The Boston Celtics are intriguing to evaluate from a record standpoint. Two of their four games have come down to a Jayson Tatum 3-pointer. He banked one in for a win against Milwaukee and clanked one off the back iron to lose to Indiana.
Mix up the potential outcomes in the available permutations and Boston’s record could vary in either direction. Breaking even sounds about right, but forgive Celtics fans if, after watching their team come short of the NBA Finals, they’re not pleased with anything less than an emphatic start to set the appropriate vengeful tone for the new season. Not to mention a second home blowout loss — including preseason — at the hands of a Nets team likely to stand in the way of Boston’s Finals hopes in just one week.
The Celtics should be better because they are better. They’re better than the team that currently ranks 26th in defensive rating while being the only team allowing opposing offenses to shoot above 50 percent from the field.
Boston’s offense is a modest 12th in rating at 110.0. They’re bottom-third in scoring and 3-pointers made and attempted, staples of a top-five attack last season.
While the top of the Eastern Conference strengthened over the offseason, the Celtics have come out lagging. There’s an element of frustration for a team with such high expectations. How easily that discouragement can cloud the bright days that lie ahead.
Let’s start with the obvious source of optimism for the Celtics moving forward: the eventual return of Kemba Walker. We don’t know what Boston’s All-Star will look like upon return from his knee rehab. Brad Stevens said after Tuesday’s win over Indiana that Walker won’t be back anytime soon. Though disappointing news for those looking to see Boston’s second-leading scorer return to help the cause ASAP, more rest for Kemba likely equates to greater production upon return.
“There is no update that I’ve received, other than he’s progressing,” Stevens said. “He won’t be back any time soon. We’re hopeful to get him back as soon as possible but we want to make sure that when we do, it’s for good. So I think that’s the most critical thing from our standpoint.”
In truth, any version of the slithery operator and pull-up maestro should help a pick-and-roll game that’s fallen off a cliff in Beantown. The Celtics are generating just 0.78 points per P&R possession to begin the season (17th percentile). This, after Walker’s elusive quickness helped generate 0.98 PPP last season, the third-best mark in the entire NBA.
The Celtics were never going to be able to outright replace the multi-faceted skillset of Gordon Hayward either this early in the season. His departure for Charlotte is only accentuated by the absence of Romeo Langford. Langford underwent wrist surgery in September and is unfortunately not close to returning. When he does, though, a nearly 6’11’’ wingspan will allow the Celtics a return to the smaller lineups they’ve grown accustomed to that allow for more seamless switches at the defensive end.
A bonus would hopefully be the retirement of the two-big lineup Brad Stevens has implemented in his starting unit with Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson. The duo has a minus-17.3 net rating in 43 minutes of action. Theis has been enticed to shoot more threes to try and space the court. He’s hit just 20.0 percent of his 3.3 attempts per game.
Langford isn’t much of a sniper himself, having made just five of his 27 attempts as a rookie after shooting 27.2 percent in his lone season at Indiana. But he offers more potential as someone who can attack closeouts off the dribble and you hope he could make basic reads to return some semblance of last season’s versatile offense.
Maybe the Celtics should’ve gotten off to a start better than .500, but their schedule hasn’t exactly been the most inviting to actually do that. Milwaukee, Brooklyn and Indiana are all playoff teams from a season ago, with the former two housing two of the game’s elite forwards.
Things will get easier for Boston as the calendar turns. Only three of their next 11 matchups come against reigning playoff participants. That’s as many as they’ve faced in their first four outings — technically four if you count the Pacers twice.
If the Celtics could use some fine-tuning to better prepare for the tougher opponents they’ll inevitably face at other points in the season, these next several weeks should provide plenty of growth opportunities.
As good as one of the four remaining teams from the bubble should look the following year, the early stages of this season offer significant challenges for the Celtics.
They’re down two starters from last season’s team — having them primarily operate without a traditional floor general — while trying to integrate two notable free agent signings and two rookies who they hope can crack the rotation to aid a subpar second-unit.
Most teams only have so much room for improvement over the course of a season, stuck in the bed they made with only marginal tweaks available. The Celtics know that the team of today isn’t going to be the one to enter the playoffs in 2021.
Walker will be back and ready for the playoffs. Langford will have hopefully found his niche (again). Same goes for Peyton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith. The former seems on his way after contributing 10 points and five assists in a win over Indiana.
“He’s poised. He’s deceptive. He can finish. He knows how to play,” Stevens said of Pritchard. “I thought he did a good job on both ends tonight.”
Jeff Teague and Tristian Thompson will have familiarized themselves with their new team. Boston will have approximated Hayward's value as best it can by Game #72. That should give Theis more minutes at center, allowing him to focus on the elements he does best instead of trying to morph into the stretch big his current situation is asking him to become on the fly.
The process of these developments could come at the expense of regular season wins. But embracing them ensures that the Celtics have the endgame of championship glory in mind. And that’s all that truly matters for this franchise, no matter what bumpy roads are taken to get there.