The Boston Celtics have adopted a fast-paced and exciting brand of basketball, and it has helped improve their offensive effeciency. The development has been great and something that has been missing all of last season. However, there is still a very important commodity that the Celtics are missing and that’s a defensive minded center for the long haul. Having a large shot-blocker waiting to devour drives to the basket is the most important factor on the defensive end of the ball and general managers around the NBA are either holding onto what they have for dear life or trying whatever it takes to land one.
Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Dwight Howard and Roy Hibbert are just a few examples of true shot blockers on their respective teams that feed off of their success in the paint. Their presences in the paint puts their opposing offenses in bad situations where they are taking bad outside shots, then magically turn into layups when they are not on the floor.
The current situation of the Celtics’ centers is very similar to last season where they don’t have a true center that can carry the load in the paint defensively to block shots. I know it’s only the middle of December, but the Celtics are giving up a 54.2 shooting percentage in the paint and that’s the 10th worst in the NBA. The issue started last season where the Celtics had Kris Humphries, Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger playing center instead of their natural power forward positions. Nothing too much has changed so far this season as the roles has pretty much stayed the same for the same core.
Kelly Olynyk isn’t an atrocious defensive player, but relying too much on him on the defensive end just isn’t going to work. Olynyk is going to be a special player in this league, but his true strengths are on the offensive end of the floor. As we all know, Olynyk can shoot the three-ball very well and can beat his opponent off the dribble since he was a point guard during his childhood and is now a 7-footer at his current age. Unfortunately, he has very short arms for a 7-footer and that will hinder his chances to block shots regularly. I really see bright things for Olynyk, but unless his arms grew magically, his best game is going to be just on offense.
Tyler Zeller has been making great strides in a Celtics uniform since coming over in the trade from the Cavaliers. Zeller has recently been plugged into the starting lineup and his game is really beginning to take off. Zeller has been a great complementary pick-and-roll piece for Rajon Rondo and has been playing very physical on the defensive end of the floor. Unfortunately, Zeller has been a backup center for most of his young career and isn’t going to play 30-35 minutes per game without getting fatigued towards the end of the game. Zeller isn’t going to be able to defend against guys like Dwight Howard or DeMarcus Cousins in crunch time and that will highly determine if the Celtics come out victorious in the end.
The question is how do the Celtics address the issue? The answer is easier said than done, but Danny Ainge has put himself in a great and similar situation this year as he did last year. He’s still very loaded with draft picks and trade exceptions that he acquired throughout the course of the summer. Here comes another question; What can the Celtics get with what they have? Let’s examine the possibilities.
I wrote a story earlier last month regarding the possible acquisition of Al Horford from the Atlanta Hawks. I’m still in favor of acquiring the 28-year old center, but it could cost the Celtics an arm and a leg. The Hawks are actually the surprise team in the Eastern Conference with a 17-7 record heading into Wednesday night and are not appearing to rebuild anytime soon. There goes that possibility and that’s disappointing.
Maybe Roy Hibbert could land in Celtics green after all? Let’s look at it this way, the Indiana Pacers are just awful. The Pacers have suffered from too many injuries this season and the potential results of those injuries are putting them in the fast lane to the NBA Lottery this summer. The Pacers were a hot mess late last season with chemistry issues and losing games at the worst possible time of the year. The mess started with Roy Hibbert’s lack of production in Indiana and was benched several times. Indiana almost became the laughing stock of the NBA being the #1 seed in the East and almost losing to a 38-44 Hawks team in the first round of the playoffs. Maybe it’s time for a change of scenery for Hibbert and Boston would be a good fit for him. I feel that he will thrive playing in this atmosphere and reuniting with his Georgetown college teammate Jeff Green. Hibbert’s trade possibility to the Celtics in my eyes could happen.
If Hibbert doesn’t work out, there’s another team that has a plethora of centers and are struggling as well. The Denver Nuggets are holding a 10-14 record, but that’s a long road to nowhere in the Western Conference. Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw appears to really like rookie center Jusuf Nurkic, so where does it leave the other centers JaVale McGee and Timofey Mosgov? Simple, trade bait. Both centers are very physical players down in the paint and could be a steal at the trade deadline for the Celtics. The only difficult thing about either candidate is that McGee is owed $12 million this season and next season, is that a risk Ainge is willing to take?
I wouldn’t count on this summers free agent class for centers when the Celtics are already going to have their hands full with extending Rajon Rondo beyond this season and whether or not Jeff Green will exercise his $9.2 million player option for next season. The free agent class is very deep for centers with Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan, Robin Lopez, Tyson Chandler and Omer Asik. Danny Ainge will have to dig really deep into his pockets if he wants to sign one of these centers and at the same time, make room for Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green. Free agency will be out of the question this summer.
And last, but not least, there’s the NBA Draft. The draft class has four really talented centers and we could see their names on the draft boards come April. My personal favorite is Willy Cauley-Stein, who is a junior out of Kentucky. He was eligible to be in the last two drafts, but opted to remain at college to this day. We’ve emphasized experience a lot here at TitleTownTalk last summer and Cauley-Stein would fit the bill for the Celtics. But we don’t exactly know how ready he will be come draft time (or if he stays for his senior season). Remember Fab Melo? I sure have.
And there you have it, the Celtics need someone in the middle as soon as possible and we just don’t know exactly what Danny Ainge has in mind on how he is going to approach this almost two-year long issue. Losing games has been very frustrating recently and we just have to keep in mind that patience has it’s rewards. I’m hoping that whatever Ainge decides to do will solve the long-term center issue for years down the road.