The Celtics have played pretty well since I declared them “bad.” So of course I’ll take all the credit. Seriously though, it will take a larger sample size of “good” basketball for me to come off that not-so-hot-take assessment of this team. It simply boils down to consistency, as in the Celtics haven’t proven that they have any.
There’s very much a feel of “two steps forward, two steps back” that has carried over from last year. I’m a very big fan of the most of the individual players on this roster, but somehow (so far) the sum of the parts has not been greater than the whole. With this much talent, in particular on the defensive side of the ball, the team should be doing better. And to be fair, there’s still a lot of season left and plenty of time for them to do so. My every hope is that this article is going to be looked back at and laughed at by many of you (I might suggest a more productive hobby but hey, you do you).
All the caveats (some would call them excuses) apply here: rookie head coach, COVID, injuries, etc. If we’re being generous, we can apply a brand new 20-game rule and see how this team fares by the middle of December (if I include the last 3 positive games). Again, nothing would make me happier than to see things turn around, and I do believe it can. What concerns me is the historical trends.
If you are looking for a reason why a team is inconsistent, you often have to start at the top with their best players. For as great as Jayson Tatum has proven himself to be, he’s also been very streaky. He starts out seasons slow and has lulls in his game (likely tied to normal shooting slumps that impact jumpshooters more). What is more concerning is how his slumps tend to impact the rest of his game. At his worst, he’s complaining to refs, getting lost on defense, settling for jumpers, and (yes, Marcus) not distributing the ball enough. He’s working on those things and I have a lot of confidence that he’ll turn it around, in part because he has before. The positives far outweigh the negatives but if he wants to enter into the MVP discussion, he’s going to need to get more consistent and find a way to play through shooting slumps by contributing elsewhere.
To his credit, Jaylen Brown has been more consistent than Tatum this year, but even he has had “mind boggling” off nights early on. I don’t know how much of that is the new system or deferring to Tatum or just him being in his own head. Ideally when Tatum is off, that’s when you really need Brown to step up and vice versa. A few times this year they have both been off at the same time and there’s not much else you can do at that point. Brown now missing more time with another injury doesn’t help either.
Then there’s Marcus Smart, the “heart and soul” of this team. And there’s the rub. If your heart and soul is someone who’s core personality is volatile, that might be an issue. Sure, the positives far outweigh the negatives with Marcus. I’m a huge fan. But even his biggest fans have to admit that he swings wildly from “winning plays” to “what on earth just happened?” He’s like a photo negative of Russell Westbrook, doing most of his disruptive damage on the defensive end, but which team is being damaged by him changes night to night and sometimes quarter to quarter.
Those are your three best players and they set the tone for everyone else. But the “everyone else” here hasn’t exactly helped either. Neither Dennis Schröder or Josh Richardson has been known for their consistency over the years. The younger guys on the team are still fairly new to the league and by definition not going to be consistent. Ironically the place where the team has gotten the most consistency has been from the double-bigs (which everyone was worried about in preseason). Somehow Horford has looked like he’s 5 years younger and Robert Williams has played like he’s 5 years older.
At the end of the day, everything would look a lot better if the majority of these guys made a more consistent effort on defense. Defense covers over a multitude of sins and gives you a chance in any particular game. And that is why, despite all that I’ve written above, I’m still optimistic about this group. The pieces are in place for a top defensive team. There’s been enough time for Ime’s system to sink in and evolve. Sure other teams are going to have hot and cold shooting nights and there’s only so much you can do about that. But if the Celtics are committed to defensive effort night in and night out, they can survive Tatum’s shooting slumps, Brown’s injuries, and Smart’s brain cramps.
Let’s see if they can do that over the next few weeks. They have an opportunity to continue with some good momentum. They don’t need to be perfect, there are going to be losses that you have to live with. They simply need to come to work every night and stay locked in for the whole game and good things will come.