It would be an understatement to say the Boston Celtics haven’t exactly met the expectations set for them before the season began. Following the pandemic-shortened 2021 NBA season, the Celtics found themselves with a final record of 36-36 — not good enough to compete with the elite teams in the Eastern Conference, but not bad enough to be among the league’s bottom-feeders. After failing to get over the hump and reach the NBA Finals for the last several years under former general manager Danny Ainge, coach Brad Stevens was promoted to president of basketball operations, replacing Ainge. Subsequently, Ime Udoka was hired to take over head coaching duties. Udoka has acted as an assistant coach for many winning teams over the past decade, often being cited as a “player’s coach.”
Thus, Boston embarked on what was an eventful offseason in hopes of finally surrounding stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown with enough talent to compete for an NBA title. Among the many moves the team made, the Celtics shipped former All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, who was viewed as a problem on the roster, along with their 2021 first-round pick for fan-favorite Al Horford and Moses Brown. They then flipped Brown for wing Josh Richardson — a solid addition, but still not an elite offensive threat. In free agency, the Celtics elected to let free agent Evan Fournier walk to the Knicks and took a flier by signing guard Dennis Schröder to a one year contract. At the offseason’s conclusion, Boston seemed poised to make another run for the top of the Eastern Conference.
Thirteen weeks into the 2021-22 campaign and the Celtics are again hovering around .500 with a 23-22 record after 45 games. They’ve yet to win more than three games in a row, and are actually above .500 for the first time this season since Dec. 7. However, after watching a number of Celtics games this season, it’s become clear this team has a number of flaws — many of which can be traced back to the moves Brad Stevens and company made in his first offseason as a general manager — which must be addressed if there are hopes to chase an NBA championship in the near future.
For starters, the Celtics are a team that, quite frankly, lacks an identity. Jayson Tatum is supposedly the team’s superstar, but he has encountered many stretches throughout the season where his shooting percentage has dropped drastically, indicating he seemingly cannot consistently operate this Boston offense at an elite level. Jaylen Brown is a freak athlete and can drop 30 points on a team at will, but he simply has no feel for passing the ball, always seemingly one double-team away from a turnover. Marcus Smart and Dennis Schröder have each seen their share of ups and downs on offense — notably Schröder, who was brought in to offset the offensive performance of the defensive-minded Smart. Most significant, though, has been the fall of Al Horford, who at age 35 began the season firing on all cylinders and seemed to have much still left in the tank. However, Horford seems to have hit a wall, missing more three-point shot attempts than he ever has in his career, while his ratio of three-point attempts to two-point attempts is higher than ever. Despite being the team’s starting power forward, he is a non-factor later in games when the team is in a tight contest.
In addition, the work Brad Stevens has done to build this roster has instead led the team to a dead end. The roster is filled to the brim with ball-dominant players like Tatum and Brown who isolate more than they probably should. Unfortunately, while other teams have ball-dominant superstars surrounded by shooters who can fill the perimeter, the Celtics only boast players who want to isolate and drive to the rim or pull up for three. They lack the Kyle Korver or Duncan Robinson-type of player who is only relied on to shoot threes and can convert threes at an elite rate. Instead, the Celtics have an unequal balance of playmakers who don’t create for others. A few moves at the trade deadline could help in that regard, but even then it’s easy to be skeptical when stars Tatum and Brown are combining to average an abysmal 3.35 assists over an average of over 35 minutes per game between the two.
Lastly is the Celtics’ inability to begin and close out games. It seems odd that a team could be underwhelming in both starting and finishing games, the Celtics are that team this year. Too many losses have come when the Celtics dug themselves into a deep hole by the end of the first half and lost by only a couple of points, leaving one wondering, “What if they could only start the game in a semi-decent manner?” Then, and perhaps most embarrassing for Celtics fans, are the games where the opposite occurs and they build a massive lead, just to blow it in the fourth quarter. This Celtics team severely lacks a closer, a guy who can put the game out of reach of the opponent. When you’re playing the Bulls at home and leading by 14 points heading into the fourth quarter, you can’t get outscored 39-11 in the final frame and lose. You can’t be up 15 points over the Bucks going into the half on Christmas Day just to give up 70 points in the second half and lose. You can’t be up 15 against the Knicks at the half just to lose to an R.J. Barrett Hail Mary for three. Maybe it’s the coach, or maybe it’s the players, but one thing is for certain: NBA teams simply don’t let those games get out of hand, but the Celtics seem to make it a tradition.
The Celtics appear to be a lost cause this season, despite their winning record. My solution: it’s time for Brad Stevens to blow up this roster. The team isn’t going anywhere with Marcus Smart, Dennis Schröder or Al Horford. If there is a way to keep Tatum and Brown on board and build a championship team, that would be preferred. But after years and years of almost getting to the finals, I just need a team that can finally compete and get there.