Much discussion has been had on this blog about a wide variety of topics. Much more discussion has been had on a slim variety of repetitive topics. People have been talking about the offseason, chemistry, wins, losses, individual players, the coach, playoff seeding, etc. Like many people on here, I have been thinking about various topics. But things have been so volatile this season that most of the fanposts I have planned lately get put on hold or outright scrapped due to changes in circumstances. For instance, my latest one was a post about adjusting player rotations heading into the playoffs to maximize our team's talent. I was close to posting it, too. Then the Hawks game happened, we got several more injuries to monitor, then we more concerns after the Philly game with Baynes, and now I'm just hoping the team can stay healthy until and throughout the playoffs.
Then it hit me: Health. Our team has struggled to stay healthy all season long. And related to health is actually a profound answer to at least some of our struggles, both directly and indirectly. It was only after that Hawks game that it actually occured to me just how much this has been overlooked. But it goes further than that. The emphases on health made me think about our banged up bigs and how much better the team is with Horford and Baynes than without them. This in turn made me remember something I had brought up before about positions in general.
After some contemplation, I identified three of what I believe are currently the most underrated factors in relation to this team's seemingly disappointing performance over the regular season. While I don't pretend to have all the answers, thinking about these things put this season in a much better perspective for me. So I'm planning to address this with this fanpost. Hopefully, this will provide at least some clarity for this strange season.
Elephant #1 - HEALTH:
So, we entered the year with several key players coming off of season ending injuries. That would be Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. We know that Hayward in particular has struggled partly because of this. This helped contribute to our slow start. Want to know the biggest difference record wise between this season and last season?
Last season, we went on an early 16-1 run. This season, we started .500 record.
How much of that slow start can be contributed to guys like Irving and Hayward coming back? How much of that slow start can be further explained by the adjustment period everyone, especially youngsters like Brown and Tatum, needed to adjust? This is my assertion: Our early health had a snowball effect on this season.
But it extends deeper than just Hayward and guys adjusting. On a lesser level, Daniel Theis was also coming back from season ending injury. It hasn't really been mentioned much. But what has been noticed is just how much Theis has struggled to match up at center this year. Did he have that problem last year? My first reaction was that Theis is undersized, was never super athletic, and always had a deficiency with the true big matchup. But it feels like it is worse this year. Then I recently looked into it and I realized that there is at least the possibility that Theis had his athleticism compromised a bit.
"Theis, who has been struggling with leg injuries since last season, partially tore the plantar fascia in his foot -- an injury that could have been much worse. Theis tore his left meniscus in March and missed the rest of the season."
Has anyone here noticed Theis having less athleticism than before? I haven't noticed it myself. However, I only just realized it was something to pay attention to. I honestly don't know. I'm just asking if Theis could be further compromised by injury. Could this even be a degenerative thing? I'm not knowledgeable enough in medical field to know exactly what the consequences are here. But the idea of a serious injury combined with a bunch of smaller injuries seems like it at least potentially could be based on my limited knowledge. I would greatly appreciate further clarification.
But the injuries continued:
Horford and Baynes have been banged up all year. They are our only true centers, and this Celtics team is noticeably worse when both aren't available to play.
Remember when Jaylen Brown was struggling early in the season? Remember when he was starting to play better for a couple games, but got that injury? Remember how it seemed that most of the fanbase wanted to give up on him? Well, he had this hand injury...
"Jaylen Brown says hand injury has been bothering him for over a month."
You think that may have been a factor in his early struggles?
I could go on and list all the nicks and bruises the team has had over the year. It's probably silly to do that. I'm not here to make excuses. Every team deals with this. But when the injuries we had from last year carry over to a slow start and snowball effect, and when important players are banged up throughout much of the year to create further obstacles, it's easier to understand why the team hasn't performed at a higher capacity. It's definitely an underrated factor to our win total.
