#CrystalBasketball: Ranking the Boston Celtics for 2017-18

How does every NBA player stack up heading into 2017-18, based solely on the level at which we expect them to play during the upcoming season?

That’s the question 16 NBA Math staff members and contributors sought to answer, ranking each and every player in the sport’s premier league on a 1-to-12 scale and then seeing who emerged with the highest averages. The distant past was irrelevant. Long-term potential doesn’t matter. Only what could come to pass in 2017-18 is factored in, assuming health for those currently healthy and full recoveries from those presently injured. For example, Brandon Knight will still be included in this analysis; we just assumed he’d already completed his rehab for the torn ACL and now has that as a prior portion of his overall injury history.

All players were graded on the following scale by each evaluator, and ties between players with identical averages were broken by sorting the 16 scores from best to worst and propping up the men who had the highest mark at any point in the top-down progression:

  1. Shouldn’t Get Minutes
  2. End-of-Bench Pieces
  3. Depth Pieces
  4. High-End Backups
  5. Low-End Starters
  6. Solid Starters
  7. High-End Starters, Non-All-Stars
  8. All-Star Candidates
  9. All-NBA Candidates, Non-MVP Candidates
  10. Lesser MVP Candidates
  11. MVP Frontrunners
  12. Best Player in the League (only one player could earn this grade on each ballot)

Journey with us team by team as we unveil the entirety of these rankings, culminating in a look at every player set to suit up for the 2017-18 campaign.

Today’s featured squad? The Boston Celtics, whose busy offseason (acquiring Gordon Hayward in free agency; maybe trading Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Ante Zizic to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving) has them hoping to earn the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed for a second consecutive season.

14. Daniel Theis: 1.88

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 25
  • Position: PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 9.7 points, 5.2 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.1 blocks (for Brose Baskets)
  • Highest Grade: 3 (Dan Favale)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

Don’t be surprised if Daniel Theis quickly proves all of us wrong.

He’s already used to playing against a fairly high level of competition, has a 6’9″, 243-pound frame that can give the Celtics some legitimate size off the bench and thrives in three important areas. While playing in the German BBL, he established himself as a threat on the offensive glass who requires constant attention (a different kind of spacing in the mold of Tristan Thompson, if you will), shot 33.3 percent from three-point range (42.3 percent in 2015-16) and excelled as a roll man. All these distinct skills should ease the transition, even if it’s an uphill battle for a consistent role.

13. Abdel Nader: 1.88

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 24
  • Position: SF/PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 21.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.8 blocks, 32.63 TPA (for Maine Red Claws)
  • Highest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

Abdel Nader’s versatility made him one of the G-League’s best rookies in 2016-17, but the NBA is an entirely different beast. He most assuredly won’t replicate his gaudy per-game averages, though he should be able to contribute in myriad ways whenever he gets onto the floor. How often that will be is an important question, though, since the C’s are overflowing with quality small forwards.

Two traits work in Nader’s benefit: He’s a remarkable athlete who can overcome his 6’6″ frame to log minutes at the 4, and head coach Brad Stevens refuses to adhere to conventional positional designations. Don’t be surprised when he gradually earns more run, proving correct the three voters who were already willing to call him a legitimate depth piece.

12. Guerschon Yabusele: 2.13

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 21
  • Position: PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 20.9 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.1 blocks (for Shanghai Dongfang)
  • Highest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (Brian Sampson)

Don’t sleep too hard on this dancing bear. But don’t be fooled by his friendly personality and penchant for celebratory dances, either. He’s far from cuddly. As Jaylen Brown told ESPN.com’s Kevin Wang, “That kid is a freak of nature that I had never seen, somebody so big and so mobile.”

Guerschon Yabusele might have a 6’8″, 270-pound frame, but it often seems loaded with springs. That athleticism could make him a crowd favorite in the TD Garden, but it could also help him become a two-way asset off the bench during his rookie season—and make the Celtics look rather smart for taking him with the No. 16 pick of the 2016 NBA draft. He just has to improve on the defensive end and start crashing the boards with more ferocity while continuing to showcase plenty of skill for a frontcourt player—primarily by hitting cutters with on-target feeds and spacing the floor for his teammates.

10(tie). Shane Larkin: 2.13

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 25
  • Position: PG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 13.8 points, 2.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.2 blocks (for Laboral Kutxa Baskonia)
  • Highest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

After a year overseas, Shane Larkin is back and ready to make good on the upside he showed during the 2015-16 campaign. Lest we forget, he proved he belonged at the NBA level by averaging 7.3 points, 2.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists for the Brooklyn Nets. And before you worry that he was ridiculously inefficient, he actually slashed 44.2/36.1/77.6 while turning the ball over just 1.9 times per contest.

