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NBA Analyst, and former Celtic, Kevin McHale called the 2016-17 Celtics team "the little engine that could." Kevin suggested that the Celts overachieved, in part, because of the bulldog defense provided by Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder. Kind of hard to argue with that. Those two starters played big minutes and and were counted on to hound key opposing players.

Boston, we have a rebounding problem. We finished last season rated 26th (tied with Indiana) in total rebounds/game. Al Horford was our top rebounder at 6.8/game. The next four best rebounders are gone. That would be, in order of production, Crowder (6.4), Bradley (5.8), Kelly Olynyk (4.8) and Amir Johnson (4.6). Those four former Celts grabbed roughly half of the Celts boards. We finish 26th and lose our second, third, fourth and fifth best board crashers. You see the issue.

For defensive rating last season, Boston came in 12th, with the San Antonio Spurs leading the pack. They never go away, do they? Other potential playoff foes ahead of us in defensive rating include Golden State, Toronto and Oklahoma City. Now we start to see what McHale was talking about. Coming in 26th in rebounding and 12th in defense, what were we doing in the Eastern Conference Finals? Maybe it was the offense. Isaiah Thomas helped immeasurably there. Oh, but he's gone, too. The Celtics were rated by ESPN eighth in offensive efficiency last season. If we were the little engine that could last season, can we be the little engine that will this season?

It starts with rebounding. The boards were fairly well spread out among the starting five and the sixth man. That will most likely be the case this season. That number must improve, though. We can't be at the bottom of the pile in rebounds and always expect to go deep in the playoffs. But there is good news. The differential between the rebound leader, Oklahoma City, and the Celtics is only 4.6 rebounds per game. Not that hard to make that up with a more concerted team effort.

As far as defense, I feel strongly that we need Marcus Smart in the starting lineup. We need his bulldog, on-ball defense. One other point I gleaned from the NBATV broadcast featuring McHale and Isiah Thomas. The league is generally in awe of Lebron James. Talk about the Spurs never going away. Neither does The King. If you saw his never-ending session on NBA Media Day, he is cocky as ever, and he always seems to back it up. Personally, I have never seen another player like him. Marcus can do an effective job, if such a thing can be done, on James. Someone else also needs to be able to take on that task. And we can not underestimate the importance of Jae Crowder in Cleveland's scheme.

For our present team, I see no problem with the offense. After some glitches, it should work well. Does Boston have, or can they find, someone who can rip down eight or nine rebounds a game, while providing tough defense and decent offense? I hope so. We are only talking a few more rebounds a game here. But Celtics defense was on Kevin McHale's mind, and it should be. He questioned whether the loss of Bradley and Crowder would be unrepairable.

You don't need size to rebound in the league. Avery (six per game) showed us that. I feel that Semi Ojeleye needs to get significant minutes in training camp and exhibition season. I see it as an experiment in the early part of the season. Here is what Draft Express' Mike Schmitz thinks:

All in all, despite some shortcomings, Ojeleye's mature approach, strength, agility and offensive versatility make him a very intriguing NBA Draft prospect as a small-ball four that can play some three in bigger lineups

At the NBA Combine, Ojeleye came in third in the lane agility test, fifth in max vertical and eighth in 3/4 court sprint. He moves very well. I foresee Ojeleye and Jayson Tatum as two rookies who can contribute immediately, but in different ways. Even at 6'7", Semi can add needed rebounding and he can stretch the floor. He needs work on NBA defense. Jayson would be in there for offense, with his defense coming along as the season progresses.


That's the picture. Kyrie Irving could add a rebound or two per game. He averaged 3.2 last season. His defense will come around. Gordon Hayward rebounded at 5.4 last year, and he may add a bit to that. Marcus Smart at 3.9 RPG can improve, and certainly Al Horford at 6.8 RPG can do the same. The Jay-Team, Jayson and Jaylen, can both rebound the ball.

So are we now the little engine that will? Kevin McHale is skeptical. The 2004 Detroit Pistons did it against a Lakers team featuring Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, and Horace Grant. LA had injuries, but anything can happen in the playoffs. Okay, Kevin, let's see what this little engine can do.

Top photo via Doug Persinger/Getty Images North America
Middle photo via Realimage/Stock Photo
Bottom photo via Tony Gutierrez/AP Photo
Stats via NBA and ESPN

Tom Lane 9/26/2017 11:12:00 AM Edit
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