Elephant #2 - BIGS:
So this is something I have personally harped on for years. The importance of bigs, and centers in particular, should not be understated. Centers are typically the hardest thing in the NBA to find outside of stars. It has also been the position we have had the hardest time filling in recent years.
When Horford and Baynes are both healthy, this is HUGE for us. They have both been banged up off and on all year. This has impacted our performance. Timelord isn't ready yet. We don't have any true bigs on the roster outside of those names. Daniel Theis is a natural 4 trying to play an undersized NBA 5. It just doesn't work most of the time. Yabusele is usually not any better.
Now I would love to see if we could even get something even decent out of Timelord at C for just 5 or 6 minutes a game. Earlier, I had the idea of starting him with the starters of Kyrie/Smart/Tatum/Morris for 5 minutes at the start of games before subbing Horford. I would also take 5 minutes off the bench. Even playing Theis at the 4 while this happens instead of at the 5 would likely greatly help. This is probably a fantasy, though. I don't know if Robert Williams just isn't ready or if Stevens just doesn't trust him or both. Williams admittedly has had some shaky moments when I have seen him. But he has also had some good ones and I would like to see him spotted in somewhere. But at this point, it's not likely we can even rely on it based on the track record.
For us to reach our full potential, we need both Baynes and Horford because we have no other players we can rely on to play at C right now. Period. This is going to be a problem moving into the future as well. For now, a team without both of these players is not going to reach its potential. So we need to pray that they will both be healthy enough to carry the load for the playoffs.
Elephant #3 - DEFINED ROLES, WINGS, and POSITIONLESS BASKETBALL:
So stop me if you have heard some derivative of this before: "The players just need time to adjust to figuring out their roles."
In the old days this was easy. With a few special exceptions, your position was your role. But how do you define those roles when you play in a system of positionless basketball? This is the question I have found myself asking over the past few days. Suddenly it gets much harder. And it gets much more vague.
Old school basketball fans understand the main 5 positions. You have point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center. Fans of basketball with a more modern perspective might argue these positions are obsolete. Afterall, we have "positionless basketball" now. We have 6'7 guards like Klay, Jaylen, or Doncic. Ben Simmons is nearly 7 feet tall and he plays PG. We have point centers controlling the offense like Jokic. We have switchy defenses where the smaller PG ends up on the opposing centers because we switched too much. Etc. Is there merit to this positionless basketball? Certainly. To a point. Sometimes I feel like it gets taken too far.
Our coach Brad Stevens has been clear in interviews he is into a lot of the newer trends. Positionless basketball, switchy defense, Shoot the 3, small ball, etc. For those of you who wish to know more about this, I made a post analysing Brad's philosophy on positionless basketball awhile back.
Note - Some of this post is a bit outdated, but the Part 2 section has everything you need to know regarding Brad Stevens and his positionless philosophy, including quote to Stevens and seperate links to sites pages with those quotes.
You probably get the sense from reading my older post or even the title that I don't love the idea of positionless basketball. Maybe it's because I'm old school and I remember basketball from earlier eras. But old school positions have some merit as well because they are guidelines for player roles. Player roles are extremely important because that helps define what they are supposed to do. Honestly, how many times have we heard this season about players adapting to roles? Is it not harder to find roles in a "positionless" system where roles are not as easily defined?
In older eras we typically didn't see that as much because the positions defined the roles, and arguably, it was too much. Still, we generally knew that the point guard was the primary ball handler, the shooting guard was the best deep shooter, the center was the muscle and size who controlled interior play, etc. So it was easier for players to understand what they were supposed to do. Same for fans. In the modern game, the lines have become somewhat blurred.
None of this is to say that you can't have looser definitions. Heck, Larry Bird was a Point Forward in the 80s. Magic was a 6'9 PG who showed he could play all 5 positions. If you have a talent like Jokic who can play point center then, sure, go for it. If you have multiple elite ball handlers/scorer and want to do a Harden/Paul type backcourt, or even a Lillard/McCollum thing, that can work. Etc.
