It seems like the hits keep coming on the injury front for the Boston Celtics. First it was Jaylen Brown suffering a scary fall against the Minnesota Timberwolves and being placed in the concussion protocol. Then, Al Horford got sick and had to miss the game against the Indiana Pacers. That same game also saw three other injuries hit the Celtics. Kyrie Irving left the contest at halftime with knee soreness. Then, late in the game, Boston suffered two long-term injuries, as Daniel Theis suffered a meniscus tear in his left knee and will miss the remainder of the season. In addition to Theis’ injury, Marcus Smart injured his right thumb while diving for a loose ball and is out indefinitely. Reports on the severity of Smart’s injury range from a sprain to a full tear. All of this in addition to Gordon Hayward remaining out, while rehabbing his gruesome leg injury suffered on opening night.
Where does this leave the Celtics? Boston is currently down to just nine fully healthy players. In addition to the six players listed above, Boston is also still dealing with some lingering knee soreness for Shane Larkin, who remains on a minute’s restriction. And it has flown under the radar, since he’s on a two-way contract and has largely spent the season with the Maine Red Claws, but Jabari Bird is also injured as well. Bird has been dealing with a back injury that has kept him sidelined since the end of January.
That leaves Boston with the following healthy players by position, as Brad Stevens classifies them:
Ball handlers: Terry Rozier, Kadeem Allen
Wings: Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris, Abdel Nader
Bigs: Aron Baynes, Greg Monroe, Semi Ojeleye, Guerschon Yabusele
Several of those players, including Tatum, Morris and Ojeleye can, and regularly do, swing between the wing and big position. With Larkin limited to somewhere between 15 and 25 minutes, he helps add depth at the ball handler spot. And Horford should be back sooner rather than later, perhaps as soon as the game vs the Washington Wizards on Wednesday night.
Brown is expected to return at some point next week, and recent reports are that the team is confident Irving isn’t likely to miss much time with this recent bout of knee tendonitis. But even the most ardent optimist would have to agree that it could be really ugly for the remainder of this week, with games against Washington on Wednesday and at the Orlando Magic and New Orleans Pelicans through the weekend.
Which begs the question: Can the Celtics bring in some help to get through this spate of injuries?
The short answer is: no. The longer answer is: maybe, but probably still no.
Let’s cover the short one first. Boston doesn’t have a roster spot to sign a free agent. Sure, they could create one, but that would mean waiving a healthy player, as none of the injured players are candidates to be waived. That doesn’t really solve anything.
What about a call up from Maine in the NBAGL? Boston already called up Kadeem Allen recently, and he’s likely to remain with the club for the foreseeable future. Guerschon Yabusele will likely be brought back to the Celtics as well, as he’ll provide some extra depth up front with Theis out. But can the Celtics call up anyone else? Say a guy like former number one overall pick Anthony Bennett? Or L.J. Peak or Devin Williams, who both camped with Boston?
This is where the longer answers come in. While Bennett, Peak and Williams are playing with the Celtics NBAGL affiliate club in Maine, they aren’t signed to any sort of contract with Boston. Unlike Allen and Bird, who are signed to two-way deals, Bennett, Peak and Williams are all NBA free agents. Outside of two-way player or plays sent down on assignment, all NBAGL players are NBA free agents. This is how teams sign players to 10 Day Contracts that are playing for another team’s NBAGL affiliate. Without an available roster spot, that effectively eliminates that route for the Celtics.
There is one other option that could become potentially available to Boston. When teams are hit particularly hard by injuries, the NBA has a mechanism to allow them to still field a relatively full roster of available players. This is called the Hardship Exemption. What this exemption does is add an additional roster spot (or spots if the team is hit really particularly hard with injuries), and allow the team to exceed the maximum of 15 standard NBA contracts. This exemption has been used extensively in recent years by the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans.
The challenge with the Hardship Exemption is that the team must have at least four players out for a minimum of three games before they can petition the NBA for the exemption. In Boston’s case, they are currently down just three players (Bird doesn’t count, as he is on a two-way contract) in terms of missing games: Brown, Hayward and Horford. And Brown and Horford have only missed one game each. That means until another player out of Irving, Smart and Theis, misses three games and Brown or Horford miss two more games, the Celtics aren’t even eligible to petition for the Hardship Exemption. In addition, as soon as one player is healthy enough to play, the team has to drop back down to the standard roster size.
When you consider that Horford should be back soon, and Brown and Irving shortly thereafter, it is unlikely Boston will ever be eligible for the Hardship Exemption. This means that the Celtics are likely to play it out shorthanded for a bit, and then Stevens will have to re-jigger his rotation some. Maybe Morris and Tatum play more as bigs with Theis down. Larkin will likely have to be a regular rotation player while Smart recovers, with Allen possibly seeing some minutes as well. Maybe Stevens goes deep into the bench and gives regular minutes to Ojeleye, Nader or Yabusele.
A promising season was shaken on opening night with the Hayward injury, but the team bounced back better than could have been reasonably expected. Outside of some relatively standard wear and tear type of injuries, the Celtics have been fortunate since opening night, as far as maladies go. Now with two of their key bench players, in Smart and Theis, out for a while, Boston will have to re-set once again. It’s nothing they haven’t dealt with before this season, but with the playoffs only a month away, it isn’t something the Celtics expected to have to do again. How they bounce back from this round of injuries might ultimately define the rest of the season.