Karthik’s Take: The real reason the Celtics were struggling

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Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, center, drives to the basket against the Chicago Bulls defense during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, April 19, 2021, in Boston. Photos courtesy of Charles Krupa / AP Photo.

**Disclaimer: The Celtics were actively losing consecutive games at this time of writing this article and while they have won many of their recent matchups, the points still stand as the article addresses the reasons why the Celtics have been underperforming as a whole based on their season expectations. Preventive action matters. However, as a Celtics fan, I hope the winning streak continues.  

The Boston Celtics have been the NBA’s biggest question mark this season. On paper, they have been among the most talented teams in recent memory, featuring NBA household names such as Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward at one point, developing bonafide stars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and securing eastern conference finals berths in three of the last four seasons. With the addition of star point guard Kemba Walker, the defensive tenacity of Marcus Smart and the elevated play of Robert Williams and others, the talent on the roster is undeniable. Despite having such premiere talent and the power vacuum LeBron James left behind in his conference departure to join the Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Celtics have failed to reach the NBA finals in over a decade. Consequently, the firestorm of criticism has grown exponentially.  

A few of the most common criticisms are of the coaching of Brad Stevens and executive Danny Ainge’s decision to acquire Walker on a max contract. While both of these assessments have some degree of validity, they don’t address the underlying reasons for the Celtic’s shortcomings. The origin of their issues is in the ideology of the franchise’s management. In other words, the Celtics have to diagnose their root problem and do a cost-benefit analysis on their investments. The Celtics do not play cohesively or have adequate rotational depth as a result of this misguided spending.  

Ideas for the Celtics to consider:  

•Passive investment does not yield results in the NBA   
•Asset diversity promotes greater production and win shares  

In less complicated terms, the first statement simply means that holding draft picks has held the Celtics back from winning in the present. For example, the Los Angeles Lakers only won a championship because they cashed in their draft picks and young players in order to acquire Anthony Davis to pair with LeBron James. While many of those first-round picks and players had promising potential like Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, having all those young players on their team would have stunted their individual player development and extended a rebuilding process that would have wasted the twilight years of James’ prime.  

ESPN GOAT Stephen A. Smith himself has supported the idea that mortgaging first-round picks to elevate one’s status as a playoff contender is effective. He made this statement when questioned about whether the Lakers sacrificed too many picks in order to acquire Pau Gasol in the late 2000s. Prior to this transaction, the Los Angeles Lakers were nothing more than the Kobe Bryant show with little playoff success following their three-peat when Shaquille O’Neal was on the roster. The move proved to Bryant that the Lakers were taking the initiative to compete on a championship level in a loaded Western Conference, encouraging him to stay with the team and ultimately win his fourth and fifth championships. This proclivity to make a big roster adjustment as needed is why the Los Angeles Lakers have won by far the most championships in the NBA’s modern era. While the Lakers have always been known to be a top free-agent destination, the city of Boston has also fostered a winning culture that makes the notion of being a Celtic attractive to players who seriously want to win. The Boston Celtics should seriously consider adopting this no holds barred mentality in regards to funneling their team assets into winning pieces for their championship puzzle. They almost traded for Anthony Davis, Myles Turner and even had a shot of putting together a package for Kawhi Leonard given their tradeable assets. Any of these players would have been a game-changer for the Celtic’s championship-winning prospects. The league is a business and like the economy, winning teams go through boom and bust cycles while ambitiously chasing their bottom line. Mediocrity is never rewarded in the NBA and the Celtics need to make front office moves as serious as their winning aspirations.  

Moreover, winning is not just about having the willingness to spend the money, it’s about maximizing each dollar spent. While basketball is unquestionably a star-driven game, every star needs a fitting supporting cast to capture the elusive Larry O’Brien trophy. Basketball may be trending toward being a position-less game as player versatility rises but there are still key roles that need to be fulfilled on every successful team. The Boston Celtics are talented but do not have someone that can orchestrate that talent into wins. The Celtics need a playmaker.  

While Walker is an extremely talented player, he is a scorer similar to Tatum and Brown. Walker’s size limits his ability to be effective when he is not actively shooting and scoring in volume. Additionally, his reduced shooting percentage this season as a result of injuries has also made his glaring defensive deficiencies more apparent. The Celtics need Walker or another player on the team to raise the efficiency of the team’s two big stars and create opportunities for role players to contribute.  

Boston Celtics’ Kemba Walker (8) shoots against Golden State Warriors’ Damion Lee (1) and Juan Toscano-Anderson (95) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, April 17, 2021, in Boston. Photos courtesy of Michael Dwyer / AP Photo.

The Celtics need a player that makes his teammates better. A statistic that would allow the team to assess what player is up to the task is points generated. Points generated refers to a total of all points created, whether that be from individual scoring or via assists. This statistic is one way to measure direct output in a way that is more tangible than some other advanced metrics. It enables a team to quantify the efficiency of their player investments. Currently, LeBron James leads this statistical category by a landslide among all players ever with 56,682 points generated, an incredible 3779 points ahead of John Stockton who ranks second on this list.  

The player that could solve the Celtic’s problem actually ranks second in points generated among active players with 42,542 points and is far from washed up. He was known as the point god of the 2000s, the catalyst of the Lob City Los Angeles Clippers, a key piece on a Houston Rockets team that nearly upset the Golden State Warriors in their prime, the leader of a young Oklahoma City Thunder to the playoffs when they were projected to have 0.2% odds in doing so and is now the difference-maker on a surging Phoenix Suns team. This player is Chris Paul.  

Paul is the perfect point guard for the Celtics because he is still an offensive threat and a leader that will hold players accountable, creating for his teammates at an elite level. The Phoenix Suns also only gave up Kelly Oubre, Ricky Rubio, Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque and a 2022 first-round pick to acquire him. The difference Paul has made on the Suns has been tremendous because he allows Devin Booker, their primary scoring option, to do what he does best without having to worry about leading the other guys. Therefore, while it pains me to say this because I am a huge fan of Kemba Walker, personally, Chris Paul would have been a much better fit on the Celtics and would have taken them to the finals.  

Hypothetical thought experiment aside, the Boston Celtics have to take this information and use it to implement the necessary changes next season. As for this season, they have to more clearly define player roles. Again, this team has talent and Kemba Walker is a more than capable facilitator, but the team is in dire need of a schematic change. Rather than playing off of each other, the Celtics play a lot of isolation basketball that diminishes the value of players who are not actively shooting at a high percentage. This leadership has to come from coach Brad Stevens. I believe the future is still bright in Boston. Having a young core of budding stars under contract is something other franchises can only dream of having, but the Celtics have to act now to make something of their championship window. As Michael Jordan once said, “talent wins games but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.”  

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Charles Krupa / AP Photo.

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