In that respect, the new positionless basketball is correct. You don't need this overly rigid system of specific position defined roles. The problem comes in three parts:
1. Role Definition
This is what helps tell a player what their role should be. So for example, the PG position defined the old ball handler role on most teams. Brad Stevens has a ball handler role. But that could be Smart, Irving, Rozier, Hayward, Horford, or even Tatum at times. It's not just the PG. So who is supposed to handle the ball when? It's easy in theory to say that they should just share duties or exploit mismatches. But when everyone is doing a bit of everything, how do you regulate the proper distribution?
How do you get your best playmakers in position to make the most plays with the ball? How do you get your best shooters in position to shoot from deep the most? How do you get your best drivers to drive to the hoop? Etc.
I'm not saying it can't work. But it's a lot harder to figure out without clearly defined roles. This is especially true when we are talking about young guys like Tatum or Brown trying to establish themselves. Even though such prospects are, at least by their physical profiles, seemingly well suited to positionless basketball, it's probably harder for them to wrap their head around that without clearly defined roles.
Based on what I have heard of his interviews and seen of his coaching, I don't think Brad Stevens is always a fan of clearly defined roles. But whether he does it by positions or by names like ball handler, big, or wing, he probably should do a better job at defining and communicating what each player is supposed to do in regards to their role.
2. Physical Fit
So this talks about a players physical profile. In theory, you can have players play multiple positions. But they have to have the body type to do it or it won't work. Size and length in particularly are important. The closer to center you get positionally, the bigger your players need to be. This is still true today. You can get away with an undersized PG. But you can't really get away with undersized centers. You can have the 7 foot Jokic play a point center, but you wouldn't want a 6-6 guy doing that. Even a 6'8ish guy like Theis is pushing it. You'd need a real exceptional athlete with serious wingspan to pull that 6'8ish thing off at C full time.
This idea spreads to power forward. You can have a wing play power forward instead of a big. But it should be noted that this is a far more physical position than SG. The kind of wing suited to SG like Brown may not be the same kind of wing who is as naturally suited to playing PF like Morris. This may be partly why we needed Morris to play PF as a starter since Tatum and Hayward are both likely not as suited to do it full time. This brings me to my third part...
3. Positional Minutes:
Remember when we came into the year wondering about having all these wings? Remember the posts about too many wings?
Here's an example article: https://www.celticsblog.com/2017/7/17/15983714/do-the-boston-celtics-have-to-many-players-and-not-enough-minutes-jaylen-brown-jayson-tatum
That was from July 17th. July 17th. And it was by no means the first time we talked about it on this blog. So why now did everyone, including myself, seemingly forget about this during a regular season full of chemistry issues? I facepalmed so hard when I remembered this being a prevalent offseason topic of discussion. This would have been a great thing to emphasize during, I don't know, the entire regular season where people were bemoaning our chemistry issues.
I had this point in pieces of my posts throughout the season. Sort of. I addressed it better in the offseason. But I definitely failed to address it directly enough during the season, let alone emphasize it like I should have. I would say in hindsight, but it was really in foresight since we knew this in the offseason, it seems rather obvious that a team with too many wings would have awkward fits at times and not enough minutes to get the most out of everyone. Of course the chemistry is weird! The roster is imbalanced.
Hayward and Tatum are both true SFs and they both can't get full minutes and start there. Kyrie is an undersized SG playing PG. At the very least he is a combo guard more than he is a true PG. Smart and Brown are both SGs, at least on this team, because of the combination of Kyrie, Tatum, and Hayward. Rozier's needs for minutes further screws that up because he is a PG playing like an undersized SG off the bench. Morris is the starting 4 instead of coming off the bench like he was originally supposed to partly because we don't have any other wings that are as good at 4 and we don't have the third true center to allow the Baynes/Horford lineups that were so good last year. Etc.
All of this stems from having too many wings, not enough true bigs, and a general roster imbalance. I have some ideas on how to potentially fix this. But that's a topic for another post. This one is getting long.