, but they may very well have the best quartet of players in the league. No one else has a trio of players averaging 20 points a game, and having another scorer who averages 17+ on top of that is a rare luxury. The only other team that comes close to what the Celtics have among their top four guys scoring-wise is the Clippers, and we all know what their goal is.

When rotations shorten, having multiple guys who are capable of putting up big scoring numbers on any given night is incredibly crucial. Now that Boston will have all four of their top guys in ship shape, that gives them an almost unfair amount of cushion compared to their rivals both in their conference and around the league.

That’s not all. There’s something else worth bringing up about Boston and their health that many have overlooked. Let’s start with Jayson Tatum’s ascension.

The sublime numbers that Tatum put up in February – 30.7 points on 49/48/77 splits – was very much the talk of the town before the hiatus. Let’s not beat around the bush here- that’s the kind of production you’d expect from a young superstar. We all believed Tatum had that potential, and we were seeing him fulfill it.

The only problem was that it coincided with the worst stretch of Kemba’s career. An ill-fated knee injury took away a lot of his burst, which definitely hurts someone like Kemba Walker. When Walker wasn’t recuperating from his knee injury, he was not himself. From Jan. 28 to the hiatus, he was averaging 16.3 points on 32/31/83 splits. He made a valiant effort to play, but let’s not beat around the bush here either- He stunk.

With the hiatus, Kemba’s had the time to heal up. While it’s no guarantee that we’re going to see the same old Kemba we’re used to, and that knee is definitely a concern, combining what he was before his knee started acting up with Tatum’s dominance makes the Celtics that much more lethal. The Celtics have taken it slow with their star point guard since the Bubble began, and their efforts look like they haven’t been in vain.

Sadly Boston is all too familiar with the “When they get (player X) back in (Y amount of time), imagine how good they are going to be!” mindset. There’s no guarantee that Kemba will be Kemba when the postseason starts, but because we know what he can do when he’s 100 percent, the Celtics’ playoff potential skyrockets putting him with what they already have.

So, should Boston enter the season at full strength, there’s a lot to like about them, but there’s still a reason why they are not put in the same tier as Milwaukee or either of the LA teams. That starts with their depth. Enough has been said about how good their four best guys are when they play together, but the rest of the roster outside of Smart and Daniel Theis is a question mark.

The Celtics’ top six of Tatum, Brown, Walker, Hayward, Smart, and Theis is capable of winning a championship, but a title team can’t consist of just six rotation players. There are too many minutes for just six guys. Outside of them, it’s hard to say who will fill out the rest of the rotation. The most likely candidates will be the likes of:

  • Enes Kanter: Has been uncharacteristically injury-prone this season. When healthy, he’s been his usual post-dominant self, and the Celtics have done a good job minimizing his defensive lapses – He somehow has a better Defensive Real Plus-Minus than Andre Drummond and Dwight Howard – but he’s been badly exploited in the wrong matchup as usual.
  • Grant Williams: Fits perfectly into Boston’s scheme of playing multi-positional wings with defensive versatility. He’s even shown he has the strength to handle players bigger than him. Even though he’s shot 35 percent from three since hitting his first one on Dec. 9, opponents will leave him open until he can make them pay.
  • Brad Wanamaker: Inconsistency has been his biggest issue. His month by month numbers have been a roller coaster all season. There’s no telling which Wanamaker Boston would get if they played him.
  • Robert Williams III: A hip injury got in the way of what was supposed to be a baptism by fire type of season. The physical tools are definitely there for him to be an exceptional rim protector, but he’s been prone to brain farts and block chasing. The playoffs would be a perfect time for him to learn, but his raw skillset could make him a disaster to play.
  • Semi Ojeleye: In and out of the rotation all season. He brings defensive muscle and even an improved three-ball. He’s even had his moments at times. Besides that, not much progress has been made on his part.

There are other options, but those are the most qualified ones the Celtics have at their disposal, and as you can see, it’s not cut and dry. If one or two of those options pan out well, then Boston should be right there. However, because there are no answers, we’ll just have to see who fits best with what they want to do.

The Celtics could potentially have a lot going for them when the postseason arrives. There are X-Factors that could result in a first-round exit or a trip to the finals. Their health and their depth could play a huge role on how these playoffs turn out. If they play their cards right, Boston might just turn into the team everyone thought they would be.

Last year that is.

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

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Mavericks are expected to pick up Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option

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Per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, the Dallas Mavericks are planning to pick up center Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option for the 2021-22 NBA season. The deadline is tomorrow. Last season, in 53 games played, the seven-foot big man averaged 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The sixth-year player also shot 63.2 percent from the field last season.

