In the modern NBA shooting has become the game’s most important skill. The league has taken record amounts of three-pointers for more than few years now and players just three feet shorter than the rim are now expected to be able to score from 20 feet away.
In the playoffs shooting takes on an even higher level of importance. Nowhere has that been more important than Boston’s first-round loss to the Atlanta Hawks. They simply did not have enough shooting to win a playoff series.
The playoffs have a way of squeezing the floor and shrinking the geometry of the game. Teams can pack the paint and dare so-so shooters to do something they just spent a whole season struggling to do. That’s exactly what the Hawks did to the Celtics.
In the series deciding Game 6 Atlanta collapsed all five defenders on to every Isaiah Thomas drive, knowing Thomas’ teammates couldn’t hurt them on the kick out.
To his credit Thomas refused to relent and was phenomenal in the Celtics’ Game 3 win, scoring 42 points, but it was clear with each passing possession that he needed more help.
Can the Celtics get enough help for Thomas this summer?
Before the series, the answer to that question was likely a resounding yes, but the playoffs expose flaws in cruel ways. The Celtics had one of the cleanest cap sheets in the league and treasure trove of future assets thanks to their now infamous trade with the Brooklyn Nets. Both of things remain true, but this tough round 1 loss might cloud Boston’s way forward.
For starters, the Celtics need to decide how much of a core they actually have. Yes, there’s Thomas on a fantastically friendly contract. Jae Crowder provides great production on both ends of the court, something incredibly valuable in the modern NBA. But after that the Celtics don’t have a lot. Kelly Olynk might be a rotation player, but Jared Sullinger couldn’t stay on the floor against the Hawks. Avery Bradley can definitely make an impact defensively, but his shooting has never been consistent. Marcus Smart competes harder than almost any player in the league (he singlehandedly swung Game 4), but his lack of shooting was front and center in Boston’s undoing.
What else is there? Terry Rozier looks like a poor man’s Marcus Smart. RJ Hunter clearly struggled to adapt to the pace of the NBA. Neither Jonas Jerebko nor Tyler Zeller is the answer and Amir Johnson, while a great role player, doesn’t provide a enough shooting to play the 4 and can’t protect the rim enough to be a full-time 5. Evan Turner re-discovered his game in Boston at the forefront of bench units, but he is an unrestricted free agent at the best possible time to cash in.
There is some cap space, to be sure. Boston has just over $33 million in guaranteed money next season, but, with the cap severely spiking, this is probably the worst summer for cap space in NBA history.
The Celtics will also have eight draft picks in June, including a 15 percent chance at the No. 1 overall pick. But is there roster space for all of those selections? They can draft-and-stash and trades are probably likely, but still- how much will late first-round selections move the needle?
It may seem a little unfair to be so pessimistic, but the time has come to ask if the Celtics are indeed are on the right timeline. No one Danny Ainge has drafted is a game-changer and Boston has never been able to sell a prized free agent on spending winter in frigid New England.
This offseason will show us just how fair away the Celtics think they are. Will the sustained success of the Warriors and Cavaliers scare Danny Ainge off? Will Ainge simply make a godfather offer for an established star (DeMarcus Cousins and Jimmy Butler come to mind) and try to win right now?