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Coach's Corner: Celtics' Open Offensive System, LeBron's Lab, Malik Rose

Beware of Boston

The Boston Celtics' roster is a strange collection of flawed vets, solid but unspectacular young players and Rajon Rondo. On paper, it makes the team seem destined for mid-lottery obscurity. But the preseason has offered glimpses that this Boston team has the potential to be more competitive than originally expected.

Brad Stevens has crafted an open offensive system that has maximized the skill sets of this eclectic group of players. The young starting frontcourt of Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger -- two inside-outside threats that can both draw opposing frontcourt players out of the paint and take advantage of weaker defenders on the block -- are vital components. Having two bigs on the floor at the same time with the ability to knock down shots from beyond the arc is a rarity in a league where some teams don’t even have a single one in their projected rotation (looking at you, Lakers). It allows Stevens and the Celtics to maximize their spacing; and space is the most valuable commodity in basketball.

Sullinger’s improvement as a shooter -- the young big man has shot 14-of-26 from 3 this preseason after a woeful 26.9 percent last year -- is what should really drive the optimism in Boston. Without an effective 3-point shot, Sullinger seemed like a young player without an impact skill. If this preseason form holds up, the ability to operate from beyond the arc will make Sullinger a valuable commodity when it comes to team offense. No longer will he be just a wide body limited to occasionally bullying smaller defenders in the post.

His improvement mirrors the general emphasis on the shot for the Celtics under Stevens. Boston has been particularly aggressive about hunting shots from deep early in transition. Anyone from Olynyk to rookie Marcus Smart has been given the green light to launch open 3’s if they can find a good look before the defense is set. Given that Sullinger, Olynyk and Avery Bradley, three of Boston’s five projected starters, have combined to shoot 53.2 percent on 77 attempts from behind the arc thus far, this seems like a wise decision.

Now that doesn’t mean the Celtics are blindly rushing up the court shooting 3’s. Thanks in part to Evan Turner’s new role as a playmaking point guard in the absence Rondo, the team’s halfcourt ball movement has been almost Spurs-ian at times -- pinging across the interior and around the perimeter until it finds an open shooter. Turner’s numbers aren’t very impressive, and it’s hard to tell if he’s changed much from the player he was in previous stops, but Boston needs someone willing to take advantage of their newfound space with dribble penetration. Until Smart gets a better feel for the NBA game, Turner is best suited for that role.

An interesting development to keep an eye on, however, will be how Boston handles the acquisition of Will Bynum. As of now, it seems as though Bynum -- acquired this past week from the Pistons in exchange for Joel Anthony despite missing most of the preseason with a hamstring injury -- is set to be waived due to roster restrictions. But two seasons ago in Detroit, Bynum played in a lineup that had a similar offensive set up as Boston’s does now and enjoyed a career year, along with posting a very respectable PER of 16.62. If Boston was truly trying to be the best team they can be (and not utilize roster spots in order to develop young, fringe players like Phil Pressey), Danny Ainge should be working hard to find a place for Bynum on this roster. If Ainge does keep the veteran guard around to claim a place in the team’s smart offensive system, it will add even more intrigue to Boston’s season.

LeBron’s Laboratory

Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about NBA preseason basketball is that it’s a time for experimentation for several of the league’s stars. They’ll try some crazy shots, a new move or maybe learn to operate from a different spot on the floor. There’s no downside in doing this, because even epic failures don’t matter much given preseason games are pretty much meaningless in the grand scheme of things -- especially when you’re coming off four straight Finals like James.

Because James is very much a bored basketball savant at this time of year (and sometimes during the regular season), he seems to entertain himself by attempting random, high-degree-of-difficulty shots just to see if he can pull them off. Take this one from the Indiana game Wednesday night.

