It's still early. That's what we need to keep reminding ourselves when a look at the standings finds the Boston Celtics below .500 and a discouraging 12th in the Eastern Conference.
That ranking isn't quite as dismal as it appears, considering they are tied in the loss column with the No. 7 seed Indiana Pacers and have one less loss than several teams ahead of them due to a light schedule to open the season. At this point they are only three losses behind the Conference-leading Cleveland Cavaliers, so it's not as if their slow start has buried them.
It's still early.
In these early stages of the season, the Celtics are still trying to find their identity. Boston has played at the fifth fastest pace (103.0) this season, while also ranking fifth in defensive efficiency (95.3). Are they a run-and-gun team that attempts to turn every contest into a track meet or are they a defensive force that makes their opponents grind out every possession? Maybe they are a bit of both, which would be unusual considering most of the top defensive teams are also among the slowest paced. So far this season the defending champion Golden State Warriors are the only other team that ranks in the top seven in both pace and defensive efficiency.
Coach Brad Stevens is also still tinkering with his rotations. Some of that came out of necessity, when a toe injury to Marcus Smart thrust Isaiah Thomas into his starting spot. Other changes were made based on adjustments to the team's slow start, such as the front court overhaul that saw Jared Sullinger and Amir Johnson replace David Lee and Tyler Zeller in the starting lineup. Lee has improved from a brutal start since his move to the second unit, but Zeller is now barely sniffing the court these days.
The Celtics are one of the league's deepest teams, which both serves as one of their greatest assets and also makes juggling minutes for the rotation a more difficult task. Eventually the rotation will be settled, which should lead to more consistency. This team is still trying to figure out how to mix in so many different players with various skill sets in a way that fits the system Stevens wants to run. The good news is it's still early.
(Eastern Conference team gaining momentum)
Detroit Pistons: 5-3, 4th in the East
Stan Van Gundy's team got off to a blazing 5-1 start that exceeded anyone's wildest expectations. The Pistons have since dropped two straight, but few would have thought this team would be one of the top four in the East at any point in the season.
Detroit's strong start has been carried by the Herculean effort of Andre Drummond. The fourth year center posted ridiculous averages of over 20 points and 20 rebounds through the first six games, which is something that hadn't been done since some guy named Wilt Chamberlain did it in 1970.
Drummond probably won't average a 20/20 all season, but he doesn't have to in order for the Pistons to make a leap this season. Drummond is poised for a career year and this early success for both he and his team is just the beginning.
(Eastern Conference team that is struggling)
Washington Wizards: 3-4, 13th in the East
Three straight losses, including a beat down in Boston, has sent the Wizards plummeting toward the bottom of the conference. That's no reason to panic yet though, considering one of those losses came against an excellent Oklahoma City team while leading scorer Bradley Beal was sidelined with a shoulder injury.
What should be a cause for concern is that Washington has performed well below average on both ends of the court. Their offense is tied with Boston's for 23rd in the league with a 98.2 offensive efficiency, while their defense has been even worse with an efficiency rating of 105.3 that ranks 25th.
John Wall is doing his part as a terror on both sides of the ball, ranking 6th in assists at 8.1 per game and 3rd with 2.43 steals. He's even chipping in 1.86 blocks, which is easily the most among guards.
There is still enough talent on this team for them to turn it around, considering they returned most of the same core that was a top-five defensive team last season. If Washington has any hope of luring Kevin Durant to town this summer, they better hope their existing core performs well enough to entice him.
Draft Pick Watch
(Checking in on the status of teams that potentially owe a 2016 draft pick to the Celtics)
Brooklyn Nets: 1-7, 14th in the East
As if dropping the second meeting with the Pacers in as many chances wasn't bad enough for the Celtics, watching the Nets get their first win of the season in Houston Wednesday night was like being kicked while we were already down.
The good news? It was Brooklyn's first and only win. They are still tied for the second-worst record in the league and have shown little reason to expect that they will finish outside of the bottom-five.
There has been some chatter about the Celtics trading that unprotected Brooklyn pick for an established star like Boogie Cousins. That may merely be a pipe dream, but it bears watching as the season moves along. Unless a trade involving that pick actually happens, Celtics fans will be keeping a watchful eye on the Nets, as that pick gains value with every loss that they pile up.