As Bill Belichick likes to say “You are what your record says you are”. The Boston Celtics are currently 25-18 and fifth in the Eastern Conference. In the multitude of truths he dropped following the Celtics loss to the Orlando Magic, Kyrie Irving said “I’m not happy with being fifth. That’s what I’m focused on.”
To go back to Belichick, this is what Boston is. Right now. The season is far from over. The Celtics just entered the second half of their regular season schedule. The first half didn’t go the way anyone wanted or how anyone expected. The funny thing about expectations and predictions is that they are essentially useless once the ball is tipped on opening night.
Was Boston ever going to win 67 games, as prominent Celtics fan Bill Simmons predicted? Probably not. Did you know that only 13 NBA teams have ever won as many as 67 games? (The 1947 Washington Capitols won at a 67-win pace too, but there were only 60 games that season). The Golden State Warriors winning 67, 73 and 67 games over a three-year period makes it seem like ripping off 67 wins is eminently doable, when it’s actually a historic feat.
Is Boston going to win even 60 games, a still great, but far more reasonable accomplishment? Probably not. They’d have to go 35-4 over their final 39 games to get there. What about 50 games? That’s a 25-14 close to the season? That’s actually pretty reasonable, and essentially the pace the team is on.
But this season isn’t about regular season wins anymore. As Irving said, it’s about position and seeding. The Celtics need to be focused on climbing as high in the East standings as possible. That means winning games, so, of course, the overall win total will climb. But it’s more about taking advantage of the remaining games against Philadelphia, Indiana, Milwaukee and Toronto, who are, in order, the teams Boston needs to leapfrog in the standings.
Of their 40 remaining games, the Celtics have seven games left against the five teams they are chasing:
· Philadelphia – 2 games (both away)
· Indiana – 2 games (1 home, 1 away)
· Milwaukee – 1 game (away)
· Toronto – 2 games (1 home, 1 away)
Sure, Boston trails Philadelphia by two games and Indiana by three, but there is a reason FiveThirtyEight still projects the Celtics to finish third in the Eastern Conference with a record of 53-29. The reason? Boston is already pretty good, despite being disappointing, and they should only get better. But how do they get better? That’s the question everyone is asking. Unfortunately, there is no one answer. There are a lot of answers. Let’s try and get to some of them here.
When the Celtics roster is fully healthy, which it should be in a week or so when Aron Baynes returns, Brad Stevens enters each game with 12 legitimate NBA players. The only guys who are currently fringe players are end-of-bench options Brad Wanamaker, Guerschon Yabusele and the two Two-Way players: P.J. Dozier and R.J. Hunter. Everyone else (excluding Jabari Bird for obvious reasons) has shown enough to be considered an NBA player.
Unfortunately, 12 rotation guys are way too many. Even if you take Robert Williams (because he’s a rookie) and Semi Ojeleye (the least talented/ready of the 12) out of the mix, that leaves 10 guys. That sort of depth is awesome to get through a long NBA regular season. But once you hit the playoffs, you want to know your 8-9 guys. Those are the ones Stevens is giving between 25 and 40 minutes to in the postseason.
Over halfway through the season, Stevens doesn’t know those 8-9 guys. He knows some of them. Irving, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris are all locks. That’s the current starting five and all will feature prominently come the postseason. The other 3-4 guys? The hope is that it would be Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward and Aron Baynes. That leaves Daniel Theis out of the mix, but available when necessary.
And therein lies the rub: that’s the hope, but none of it is certain. 42 games in, we should know by now. Let’s assume Baynes is there. He hasn’t been as good offensively as last year, but he’s still the best center Boston has when they need bulk and strength. He’s a comfortable rotation lock when healthy.
What about Brown, Rozier and Hayward? Each bring their own set of challenges. Let’s start with the easy one in Hayward. He’s still not 100% back. He’s really close. Hayward is back to just playing basketball now. You can tell he’s not thinking/worrying as he drives to the hoop or jumps in traffic for rebounds. But Hayward’s timing is still off. If you’ve ever gone a year without playing basketball, you know you’re a mess for a long time when you try to play again. That’s where Hayward is. He may not be right all season. Paul George said it was a full year of being back before he felt back to normal. Because of their investment in Hayward, the Celtics have no choice but to play through it. Otherwise, he might never get back and then that’s a $30 million albatross on the cap sheet.
As for Brown and Rozier, nothing should be given that isn’t earned. Brown lost his starting job and a large chunk of his minutes because, quite frankly, he was playing terribly. The transition to being the clear fifth option was hard on Brown. He struggled with it and that carried over to his initial games off the bench. Brown went out with an injury and came back a different guy. He seems to be figuring it out. His energy has been great, but he’s also been under control. Brown probably doesn’t get back a starting spot this year, but that’s ok. Boston needs his energy off the bench to give the team a lift when they need one.
Rozier is a different story. There is no other way to put this: his season has been a mess. He’s had a few nice games here and there, particularly when he starts in place of Irving, but they are few and fleeting. Rozier is under 38 percent from the floor and under 35 percent from behind the arc. For reference, both of those numbers are worse than noted bad-shooter Smart. For a score-first player, that type of shooting is simply unacceptable.
Rozier made many think he was a starting-level point guard with his play in last year’s playoffs. In reality, most overlooked the role he was really playing. Sure, Rozier brought the ball up the floor, but most of the offense ran through Horford. Rozier’s increased assists were a product of him having the highest usage rate of his career, not really his overall quality of play.
The harsh reality is that Rozier isn’t really a point guard on offense. He can be one defensively for sure, because he has the ability to be a top-notch defender on that end of the floor. But offensively, he’s a small scoring guard. We’ve seen those guys have incredible value in the NBA, but generally as reserves. But, those shooting percentages have to get up there. Otherwise, Rozier is a lesser version of Jordan Clarkson.