It didn’t make any highlight reels of note, but it was probably one of the most insane shots of a game where he attempted a Dirk fadeaway, a 10-foot running left handed floater, a skyhook and a crazy spin finish layup where he switched the ball from his left to right hand in midair (that last one did make highlight reels). At first glance, it may not seem too much out of the ordinary, but let’s break down what happens in this sequence to get the full effect:

As James drives into the paint, he executes a pullover; ripping the ball way over the head of 6’5” Rodney Stuckey as the Pacer wing swipes at the ball from his help position

- James bounds into the lane while manipulating the ball away from Stuckey, gets a slight bump from a second Indiana defender and still somehow completely stops his momentum by decelerating onto his right leg. This is not an easy thing to do.

- To top it off, LeBron then holds himself for a beat on his coiled right leg, then without his left foot ever touching the ground, pushes back into a fadeaway and drains the shot

There’s a good chance that referee Kipp Kissinger didn’t give him the continuation for an “And 1” because he simply had no idea what to make of what he was seeing.

More Fallout From the Sixers Shameless Tanking

Scrolling through games on NBA League Pass is a total crapshoot when it comes to announcers. The spread ranges from total homers, former greats that don’t make much of an effort to be prepared and the occasional insightful duo. Unfortunately for basketball fans, one of the best in the business -- Philadelphia’s Malik Rose -- is stuck calling games for a team no one will want to watch.

Rose can relate to both the casual fan and hardcore hoops junkie with his spot-on analysis.  Whether it’s explaining how the bench can help with defensive communication or what should happen when a team rotates out of defending pick-and-rolls near the sideline, Rose is a rare commentator that actually makes the viewer feel like he or she has actually learned something while watching the broadcast. Rose simply has a knack for helping fans understand and appreciate the nuances of the game. It’s unfortunate that no one outside of loyal Sixer fans (or people with a serious case of basketball schadenfreude) will have much incentive to tune in and experience it.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Atlantic Division

Our series on candidates for internal improvement on each team in the NBA continues with the Atlantic Division, which features a lot of major media markets with huge fanbases who have had to sit through some pretty substandard play in recent years. In the last two years, the front offices in Toronto, New York and Philadelphia have turned over while Boston began a major rebuilding effort, so the level of basketball should improve ... eventually.

If there’s any hope for this division in the near future, it comes from the Raptors, the poster boys for the benefits of internal improvement. They went from 34 wins to 48 wins without making any major additions in the off-season. After dumping some underperforming veterans, they had a good young player at each position - Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas - and they all got better at the same time.

The group was better than the sum of their parts, as they didn’t have a weak link on either side of the ball and their combination of skill, length and athleticism at every position gave their opponents fits. Lowry and Johnson pretty much are who they are, but the ages of DeRozan (24), Ross (23) and Valanciunas (22) means they should have more room to grow over the next few seasons. That’s how you get better if you can’t bring in any marquee free agents. 

The future is murkier for the other four teams in the division, who have taken radically different approaches to team-building in the last few seasons. The Knicks and the Nets have gone full YOLO with decidedly mixed results while the Celtics have accumulated assets in the hopes of flipping them into stars and the 76ers have taken the slash-and-burn philosophy to its logical conclusion. It may take a few more seasons for it all to sort out in the wash.

- Toronto Raptors: Terrence Ross

After spending most of his rookie season on the bench, Ross was inserted into the starting line-up after the Rudy Gay trade, where he became one of the catalysts for the Raptors' surprising turnaround. He didn’t have a huge role in the offense, but he played his role well - stretching the floor, moving the ball and playing solid defense. While he wasn’t asked to do too much, there were flashes of real talent. Not many fifth options can score 51 points in a game.

At 6’6, 200 with elite athleticism, shooting and ball-handling ability, Ross has all the tools to be a big-time shooting guard in the NBA. With Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan still dominating the ball on the perimeter, he may not get many more opportunities this season, but he should be in a better position to capitalize on them. If Ross can make a leap similar to the one Klay Thompson made in his third season in the league, Toronto has a chance to surprise people again.

- Brooklyn Nets: Mason Plumlee 

Mike Krzyzewski surprised many people when he pegged his former college player for a spot on Team USA this summer. While Plumlee didn’t have a big role on the team, the experience should provide him with a lot of confidence as he enters his second season in the league. At 24, Plumlee is almost a fully-formed product, an extremely athletic big man who can crash the boards, run the floor and provide a nifty skill-set around the basket for the Nets.

