The Boston Celtics have not been the championship contender they have been expected to be thus far this season. With a record of 17-17, they find themselves as the fifth seed in a top heavy eastern conference. Celtics executive Danny Ainge himself has been vocal about his dissatisfaction with the team’s play but is it time to sound the alarms? Is there hope for the Celtics team as presently constructed or does something big need to change?
Dylan: The Celtics have started out incredibly underwhelming this season, despite the career year from Jaylen Brown. With the team hanging in the middle of a top heavy Eastern Conference halfway through the year, I believe that we are seeing what the Celtics will be for the rest of this year, and not just a midseason slump.
To start, the play of Kemba Walker is crucial to the Celtics success this season, and thus far he has not been anywhere close to effective with the ball. On the season he is averaging 18.1 points per game, while shooting 38.7% from the field and 35.7% from three. He has struggled as of late on both ends of the floor, he cannot be counted on to move the ball either as he has never been a facilitator and despite being surrounded by two all-stars is only averaging four assists per game this year. On the topic of moving the ball, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker are tied for the team’s assists leaders per game this season, with only 4.4 a game. While I know it takes a lot of practice to perfect good team ball movement, the lack of passing on this team is unbelievable at times, especially when Tatum, Brown or Walker run into double teams while driving to the rim. This offense relies heavily on the success of Tatum and Brown, and when either of them have a bad night, you can almost certainly mark that game as a loss.
The superstars won’t pass because they can’t trust their rotational players, and for good reason — this team has very little talent outside of its top five. Only Payton Pritchard and Robert Williams seem even capable of performing like good bench players as of late; everyone else just runs to the corners and sets screens hoping that they get blessed with a pass. General Manager Danny Ainge has hit on some of his picks, but since drafting Jayson Tatum, he has not been able to find a good draft pick to fill a role in his rotation. His free agent signings this offseason have not shown much either this year, with Jeff Teague being a complete non-factor, and Tristan Thompson playing worse than expected. With dwindling assets for trades, and the recent history of Ainge against the midseason trade deadline, it is unlikely that he will make a move worthy of lifting the Celtics into the top half of the Conference.
Finally, the defense has been porous lately, with superstars continuing to drop 30 and 40 point bombs on them night after night. Guards dominate Walker and Brown, making buckets at will, and big men like Somontas Sabonis on the Pacers, Nikola Jokic on the Nuggets and Joel Embiid on the 76ers have their way with the Celtics big men in the paint. Marcus Smart’s eventual return will help with this problem, but it cannot and will not be the only solution. The stars and rotational players alike need to give more effort on that side of the ball. Otherwise they will have to continue to ride Tatum and Brown’s offense late in games which have been inconsistent as of late.
Karthik: This is an interesting point counter because Dylan and I are both Celtics fans. Any Celtics fan should be concerned about how the team has fared thus far but to sound the alarms is another question altogether. The Celtic’s lackluster showing this season can be attributed to injuries, players contracting COVID-19 and a lack of team chemistry. Fortunately, all of these things are temporary and can be fixed through time and increased game exposure.
At the time of writing this article, in just 34 games played, ten different Celtics players have already missed extended games. This list includes Jayson Tatum, Jalen Brown, Kemba Walker, Daniel Theis, Semi Ojeleye, Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, Grant Williams, Tristan Thompson and Tremont Waters. This has affected team chemistry, continuity and the ability of Brad Stevens to coordinate plays in pivotal game situations.
Celtics star Jayson Tatum has even said contracting COVID-19 has continued to hinder his play even after being cleared to play again. He said that “I think it messes with your breathing a little bit,” Tatum said, according to CLNS Media. “I have experienced some games where, I don’t want to say struggling to breathe, but you know, you get fatigued a lot quicker than normal.” Tatum went on to say that his condition is improving with time and that is the key. The Celtics as a whole will improve with time.
When a top-heavy team like the Celtics gets hit with a wave of injuries to key players, the effects on both offense and defense are magnified. Despite these setbacks, the Celtics are still within two games of the 4th seed. They have pulled off quality wins against the Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers, showing potential to play up to their competition. This trial by fire has also helped young pieces like Robert Williams and Peyton Pritchard develop significantly as contributing pieces that the Celtics can rely upon when the playoffs roll around. Jeff Teague and Tristan Thompson have not been all-stars but that’s not what they came to the Celtics to be. Teague has had 14 points in back-to-back games against the Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers and will soon get acclimated into a more stable Brad Stevens offense as lineups become more solidified when players return healthy. Thompson, even while being hampered by injury, has put up his typical career averages and has shored up some serious rebounding deficiencies the Celtics had last season.
In regards to the Celtics bench, while they haven’t been recording big numbers in volume scoring, a product of Brad Stevens playing the starters heavy minutes, they rank fourth in field goal efficiency, shooting 47.2%. The bench also ranks seventh in league three point shooting at 38.5% and fifth in rebounds at eighteen per game. Furthermore, Robert Williams, who should be starting in my opinion, leads the team in blocks despite only playing 15 minutes a game and Grant Williams leads the team in three point percentage. I disagree with Dylan’s premises that there is a lack of talent. Players simply need time to get acquainted with one another because basketball is a team sport.
Let’s not put that much stock into the small sample size of games we have been able to observe thus far where we have not yet seen the Celtics roster be healthy together for significant stretches. With that being said, I am a concerned Celtics fan but not an alarmed one.
Dylan: I agree with many of your sentiments, but at the same time I am looking at the same numbers the Celtics are looking at. The bench shoots among the best in the league yes, but they are also widely inconsistent on when they will hit shots and against who. If the bench does shoot this well, then I would like to see Brad draw up more plays that get the ball into the wide open hands of a shooter than have Tatum be attacked at the rim by two or even three defenders. I know it’s a moot point by now, but I really need to see the ball move much better with this team and not just put the brunt of the offense on a guy who has continued knee injuries — in Jaylen Brown — and another coming off COVID-19 with possible breathing issues.
I also believe that we need to see the defense improve especially against the opposing teams super stars. I understand that they are gifted scorers but Brad Stevens and the team need to come up with and execute a better game plan in order to slow down the league’s best superstars. I’m hoping Marcus Smart makes a much bigger impact than I’m expecting, but I believe that effort and personnel are the keys to good defense, and they appear to have neither right now.
Karthik: I think we agree that the bench needs to play more and that is exactly why the Celtics should not be panicking. They need to play more and use the regular season as a development period for the existing talent on the roster. This is more than doable as well because the Celtics are in no danger of missing the playoffs, nor does seeding even mean as much when playoff games won’t have enough fans to create varying playing atmospheres. The ball movement will improve when the Celtics actually play together. When analyzing historically great passing teams such as the Tim Duncan led San Antonio Spurs, the dynastic Golden State Warriors, the 5 seconds or less Phoenix Suns and more, they all have one quality in common. They all have benefited from having team continuity. That is how guys know where their teammates will be to make crisp anticipatory passes and split second decisions. During Brad Stevens’ coaching tenure thus far, the team has been top ten in passes made in three of his four seasons. He has a history of coaching teams that share the ball which dates back to his days coaching collegiate ball at Butler where he took the team to its first final four in school history.
Lastly, I agree with Dylan that the Celtics have to play better defense but I think with a larger rotation, players getting their conditioning right after returning from injury and COVID-19 woes and more game experience, they will be just fine. Adversity makes a team stronger and I have faith in the Boston Celtics.