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Celtics’ struggles in the context of health

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Just how unlucky have the Celtics been? What if I told you they’re several hours behind their opponents?

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

To argue whether losing is bad or not is a fruitless conversation. Of course losing is bad. There are two outcomes to each game, and one of them is bad. My take? Losing is that bad one.

However much you care about each loss is up to you. I’ve often criticized the Bostonian “next man up” mentality that’s really a poorly disguised way of saying “win, no matter the circumstance.”

Well, here’s a circumstance for you: Boston’s top four players (Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, and Marcus Smart) have played a total of 28 minutes together. For comparison, the 76ers’ top four of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, and Tobias Harris have 348 minutes together. That’s literally a difference of over five hours.

Mike Conley, Rudy Gobert, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Donovan Mitchell have 290 minutes together.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Dennis Schroeder, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are at 349 minutes.

Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Nicolas Batum, and Serge Ibaka are at 278.

Everybody digging deep for answers to the Celtics’ struggles is looking in wrong places. Yes, the offense has been bad and that warrants discussion. The defense has been spotty as well and I wouldn’t blame anyone for wanting to investigate. The free agent signings haven’t panned out yet. One of their draft picks isn’t even sniffing the main rotation. And yet it’s all secondary to player health.

One note from that article is that the Jazz have only used three different starting lineups all season. The Celtics have used more than 10.

And on the above chart:

Any team above zero on the horizontal axis is winning more games than would have been expected coming into the season, while teams below the dotted line are winning fewer games than expected. Although the relationship is not a perfect one-to-one, you can draw a linear trendline running from the top left of the chart to the bottom right. Meaning, on average, the fewer starting lineups a team has had to use this season, the better off they have been relative to preseason expectations. Conversely, the more starting lineups a team has gone through, the worse off they’ve been. To put it simply, surprisingly good teams are surprisingly healthy.

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Between 2015 and 2020, no team used 15 or more different starting lineups through their first 25 games. Already this season, there are three teams that meet that criteria.

The same idea can be extrapolated to championship winners. The Lakers were pretty healthy last year. The Raptors outlasted the Warriors in 2019 and so on. Asterisk titles don’t exist because health always wins.

If the Celtics started their season on a win streak, would anyone care about going .500 for a few weeks due to injuries? Well, yes, but the point is you shouldn’t panic in that scenario either. I just don’t know how you can look at the immense amount of time missed between Boston’s core players and reach any conclusion other than “yeah, losing kind of makes sense.”