He was extremely productive as a rookie and there’s no reason to think he couldn’t be even better as a second-year player. The question is how many minutes will be available for him behind Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett. While Brooklyn is committed to starting both 7’0 at the moment, KG is clearly better as a C than a PF at this stage in his career. Either way, with so few young players on the roster, Plumlee will have a big role in their future.

- New York Knicks: Iman Shumpert 

This is a make-or-break season for Shumpert, who saw his offensive numbers decline and his role get smaller in each of the last two seasons. The question is whether his development was short-circuited by an ACL injury or whether he is best suited for a role as a defensive specialist. He’ll need to figure out an answer quickly, as he is playing for a contract extension for an entirely new coaching staff and front office that has no real ties to him.

Shumpert clearly has talent - at 6’5 210, he’s an extremely athletic guard who can stretch the floor and he ran point in college. Even if he’s still primarily used as a spot-up shooter who attacks close-outs, he could be the best two-way player on their roster. He could be one of biggest beneficiaries of a more free-flowing offensive attack under Derek Fisher, as he was mostly reduced to being a spectator in the Knicks more isolation-heavy approach in recent years.

- Boston Celtics: Tyler Zeller

While Zeller is a new acquisition, he is a good example of the type of young player whose improvement in his third season in the NBA could pay dividends for his team. With Cleveland fully committed to an ultimately doomed push towards a playoff spot, there wasn’t room for Zeller to get much playing time, especially after they acquired Spencer Hawes at the trade deadline. Nevertheless, he was productive in his limited time on the floor last season.

At 7’0 250, Zeller is a big body who packs a good amount of skill on his frame. He can play out of the high post and the low post and he has flashed the ability to knock down mid-range shots and facilitate offense. While he will never be a great shot-blocker, if he can establish himself as a legitimate defensive anchor in the post, he could secure a long-term starting position in Boston. After two years of waiting his turn, he’s got the chance to show what he can do.

- Philadelphia 76ers: Michael Carter-Williams

When Carter-Williams was healthy and playing with Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes, the 76ers looked an actual legitimate NBA team last season. With all three of those guys gone, it’s going to be a very long year in Philadelphia, one measured more by player development than wins and losses. If MCW doesn’t let all the losing get to him, it could be the perfect opportunity for the second-year PG to expand his game and develop as a player.

At 6’6 185, he has a decided physical advantage on almost every PG in the league. He is really big and really fast and he is a handful for almost any perimeter defender. He can get to the rim, draw fouls and create easy shots for his teammates - if he can force people to respect his outside shot, he is pretty much unguardable. If he can gradually improve his decision-making over the next few seasons, both as a shooter and a playmaker, the sky is the limit.

Grading The Deal: Celtics Capitalize In Three-Team Deal With Cavs, Nets

The Cleveland Cavaliers wanted to create cap space to facilitate a max offer for LeBron James and the Brooklyn Nets had been targeting Jarrett Jack for months, creating the framework for a trade that needed a third team.

The Boston Celtics were more than happy to grease the wheels, adding to an abundance of long-term assets in the process.

Cleveland will trade Jarrett Jack and Sergey Karasev to Brooklyn and Tyler Zeller and a protected first-round pick in 2016 to Boston, shedding approximately $9.5 million in salary.  The trade helps give the Cavaliers $21.7 million in cap space, spurring speculation that LeBron could return to his home state and the franchise that made him the first overall pick in 2003.

The Cavaliers will also acquire the draft rights to Edin Bavcic and Ilkan Karaman from the Nets. While the Cavaliers are the principal team in the deal, Boston will also acquire Marcus Thornton from Brooklyn to complete the trade.

The Celtics will reportedly surrender a future second-round selection, but is unlikely to be conveyed since it is top-55 protected.

Brooklyn needed help in the backcourt after Shaun Livingston signed with the Golden State Warriors as a free agent. The Nets and Cavaliers reportedly discussed Jack last February before Brooklyn acquired Thornton from the Sacramento Kings.

