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20-game (plus 1) rule: are the Celtics trending upward or spinning their wheels?

Are you glass half full or glass leaking Kool-Aid?

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Boston Celtics Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

I’m an idiot, but that doesn’t mean I was completely wrong.

Let me back up.

For those not familiar, I’ve long been a proponent of the “20-game rule.” Preaching patience and urging people to gather more data (at least 20 games) before making rash judgments of any particular Celtics season. I abandoned that rule seven games into the season (when they were 2-5). They promptly won 9 of the next 14. So shame on me for not following my own rule. Right?

Well, now we’ve made it through 21 games and perhaps we have more data and I have a more level head. So what’s the new, more informed verdict?

This team isn’t necessarily bad, but they aren’t legit contenders yet either. They’re stuck somewhere in the muddy middle and they need a lot to go right for them to maximize their potential this year.

Let’s break this down into categories:

Defense

The best thing that has happened since that 2-5 start was the team figuring out the new switch-heavy defense (and mixing up the looks with different sets). They bought in, communicated, and took pride in getting stops. You’ve seen the stats by now, so I won’t bore you with them. They were terrible, then they were amazing. They may not finish as the best defense in the league, but they should be somewhere in the top-5 if this trend continues. They have the personnel and the coaching to pull it off. That’s a great place to start from. Keep the other team from putting up points and you’ll be in position to be in any game especially in the playoffs.

Injuries, sickness, etc. (again)

Complicating the analysis of this team is the continued issues with bad injury luck. The sample size of a “fully healthy” team is still well under 20 games. That in itself is an issue though. Every team has injury issues. Good teams have enough depth to fight through them without too much slippage. Unlucky teams have so many injuries that they never find their rhythm and just hover around .500 all year (see last year).

Dennis Schröder was supposed to be our 6th man, but he has started as many games (12) as Jaylen Brown has. Robert Williams has only played 14 games - missing more than a quarter of the season thus far with persistent knee issues.

Depth tested

As we learned last season, injuries put more pressure on bench players to step into larger roles than they should be counted on for. Stevens added more reliable veterans to the bench in Schröder, Josh Richardson, and Enes Freedom and Udoka has needed every single one of them so far. He’s also leaned on Grant Williams and Romeo Langford and for the large part, they have responded well for young players.

Things haven’t gone so well for Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith though. That especially stings since those were two of the best options for getting shooting and spacing from the bench this season.

Streaky Tatum

Not to sound reductive, but most of the above doesn’t matter much if Jayson Tatum isn’t playing like he’s capable of playing. I entered this season with lofty expectations of Jayson taking the next step and becoming a legit MVP candidate. There are certainly nights when he has “it” and looks like a guy with that kind of upside. But too many nights the shot hasn’t been there this year and at times it has impacted the rest of his game (though he’s gotten better about making winning plays when the shot is off recently).

I’m still not worried about Tatum though. The pattern of his career seems to be large steps forward followed by increased expectations followed by a struggle to find his footing. Then the pattern repeats. I fully expect him to find a foothold and take one of those big steps forward once again. In time, once he has adjusted to his role, he should be able to find that elusive consistency that will once again put him in lofty company around the league.

Help Wanted

We’ll get into the trade talk soon enough, but suffice it to say this team has needs that they should at least explore filling before the trade deadline. Shooting is an obvious need. I think they could use another ball-mover as well. Note that I didn’t say “pass first point guard” (which I think is too often code for “can’t shoot”). At his best (and most healthy) Gordon Hayward was a great ball mover from the forward position. Sometimes you just need a guy on the court that connects others even when they aren’t getting credit for assists.

The Celtics have a few TPE’s that they can use to bring in talent (if the owners are willing to pay up in taxes). There are contracts that can be moved (Richardson, Juancho Hernangomez), young players a team might take a chance on (Romeo, Pritchard, Nesmith, Grant), and picks to dangle in trades.

Or they could shake things up in a much bigger way. Of course, that’s less likely and it would make this discussion moot.

So how good are they?

At the moment, they are what their record says they are: 11-10 and 10th place in the East. Of course, being so early in the season, they are still only 3.5 games out of 1st place. So there’s a lot of time left. There’s still a brutal December schedule coming up. If they can weather that storm, they might be able to make up some ground in January.

I came into the season hoping for a top-3 seed. I’m currently hoping that they can rally to finish in the 4-6 range and hit their stride in time for the playoffs. Knock on wood.