Did Larkin belong in the starting lineup? Definitely not, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. But it’s by no means unreasonable to expect that he might settle in as a depth piece or end-of-rotation body who can give the Celtics quality minutes in a pinch.

10(tie). Semi Ojeleye: 2.13

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 22
  • Position: SF/PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 18.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.4 blocks (for SMU Mustangs)
  • Highest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

A potential red flag for Semi Ojeleye: the inability to make an impact on the defensive end. Though they’re by no means the most-telling metrics at the NBA level, players who fail to block shots and swipe the ball away from foes in college rarely become point-preventing stalwarts at the sport’s highest level. It’s troubling Ojeleye could only average a combined 0.8 defensive stats per game during his final season with SMU.

Then again, his strength and three-point shooting could render those concerns irrelevant. Four different voters viewed him as a legitimate depth piece for the Celtics, and they’ll be correct if he can keep hitting from beyond the arc at a 42.4 percent clip.

9. Aron Baynes: 3.19

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 30
  • Position: C
  • 2016-17 Stats: 4.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 0.2 steals, 0.5 blocks (for Detroit Pistons)
  • Highest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (multiple voters)

Aron Baynes is a behemoth on the interior, and he should help provide the Celtics with exactly what they need out of their frontcourt backups: size, strength and—most importantly—rebounding ability. But since he’s nearly devoid of leaping legitimacy and doesn’t possess much touch anywhere further than a wingspan from the tin, that’s about where his impact will end.

To be fair, Baynes’ skill set does fill a need for Boston. But how often will he get to utilize it when he fouls 5.1 times per 36 minutes? For all the good he does getting opponents into whistle trouble and cleaning the glass, he needs to prove capable of remaining on the court for sustained stretches, especially during the contests in which the Beantown starters are already racking up personal fouls.

8. Terry Rozier: 3.44

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 23
  • Position: PG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 5.5 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.1 blocks, minus-63.68 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)

Fun fact: Boston general manager Danny Ainge was not a part of our voting panel. But you should already have known that, seeing as not a single voter considered Terry Rozier any better than a top-tier backup.

And why would that be any different at this stage of his career? Rozier was an untouchable asset this offseason because of his long-term potential, not because he’s about to break out of a crowded backcourt and explode in 2017-18. He’ll continue to throw up impressive per-minute statistics while showing off his athleticism and defensive intensity, but his work as a playmaker needs to continue trending up before Stevens can trust him with consistently major minutes.

7. Jayson Tatum: 4.19

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 19
  • Position: SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 16.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.1 blocks, 128.29 TPA (for Duke Blue Devils)
  • Highest Grade: 6 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)

Jayson Tatum’s summer-league experience showed exactly why both optimism and more tempered expectations exist as he enters his rookie season. His mid-range shooting assaults, shot-creation and knack for knocking down big buckets wins over so many supporters, but his relative inefficiency and willingness to take less-than-ideal looks will inevitably hold him back until he adjusts to the NBA game.

During six appearances in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, Tatum averaged 18.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.5 assists. He also shot 44.6 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from downtown and 85.2 percent from the charity tripe, thriving most when he attacked the basket and stopped settling for contested jumpers. The NBA itself will obviously provide tougher competition, but this young small forward is well on his way to big things, so long as he keeps making the right adjustments.

6. Jaylen Brown: 4.56

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 20
  • Position: SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 6.6 points, 2.8 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.2 blocks, minus-108.17 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 7 (Dan Favale)
  • Lowest Grade: 3 (Tony East)

Opinions varied drastically on Jaylen Brown, to the point that it’s instructive to show the entire voting breakdown:

  • 7: One voter
  • 6: One voter
  • 5: Five voters
  • 4: Eight voters
  • 3: One voter

Though the consensus seems to be that Brown is somewhere between functioning as a top-end backup and low-level starter, optimism and pessimism both exist. And seeing why they each occur isn’t particularly challenging. For all the hope about his defensive switchability and cutting athleticism in an offense with passing coming from multiple positions, Brown’s inability to hit more than 34.1 percent of his triples as a rookie—and 29.4 percent during his freshman season at California—could make him incompatible with lineups that need spacing from the wings.

5. Marcus Smart: 4.88

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 23
  • Position: PG/SG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 10.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.4 blocks, minus-14.52 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 6 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 3 (Arjun Baradwaj)

Let’s get this out of the way: Marcus Smart is an atrocious shooter who inexplicably refuses to stop lofting up attempts.