On July 8, 2019, Cauley-Stein signed a two-year, $4.46 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Then, on January 25, 2020, Cauley-Stein was traded to the Mavericks for a 2020 second-round pick. If everything goes smoothly, the 27-year-old center is set to earn $4.1 million next season. The 2015 sixth overall pick’s contract consumes less than three percent of the team’s total salary cap.

This news comes right after Dallas received center Moses Brown from the Boston Celtics. Brown is a seven-foot-two, 2019 undrafted player out of UCLA. In 2021, Brown was named to the All-NBA G League First Team and All-Defensive Team. On March 28, 2021, the 21-year-old center signed a four-year, $6.8 million contract with the Thunder.

However, on June 18, 2021, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Brown, Al Horford, and a 2023 second-round pick to the Celtics for Kemba Walker, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2025 second-round pick. With Boston, Brown was set to earn $1,701,593 next season. Of course, the Mavs’ organization is finalizing a trade to send Josh Richardson to the Celtics as well. In other news, today is Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban’s 63rd birthday.

Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 luxury tax totals, the Mavs’ current luxury tax space is $52,326,531. The 2021 NBA salary cap maximum is $112,414,000. Their current cap space is $27,595,632. Cauley-Stein’s contract is recognized as a club option, not a player option or guaranteed money. Richardson’s deadline is also tomorrow, so because he is getting traded to Boston, the team will not collect his $11,615,328 player option.

Plus, Jalen Brunson’s deadline is also August 1st. His guaranteed value is $1,802,057. Leading into the 2021-22 season, Kristaps Porzingis has the highest cap figure on the team, which is an amount worth $31,650,600, consuming 22.73 percent of the team’s total salary cap. At the moment, Porzingis is a popular name in trade rumor articles. Bettors and NBA analysts are predicting a possible trade to the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, or Philadelphia 76ers.

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Lakers Need More Than Big Three

The Lakers have their “big three” after trading for Russell Westbrook but is he the right fit in Los Angeles? The former MVP has had an incredible career but he may not be the point guard the Lakers desperately need.

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The Los Angeles Lakers have formed their three-headed monster as they pursue the franchise’s 18th championship next season. Just as the NBA Draft was getting started, the Lakers completed a deal with the Washington Wizards that landed them the 2016-17 league MVP, Russell Westbrook.

The deal sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft to Washington, paving the way for Westbrook to join fellow superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While the Lakers added a dynamic point guard, not everyone is sold on the idea that the Lakers are the team to beat in the loaded Western Conference.

Over the past several weeks, the Lakers were rumored to be seeking perimeter shooting. Some reports had Los Angeles linked to guys like Chris Paul, Buddy Hield and DeMar DeRozan. When the dust settled, it was Washington that made the deal as Westbrook informed the front office that he preferred the Lakers as a destination.

The move is a homecoming of sorts, as Westbrook grew up in the area and spent two seasons playing at UCLA, leading the Bruins to the 2008 Final Four. He had a solid 2020-21 season, averaging 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists per game for the Wizards, who earned the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.

Oddly enough, this is the third straight offseason in which the 9-time All-Star has been traded. After leaving Oklahoma City, Westbrook was not able to find postseason success in Houston or Washington. Will that now change in Los Angeles?

For all of his accomplishments, Westbrook’s legacy has been defined by his play during the regular season. This past season, the point guard passed Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in the history of the game. Out of his 184 triple-doubles, only 12 have come in the playoffs. By comparison, Magic Johnson has the most playoff career triple-doubles with 30, and James is next with 28. Now all three will have played for the Lakers during their careers.

The thing about triple-doubles (and this is especially the case with Westbrook) is that they don’t always translate to wins. They clearly help the team overall but some would argue that a more balanced attack is tougher to stop. History has shown that having a “big three” is almost a requirement to be considered a legitimate championship contender, but this trio in Los Angeles doesn’t exactly fit together like many of those others.

As talented and valuable as Westbrook has been over the course of his career, he needs to have the ball to be effective. His poor perimeter shooting has been the big hiccup in his game, and that is something that this Lakers team desperately needs. The problem isn’t that any of these three won’t share the ball. In fact, they had already discussed checking their egos even before this trade went down.

Westbrook has never had a problem sharing the ball. He was able to co-exist with Durant in Oklahoma City, Harden in Houston and Beal in Washington. The difference in this scenario is that he will be occupying the same space as James and Davis. The concern is efficiency. Out of 34 players to average at least 20 points per game over the last four seasons, Westbrook ranked 33rd in true shooting percentage.

