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Checking in on the Celtics’ progress at the midpoint

Good start followed by recent struggles. So still a lot of work to do for the Celtics.

We’re exactly halfway through the season (27-14, on pace for 54 wins) and there’s an unwritten rule somewhere that indicates that I must take inventory of the season thus far and make wholesale definitive judgement about this team despite the season being (naturally) only half over. Bonus points for hot takes that will be forgotten in 30 minutes or less.

Things started out so great that it is easy to forget that expectations were muted heading into the season. As a natural optimist, I was incredibly encouraged by the way they played with passion, exuberance, and fun. And yes, the winning helped a lot as well, as it is want to do.

Complicating things recently has been the Celtics latest struggles. If I had written this 2 weeks ago this review would have been all aflutter in googly-eyed fanboy appreciation. Now I’m forced to be more subjective or (dare I suggest it) critical of the team. At least a little bit.

Falling behind to big deficits to both good teams and bad teams has really become a troubling habit. It does lead to some thrilling comeback attempts, but all too often the deficit is too much to overcome. There has to be some way this team can figure out how to hit the ground running from the tip.

Drilling down, the bench scoring has been an issue. Injuries have tested the team’s depth and forced a lot of young players to step into bigger roles. Occasionally you can see the team fall into bad shooting habits developed throughout last year’s painful season.

On average both the offense and defense have been very good this season but there are some nights when one or both just look completely out to lunch. That happens in the course of a season but this recent stretch has established a troubling trend.

With all that said, in situations like this I always like to take a Tatum style step-back in order to see the bigger picture. We have to remember where we were entering this season.

Paul Flannery summarizes it succinctly:

Perhaps this a bad time to take a holistic view of where the Celtics stand vis-a-vis the rest of their competition, but it’s important to remember that they entered the season with little fanfare and muted expectations. Despite replacing Kyrie Irving’s production with his statistical doppelganger and polar opposite in Kemba Walker, they were hamstrung in finding a suitable replacement for Al Horford who left in free agency.

Swapping Irving for Walker was a huge save. Losing Horford was what was really going to hurt. So much so that losing Baynes, Morris, and Rozier (all productive veterans from the team last year) were at most an afterthought.

The whole long term focus of the team shifted to the development of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and perhaps even the revival of Gordon Hayward. Let’s look at how those 3 variables are playing out thus far.

Let’s start with Tatum. His goals this preseason were to average 20 points per game, be selected for the All Star game, and to win a Championship. Well, currently he’s averaging 21.2 per game (and it feels like it could be more) and he very well could be selected as an All Star. The title is going to take a lot more luck and help from his teammates, but good on him for keeping that as a goal.

Remember too that his trainer set some more specific goals for him.

Hammering his point home, Hanlen sent Tatum a text breaking down how his shot diet contrasted with some of the NBA’s elite perimeter scorers: LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Paul George and Devin Booker. All of them attempted significantly more than Tatum’s 2.9 free throws and 3.9 3-pointers per game.

”I basically said, ‘If you just shoot six free throws per game and six 3s per game at the same percentages you did last season, then you’ll raise your [scoring] average from 15.7 to 20.7,’” Hanlen said.

”’That makes you an All-Star.’”

Well, Tatum is shooting over 6 three pointers a game (6.5 actually) but he’s only up to 3.9 three throws. So there’s still room for improvement. In particular if he can start converting more around the rim.

As much as Tatum has improved, Jaylen Brown might be the most improved on the Celtics. I hate to borrow an over-worn coachspeak phrase, but it does seem like the game has “slowed down” for him. Instead of going head-first into the teeth of the defense and hoping that his athleticism could make something happen, he’s picking his spots, reading what the defense gives him, and attacking under control.

The result is that he’s also averaging 20 per game and a frequently named candidate for the All Star game as well. Again, there are areas he can continue to improve but if anything that’s even more encouraging for the long term.

The third critical variable was Gordon Hayward. He started off wonderfully. Early in the season he was displaying all the traits that made him such a coveted free agent signing B.A. (before ankle). Unfortunately he’s had a variety of injury issues and has been inconsistent when he has been playing. Some of that is simply his role in the offense and I’m sure some of it might have to do with not being 100%.

Still, he’s up to scoring 16 per game, 4 assists, and 5.9 rebounds per game. All up from last year (11.5, 3.4, 4.5) and if he can put together an extended healthy streak we might see those numbers creep up even more.

So on the whole, things are definitely trending upwards for this team, despite the recent slide. They have already checked several of the must-do boxes from preseason. They are closer to being a title contender than anyone could have hoped for last June. And they are a lot more fun to watch and cover.

To take that next step into true contention, they either have to hope for Tatum to take another huge leap forward into becoming a super-duper-star, or hope that the 4 headed monster lineup of Kemba, Tatum, Brown, and Hayward can hit on all cylinders at just the right moment to drive them through the playoffs. Is there a trade out there that would give them the needed boost to make things fit together better? That’s another article for another time (or more likely several articles for the next few weeks).

Winning banners is always the goal and this team might not be ready to achieve that goal this season. However, the core foundation is still very young and they have made a lot of progress to build upon as they continue to develop.

We’re headed in the right direction.

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