Every year I force myself to wait 20 games before leaping to conclusions about that year’s team. Sometimes I don’t make it the full 20 games, but I did this year. Obviously you can see trends start to develop even in the first game of the year, but they are all just data points leading you to a larger conclusion.
So with 20 games cataloged and countless data points observed, I’ve come to the conclusion that this team is ...weird. Not JR Smith weird or Meta World Pierce weird. Rather, I think of it as the “I wasn’t expecting that, but ok, sure” kind of weird.
On a macro scale, if you had told me at the start of the season that the Celtics would be just 12-8 after 20 games, I’d have been mildly disappointed. If you had informed me that Al Horford would miss 10 games, Jae Crowder would miss 8, Kelly Olynyk would miss 6, and Marcus Smart would miss 3, it would have nodded my head and accepted the record due to the injuries. Add in the fact that the Celtics are currently 3rd in the East behind only Cleveland and Toronto and I think I would have been quite content.
The Celtics have taken care of most of the teams that they should have. Including Brooklyn (twice), Minnesota, Sacramento and Philly. They lost to some of the top teams in the league, like Golden State, San Antonio, and Cleveland. Against the rest of the teams they are a very average 7-5. Again, not the worst outcome considering their injuries, but not exactly inspiring either. To understand why, you have to dig a little deeper.
Let’s break this up into several preconceived notions we (or at least I) had at the start of the season and check them vs. reality (or at least the stats through 20 games).
Theory: This is a good-to-great defensive team.
Reality: Meh, not so much (yet).
Boston is ranked 18th in defensive rating (105.0). They are just 23rd in steals, snatching just 7.2 per game. They are just 20th in blocked shots with just 4.7 per game.
So a team with Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, and Al Horford is not even in the top half of the league defensively? What gives?
Part of it is that two of those guys missed significant chunks of time this year. Even at full speed the team has had head scratchingly off nights on defense but things are starting to look up. In the last 10 games, the Celtics have a defensive rating of 103.2 which is good for 11th in the league over that stretch. Plus, the team is 7-3 with Al Horford in the lineup. So there’s a good chance that the team could be moving in the right direction defensively and maybe even end up as one of the top defensive teams again.
However, one glaring problem that doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon is...
Theory: This team will struggle with rebounding.
The Celtics are the 4th worst rebounding team in the league - behind only Dallas, Memphis, and ...San Antonio? I guess that shows that good teams can be bad rebounding teams, but it still seems like a concern. Especially when you consider that the Celtics allow the 4th most 2nd chance points to their opponents while San Antonio is 6th best at preventing them.
Losing Sullinger’s 8.3 boards a game hurts, but it goes beyond that. The team wasn’t all that great on the boards as a team last year either. They just don’t have the personnel to excel on the glass. We have “finesse” bigs which forces the guards to need to crash the boards (Avery Bradley currently leads the team with 7.9 per game).
Theory: This is a bad 3 point shooting team.
Reality: Actually they are really pretty good this year.
Last year the team shot and missed a lot of three pointers. The coach simply wanted them to keep shooting them, forcing teams to at least partially adjust which created some spacing. But it was hard at times watching the bricklayers convention.
This year they are still chucking a lot of three’s. In fact, they are shooting them more than ever (30.8 per game, 5th in the league). The big difference thus far is that they are going in more. They rank 10th in the league in 3 point shooting percentage at 36%.
Theory: This team will get a large portion of their offense in transition.
Reality: Actually they thrive in the half court this year.
Last year the Celtics were 6th in fast break points (16.3). This year they are 21st with just 11.3 per game. Despite that, they have an overall offensive ranking of 9th in the league (106.9). They get the 2nd most assists in the NBA (24.4) and they kill on the corner 3’s (2nd in the league at 45.7%).
It seems like the Brad Stevens philosophy on offense is working. They move the ball a lot (2nd most passes) and that ball movement results in a lot of points (4th most catch-and-shoot points).
Theory: This team is still figuring things out after missing key players for much of the season. They’ll still be one of the top 5 or 6 teams in the league when all is said and done.
Reality: We’ll see. I hope so!
I fully admit that I didn’t take the time to really break down the stats with and without Al Horford in the lineup. However, I think it is pretty clear that this is a better team with him playing (you don’t say!). Obviously a healthy Jae Crowder helps a lot too.
With all that said, the Celtics have some issues that can’t be glossed over with a blanket “they were dealing with injuries” statement. Rebounding is a weakness, the defense has been inconsistent, and the depth isn’t as ...um, deep as we hoped.
The combination of Smart, Rozier, and Jerebko hasn’t exactly made up for the departure of Evan Turner, in part because it forces Stevens to rely on smaller lineups that get exposed on defense. Especially since Jaylen Brown is still working through the rookie learning curve.
On the other hand, the passing and shooting is something to be encouraged by. A team with playoff aspirations needs to be able to execute their offense in the half court set and stretch the floor with the 3 point shot. So far so good (though a cold streak by a couple of players could swing those numbers southward pretty quickly).
Things don’t get much easier on the schedule ahead. As Chris Forsberg points out.
Boston's schedule is about to crank into overdrive. The Celtics play nine of their next 14 games on the road, including visits to four of the current top six teams in the West over the next two weeks. A return trip to Cleveland, where Boston lost in early November, looms at the end of the month.
One last one.
Theory: The Celtics are in the 2nd tier of the league. Not a title contender (Cavs, Warriors, Spurs, Clippers), but one of the top teams after that group.
Only time will tell just how good this team is and I’m still of the mindset that we’re one big move away from forcing our way into the top tier discussion. But even without a fireworks move, this team can do some pretty great things and keep building for the future. Let’s see how the next 62 games play out.