Michael Walton II writes about the Chicago Bulls and the NBA for We Are Regal Radio.
Michael is a student, freelance writer and high school basketball scout based in Chicago. He’s previously been published in TrueStar Magazine, the Redeye Chicago and thelyricallab.com.
For the 2015-16 season I have been documenting the progress made by three franchises who turned over their head coaching duties to talented coaches from the college game.
The franchise I will be detailing today is the Boston Celtics, who are the furthest along of the three teams (Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma city Thunder) in terms of the coach having a grasp on how to utilize the roster as currently constructed.
Speaking of said construction, a huge component of the Celtics hot start is the deep roster put together by President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge.
Carefully crafted through a huge package of draft picks and players in exchange for Rajon Rondo, and aging stars Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce. The Celtics roster is now full of players with long wingspans. Brad Stevens has gotten this team to buy into an aggressive defense-first attitude and so far the results are exciting.
Ball Pressure/Transition Defense
The main reason for the Celtics’ early success is a defense that has ranked in the top five in defensive efficiency for most of this young season. Boston’s guards are aggressive and (most of the time) they play tight on-ball defense while denying everyone off-ball.
The guards can go all-out for steals because they are excellent at jumping passing lanes; if they do get out of position they know their big men will either switch who they’re guarding temporarily to give them time to get back to their original assignment, or switching completely to deny the ball handler a clear lane to the basket.
What Stevens’ crew is doing is by no means revolutionary, but it takes great communication for five guys to work in unison to neutralize offenses in such an effective way.
The other component of this defense is the pressure in the back court. After the Celtics miss shots (and sometimes even after makes) they deny the first pass attempted by the other team with tremendous full-court pressure. This is a big part of the reason they lead the league in steals per game. The clip here illustrates this strategy perfectly, and it also shows something that I will elaborate on a bit later in this post.
Fully Committing to “Pace-and-Space”
The modern NBA has become more and more about offense and how efficient you can be with the outside jump shot. The NBA is a copycat league, and the problem for most teams is that they are simply forcing a square peg into a round hole (cough, cough, Bulls) by trying to emulate the Golden State Warriors strategy. But Brad Stevens has clearly made sure to walk his group carefully through the finer details of what he wants them to do on offense.
Consistency is the key to the success of any franchise and Stevens understands this. His offense finished fifth in the league in pace last year, and they currently are fifth in pace this season (as of 12/15/15). One of the most important parts of a fast-paced offense is getting the ball past half court as quickly as possible.
Isaiah Thomas earned himself a starting job because he is the perfect guard for this type of system. He uses his blazing speed to get past half court before the shot-clock is at 21 seconds almost every time down the floor.
Thomas’s blazing speed is just one of his many great offensive attributes, but more importantly look at the space that Stevens gives him to operate below.
As Thomas attacks Tony Snell off the dribble, you notice the other four Boston players standing around the perimeter. This leaves Snell on an island, and the the rim protectors (Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah) are too far away to catch Thomas once he makes his move. He ultimately blows by Snell for an and-one finish at the rim.
Thomas’s grasp of Stevens up-tempo offense (as well as the Marcus Smart injury) has led to him winning the starting point guard position. He now averages a career-high 21 points per game on a career high 16 shots a game. Over his first five seasons Thomas has been searching for a team to call his own, and in his sixth season he has finally found a coach who has handed over the reins.
The primary factor in the Celtics transition to an Eastern Conference powerhouse is simple: the mindset of the players.
“Coachability” is a term thrown around often in basketball circles, and it refers to the ability of athletes to absorb coaching. Some players are hard to coach because you absolutely have to connect with them (i.e. DeMarcus Cousins, Russell Westbrook), and others take heed to the coaches’ instructions because they are wired to do so (Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder [pictured above]). These are the players who usually improve dramatically several seasons into their careers.
Crowder was known as a defensive stopper but got to Boston and received a bigger role in the offense. His first four seasons in the league he never shot more than three three-point shots per game. In his (current) fifth season Stevens is allowing Crowder take close to five threes a game. He has clearly put work into his jump shot and is shooting a career-high 36% from downtown.
But players have improved on the other side of the ball as well. Jared Sullinger is a promising power forward who has tried to extend his shooting range to the three-point line with mixed results so far (28% from three, but still brings opposing forwards outside the paint). But his main weaknesses have been his conditioning and his defense.
And while he has not cracked 30 minutes per game in a season yet (more because of roster depth than fitness this year) he has actually improved quite a bit on the defensive end. He is currently fouling less than he ever has, and his career-best 96 defensive rating is indicative of his improvement in using his body to deny low post position for opposing bigs.
But it doesn’t stop there. Avery Bradley seems to be finally catching his offense up to stellar defense. He is averaging a career-high 16 points per game and 41% from three. Stevens presence has helped every player on the Celtics roster gain some confidence, and improve on their weaknesses.
But what Stevens is showing is that consistency is what builds championship contenders. His team had a roster that definitely had the ability to play fast, but he has tutored them so that on top of playing at a high-speed, they continue to make good decisions.
This team is a clinic in ball-movement and defense every night, and with the potential for multiple first-round draft picks next year, the Boston Celtics return to legitimate title-contender may come to a conclusion sooner than the basketball world expected.
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