When James drives to the rim or when Davis is facing a double-team inside, how confident will they be in passing out to Westbrook for a three-pointer? Better yet, how patient will they be if the shot isn’t falling? We have already seen what happened with Danny Green and Caldwell-Pope.

Now that the Lakers have assembled their trio of stars, many fans are hopeful to witness an NBA Finals matchup where James and the Lakers meet Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. As juicy as that series would be, the Western Conference is a gauntlet. There is no guarantee that the Lakers will make it there.

What helps their path is that the crosstown rival Clippers will likely be without Kawhi Leonard next season. The Denver Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray and the Golden State Warriors might not be the Warriors from four years ago. There is also uncertainty surrounding Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers and some potential roster changeup with the Utah Jazz.

Considering all of the top-tier point guard talent available in free agency this summer, the Lakers may have been better off trying to do a sign-and-trade. Such a scenario would have hard-capped them but after this deal, they are just $12.6 million below the hard cap with just five players on the roster. Putting together a deal for Hield is still possible, but the Lakers will have to get creative. Adding a third team to this trade, in particular, is one way to accomplish that. Again, it is possible but it will be complicated.

In a perfect world, the Lakers could have worked with Toronto on a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry. Even though Lowry is older than Westbrook, the current window for Los Angeles to win with this group is closing fast. Lowry would be cheaper and a much better fit overall. His durability, toughness, defense and high basketball IQ would pay dividends for the Lakers. Adding in the fact that he is a much better shooter, one has to wonder why the Lakers wouldn’t pursue this route instead.

Westbrook is still going to help this team. He is a tremendous asset for them in the regular season, especially when James is on the bench or unable to play. Having another floor general on the court to generate offense is something they have not had since James arrived. If Los Angeles can land some above-average shooting to the roster, Westbrook could flourish in this role.

With James sliding to the power forward position and Davis playing more at center, the key for Los Angeles will be to surround these guys with shooters. The Lakers ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 25th in makes last season. Expect the organization to be busy when free agency starts next week. Targets will include guys like Duncan Robinson, JJ Redick, Norman Powell, Evan Fournier, Doug McDermott, Bryn Forbes, Patrick Mills, Reggie Bullock, Kendrick Nunn and Alec Burks.

Obviously, the Lakers are counting on their individual talent and figuring out the rest later. It likely means the end for Dennis Schröder. Can Alex Caruso fit in and where does this leave Talen Horton-Tucker? The rest of the roster is in limbo, but the star players and the front office both feel confident that they will land the other pieces that they need to raise another banner next summer.

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Jazz offering Mike Conley $75 million over next three years

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According to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Utah Jazz are preparing to offer point guard Mike Conley a three-year, $75 million contract to remain with the team. Of course, the exact amount is a ballpark figure. Stein stated, “Utah has made retaining Mike Conley its top priority, league sources say, and is preparing a three-year offer said to be in the $75 million range.” The 14-year NBA veteran is a significant piece to the Jazz’s championship window, playing alongside superstar teammates, such as center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell. He helped the Jazz finish their regular season with the league’s best record of 52-20 (.722).

Utah went on to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Though, the team lost four games to two in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. In the 2020-21 NBA season, Conley averaged 16.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and six assists per game in 51 games started. Then, in the postseason, he averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. The 33-year-old also shot 44.4 percent from the field in the regular season. Last season, the 2007 fourth overall pick earned his first NBA All-Star selection.

On July 6, 2019, the Grizzlies traded Conley to the Jazz for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick. Furthermore, the Jazz can still trade Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles this offseason, if they wanted to improve their current salary cap situation. Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 cap holds, Mike Conley’s cap figure is $39,344,900. Cap holds are for pending free agents. Conley earned $34,504,132 last season.

The team’s current luxury tax space is $11,173,027. In addition to the aforementioned cap figures, Mitchell and Gobert have a combined cap figure worth 51.34 percent of the team’s total salary cap. These two players’ contracts alone are consuming a huge chunk of the team’s cap. Plus, on November 23, 2020, Mitchell signed a contract extension with Utah. He is set to earn $28,103,550 next season. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. He will earn $35,344,828 next season and $38,172,414 in the 2022-23 season.

However, if the team were to still trade Bogdanovic and possibly Ingles as well, this would clear up an additional 25.68 percent of the team’s salary cap. Bogdanovic’s future guaranteed cash amount total is $19,343,000. They are contributing role players who play together well with the team’s big three, but re-signing the most valuable players is the team’s main objective this offseason. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik might contemplate trading role players who are not worth their asking price. Competitive teams in both conferences have to trim the fat at some point.

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