He hit only 28.3 percent of his three-point attempts in 2016-17 while taking 4.2 shots per game—the third time in three professional seasons he’s let more than four treys per contest fly. At this point, Smart’s career 29.1 percent clip from deep makes him, rather easily, the worst shooter in NBA history who’s taking more than four attempts per appearance over the course of at least 100 games; Baron Davis and Vernon Maxwell are up next at an even 32 percent apiece.

And yet, all but five voters viewed him as at least a low-level starter.

Smart’s shooting stroke may be broken, but he can still provide substantial value as one of the league’s best backcourt defenders and a deft distributor who typically keeps his turnovers in check. If he could ever learn how to knock down jumpers, he could develop into a bona fide star.

4. Marcus Morris: 5.19

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 28
  • Position: SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 14.0 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks, minus-25.38 TPA (for Detroit Pistons)
  • Highest Grade: 6 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)

Marcus Morris doesn’t put up many glamorous numbers. But per-game statistics are often misleading and can mask a player’s true value. In this small forward’s case, it’s far more important that he’s a versatile contributor who can function in any facet of the game, whether he’s knocking down three-point attempts or dishing the rock to his teammates as they cut toward the hoop.

And on defense, as our Play-Type Profiles show, he’s one of the few players who added value in every defensive type last year:

Something tells me Stevens won’t mind having that kind of flexibility in his lineups.

3. Al Horford: 7.56

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 31
  • Position: C
  • 2016-17 Stats: 14.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.3 blocks, 137.1 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 9 (Dan Favale)
  • Lowest Grade: 6 (Arjun Baradwaj)

Take a guess how many players averaged at least 14 points, six rebounds and five assists during the 2016-17 campaign.

Seriously. Guess.

The answer is seven: James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Al Horford and Nicolas Batum. That’s a star-studded group, which helps show how Horford can have an immense impact even though he doesn’t typically dominate in any one area of the box score. He has legitimate weaknesses (rebounding, for example), but his ability to do all the little things on a consistent basis makes him a fringe All-Star candidate who will seem like a lock for the midseason festivities because he suits up in the overmatched Eastern Conference.

2. Gordon Hayward: 8.19

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 27
  • Position: SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks, 201.66 TPA (for Utah Jazz)
  • Highest Grade: 9 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 7 (Arjun Baradwaj)

What can’t Gordon Hayward do?

With the exception of one voter, the panel universally listed the small forward as either an All-Star or All-NBA candidate. Not only will he enjoy tremendous synergy with Stevens (his former coach at Butler) and the positionless system employed by the Celtics, but he can also contribute in just about every way. Whether he’s serving as a defensive stalwart, cutting to the hoop for an alley-oop finish, asserting himself as a primary playmaker or taking over as a shot-creating scorer, he can make a monumental impact.

Hayward served as one of the league’s most underrated players while he remained with the Utah Jazz. Perhaps he’ll get the attention he deserves after moving across the country in free agency.

1. Kyrie Irving: 8.19

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 25
  • Position: PG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 25.2 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks, 126.52 TPA (for Cleveland Cavaliers)
  • Highest Grade: 10 (Nick Birdsong)
  • Lowest Grade: 7 (multiple voters)

Kyrie Irving should send a thank-you note to his biggest supporter on our voting panel, since the one grade that pegged him as a lesser MVP candidate allowed him to win the tiebreaker over Gordon Hayward and earn top marks on the Celtics. The dynamic point guard boasted a wider spread in the grading process, but his elevated ceiling came through in the clutch, just as he so often seems to do on the biggest stages.

The 25-year-old isn’t a perfect player. Far from it, since he struggles immensely on the defensive end and can sometimes fail to assert himself as a distributor, going for lengthy stretches in which he refuses to call any number but his own. And yet, he’s tremendously valuable because of his ability to break down a defense off the dribble and score from anywhere on the floor. Irving is rather easily the league’s most dangerous player in isolation, and no matter how inefficient that play type may be, having an off-the-bounce scorer is an invaluable asset during tight games and in the playoffs.

Note: At the time of publication, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics were still evaluating Isaiah Thomas and determining whether they’d veto the blockbuster trade. We’re listing Irving as a Celtic because a failure to veto would lead to the current result and him remaining in Boston—a far different situation than needing to confirm the desire to make the trade.

 

Who’s rated too high? Who are we selling short? Join the conversation using #CrystalBasketball on Twitter.

Follow NBA Math on Twitter @NBA_Math and on Facebook.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math or NBA.com.

Many thanks to our entire panel of voters: Andrew BaileyArjun BaradwajNick BirdsongMichael BrockTony EastDan FavaleAdam FromalRyan JarvisJordan McGillisTom RendeBrian SampsonAdam SpinellaEric SpyropolousTim StubbsFrank UrbinaLouis Vicchiollo

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