Danny Ainge and Mike Zarren are able to add a pair of assets in Zeller and a first-round pick for the cost of Thornton’s expiring $8.5 million contract. Boston has so many future draft picks that parting with a second-rounder was an easy decision.

The Celtics were able to take on the salaries of Zeller and Thornton thanks to the $10.3 million trade exception they acquired from the Nets last offseason in the Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett deal. It might be a good idea for Mikhail Prokhorov to bar Billy King from negotiating with Ainge in the future.

Zeller gives Brad Stevens a much-needed big body and the 24-year-old could still develop into something more than he was in Cleveland, but he’ll never be the rim protector that Boston is lacking. At his price point and experience, he should be a nice option off the bench.

He averaged just 15 minutes and 4.1 attempts in 2013-14, but Zeller shot 53.8% from the field and his Total Rebound Percentage (15.1%) ranked third among Cleveland’s regulars. His per 36 numbers last season were solid -- 13.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks.

Thornton, who will play for his fourth team since he was drafted 43rd overall in 2009, will provide scoring and not much else for the Celtics. He has averaged 13.4 points per game in his career, but never shot better than 45.1% over the course of a full season. His shooting percentages have all trended downward over the last three years, including a career-low 39.4% in 2013-14.

Primarily the top scorer off the bench throughout his career, which had included 126 starts (341 games), Thornton tends to use up several possessions while rarely finding teammates in position to score. He’s a better shooter, but in many ways he will be Jordan Crawford 2.0.

As you might expect, Cleveland’s 2016 first-round pick is the biggest part of this deal from Boston’s perspective. The selection is reportedly top-10 protected for three years until it becomes completely unprotected in 2019. With Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins (or Kevin Love) and possibility LeBron in the fold, the Celtics should except to receive the pick in the first possible draft.

Grade for the Celtics: A-

It’s hard to assume what else the Celtics could have done with the $10.3 million trade exception, but receiving what they did is a very nice haul. Adding a seven-footer to your rotation and a first-round pick is an obvious win, but Thornton’s expiring deal brings other options as well.

A playoff contender might be interested in acquiring Thornton, who would be due just a portion of his $8.5 million salary, at midseason to bolster their bench.

I mentioned Love above in regards to the Cavaliers, but Ainge is still believed to be in the hunt to acquire the All-Star from the Minnesota Timberwolves. An additional pick in the debt column should help Boston’s cause if they do engage in serious talks with Minnesota.

Here is the breakdown of the first-round picks the Celtics have through 2018:

2015: Own, Clippers, 76ers 15-30 (via Heat)

2016: Own, Nets

2017: Own or Nets, whichever is better

2018: Own, Nets

The Celtics have a ton of tools to execute a successful rebuild, but will have to find the perfect combination of using picks and dealing them for established talent over the next four years.

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Summer League Player Evaluation: Kelly Olynyk

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Ray Allen's Choice

Only Ray Allen can tell you what he really felt about the way he was treated after deciding to leave the Celtics, but none of that really matters. Heís four wins away from his second NBA title and his decision to join the Heat has been validated. That, however, wasnít what this was all about.

2013 NBA Amnesty Primer

One fun component of the Amnesty rule is that we know exactly which players are eligible for it and that number can only decrease over time since the players had to have been under contract with the same team before the new CBA.

Celtics Pushed To Brink With Poor Performance In Game 3

Now, the Celtics, who many felt no one wanted to face in the first round, are a loss away from a sweep. Before long, the questions surrounding the team will have a much farther reach than just the scope of a poor playoff series.

Knicks Protect Homecourt With Second Half Defense

The Knicks allowed only 25 points in the second half of Game 1, only to allow 23 points in the second half of Game 2. New Yorkís second half performance in Game 2 set a new franchise playoff record for the fewest points allowed in a half.

Celtics Rested, Ready To Go

The Celtics, old as they may be, are still capable of playing good basketball, that we know, but will they have enough in the tank to compete for another title? Rested and healthy, the Celtics are confident that a deep playoff run is not only possible, it's probable.

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