So where does this leave the rotation? Stevens probably needs to have some really tough conversations with some guys. Last year was last year. It was awesome, but it doesn’t matter to where this team is going. If Brown and Rozier aren’t playing well, they should sit. In years past, guys like Phil Pressey and Shane Larkin earned extra minutes simply because they played really hard and made the most of their minutes. It might be time for Ojeleye and Wanamaker to get a chance on those nights when Brown and Rozier aren’t bringing it.
And the bigs beyond Horford and Baynes (Theis, Williams and Yabusele) have to understand that there just aren’t minutes for all of them. Two, if not all three, are going to have to sit most nights. It’s just the reality of the situation. Teams are trending smaller and smaller, especially in the playoffs. Boston has to follow suit.
As it stands, Stevens has six players he can trust: the five starters and Baynes. That’s not what anyone expected at the halfway point of the season. He’s got to find a few more guys who fit best. And before we start “Timelord needs to play!” please note his struggles defensively. We all love Williams’ potential, but he’s just not ready to contribute to a team that hopes to contend for the Finals. He was a mess against Orlando. The Celtics can’t afford to let him learn on the fly. They have too much ground to make up for that.
Stevens can only play the guys he has. As much as I’m sure he’d love to go to Anthony Davis, he’s not a Celtic and won’t be anytime soon, if ever. Some have suggested that Stevens does his best work when he has a limited roster, but one that is full of “try hard” guys. And there may be something to that. But, he doesn’t assemble the roster.
However, Danny Ainge does. And he may be the guy who has to make a change here. Ainge said a trade is unlikely, and that remains true, but he has to at least look. Fans love trades, and Ainge obviously does too, so you can be sure he’s gauging interest in something that moves things forward.
The “Trade Rozier for something awesome” ship has sailed and is long gone over the horizon. He may get a big offer as a restricted free agent this summer that Boston can’t match, but that’s because a handful of teams need point guards and NBA teams with cap space continually do really stupid things. At any rate, it looks like Rozier’s time in Boston has a clock that is ticking down. It might be best for Ainge to trade him, even if it looks like the Celtics don’t return as much value. One, they’re likely to lose Rozier for nothing this summer anyway.
Two, this isn’t about talent anymore, Boston has enough of that. This is about fit. It’s about someone who is happy to take the 15-16 minutes per game that are available behind Irving and play a role. Rozier seems unwilling, or unable, to adapt to that. And that’s not really on him necessarily. He was a starter on a team that got within a game of the Finals. He’s looking for the first big contract of his career. It’s all well and good to say “He should sacrifice for the greater good”, but he’s got to look out for his career too. NBA teams, Boston especially, are ruthless about moving on from players. It’s unfair to call Ainge heartless, because he’s not. But he’s going to do what he thinks is best for the Celtics. If he let emotion guide him, Isaiah Thomas would still be in green.
To date, Ainge has shown Rozier a lot of love. He regular talks about Rozier’s potential and how much he’s enjoyed his growth. But it’s probably time for Ainge to let Rozier take the next step somewhere else.
In addition, and this is not Ainge’s or anyone with Boston’s fault, but Jabari Bird is holding a valuable roster spot. There is an upcoming court date that may shed some light on his situation and immediate future in basketball. But the reality is that this is likely to take a while longer to play out. The Celtics are letting the NBA handle it now, and the league is being very careful here. Setting a precedent now could make things far messier for the NBA down the line. Adam Silver is concerned about the league as a whole, and making sure everything is done for the best interest of all his constituents, not just Boston.
But for the Celtics, there has been increasing chatter about adding experience to the roster. Someone who has been in those playoff battles and knows what it takes. It doesn’t even need to necessarily be a contributor on the floor, as Boston already has too many of those guys, but they could use a voice in the locker room. Almost every other contender has a roster spot, or a way to easily open one. Right now, Ainge can’t add that guy. He doesn’t have the roster spot. That makes it imperative that the Celtics press the NBA for a decision or guidance on Bird, sooner rather than later.
The Expectations and Goals
We started this article talking about how you have to throw out the preseason expectations. Just like last year, when Hayward went down five minutes into the season and then Irving’s season ended in March, you have to adjust. No one should still be holding on to thoughts of 60 plus wins. Those times are gone. It’s about positioning for the playoffs as Irving said.
It’s on Ainge and Stevens to do some level of resetting here. The goal remains the same: Get to the NBA Finals. That’s all that really matters. If they win “only” 50 games along the way, whatever. It’s about being ready for the playoffs and playing your best ball when they roll around.
That might mean some tough conversations about the rotation. It might mean some trades to balance the roster. That all comes with some hurt feelings. You may even lose a guy or two along the way. But sometimes less is more. Everyone wants to pile up talent in the NBA, but we’re constantly reminded that fit matters more than anything else. The Warriors have more frontline talent than anyone, but all of their pieces also fit incredibly well. That gets overlooked because of the names. But the games are greater than the names.
Right now, the Celtics are less than the sum of their parts. And that’s probably what hurts most. For years, Stevens had Boston playing as more than the sum of their parts. They made the conference finals in back-to-back years. The first year was one of those “How did this happen?” runs, that featured one of the most fun to root for Celtics teams in years. Last year’s team was right up there in fun factor, because it was so unexpected.
This season, the conference finals weren’t a hope. They were an expectation. And that’s fine. It’s good to have expectations and to hold people accountable. But you have to adjust as you go. And that includes everyone: players, coaches, executives and fans. This isn’t a 60-win team. Who cares anymore? This can still be a Finals team. That expectation hasn’t changed and it shouldn’t change. It’s all still there for the Celtics. They just need to figure out how to get there from here.