By now you’ve probably seen the end of the Boston Celtics at Dallas Mavericks game. If not, go ahead and take a look. If you are just a fan of the game, that was a thrilling, exciting ending. If you are a fan of Dallas, you feel good. After a slow start, your team is back to .500.
If you’re reading this, you likely aren’t either one of those though. You’re probably a Boston fan. And this morning, you woke up a fan of a team is under .500. And, boy, is that somewhere no one expected to be.
Instead of breaking down the game, because really it came down to playing little-to-no defense for most of the game and then some fantastic shot-making in the end, we’re going to do something different. Here’s one take on the reasons the Celtics find themselves in this disappointing positions.
1. Marcus Smart is injured. Yes, that’s a convenient excuse. Yes, many teams are dealing with injuries. But let’s get this one out of the way early: It matters for Boston and it matters a lot.
Smart is the heart and soul of the Celtics. He’s not the best player on the team, but he is the best leader. When things go south in a game, Smart is often the one to make the play that changes the energy of the game. Since he’s been out, Boston has gone 5-8. That’s not a coincidence.
Smart’s return isn’t going to magically fix everything. There are too many holes for that. But his defense and playmaking are enough to lift the Celtics from .500 to above that mediocre marker.
2. We’re going back to the well of convenience for this one: Kemba Walker is not himself. There are flashes of Walker looking like the guy he did before last season’s knee injury. They just come about as consistently as wins do.
The difference between Walker and Smart’s situations is that we know Smart will be back. Walker is here, but at the same time he’s not. In fact, it might be better some nights if he truly were not there at all.
Because he’s a small guard, Walker needs to be an offensive dynamo to offset his defensive deficiencies. Right now, Walker is shooting 37.5% from the floor and 34.9% from deep. Neither of those are good enough.
Can Walker get back? That question will linger until he’s able to put together a couple of weeks of good basketball. If he can, Boston will be fine. If he can’t, the Celtics won’t be much better than slightly above average.
3. This Celtics team is incredibly young. Outside of Kemba Walker and Tristan Thompson (nine years of experience apiece) and Marcus Smart (six years of experience), every rotation player has four years or less under their belts. This is where Jeff Teague was supposed to help as an 11-year vet, but the less said about that one, the better.
Young teams aren’t expected to win in the NBA. This group is weird because they are led by two young All-Stars in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Those two have done nothing but win since coming in the league.
It’s not unexpected to see struggles when so much of the rotation is made up of players navigating their first and second seasons. And let’s not forget that those young players joined the NBA under the most unusual circumstances the league has ever seen.
4. I think we’re out of the easy ones. Let’s get into the deeper issues now, starting with an unproven and often unproductive bench.
Is that related to the above? Absolutely. Was it necessary? Absolutely not. The Celtics rely heavily on two rookies, a third-year big man who has been regularly injured in his first two seasons, a second-year player who has the height and length of a wing but the footspeed and bulk of a big and a fourth-year defensive-minded player who has been asked to do too much offensively.
How did it get to this point? Because of injuries and the need to find minutes for three talented big men, Brad Stevens has pushed Tristan Thompson into the starting lineup in two-big alignments. That’s removed one veteran from the bench.
Jeff Teague was supposed to be the veteran stopgap ballhandler. He was supposed to cover while Kemba Walker recovered and then slide into a backup role when Walker was back. Instead, after a week, it was clear that rookie Payton Pritchard was going to contribute to winning more than Teague.
Relying on all that youth for your depth isn’t a winning formula. And because of Teague’s struggles, there aren’t even veterans to turn to for a spark. This is what it is.
5. Why is the roster what it is? That’s where we turn our eyes to Danny Ainge. For years, Ainge resisted overpaying for star players that were on the trade market. In part, that resistance got Boston Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Then, Ainge sort of dug his heels in and steadfastly refused to move on from the Celtics more treasured assets in terms of draft picks.
It’s not Ainge’s fault that both Sacramento and Memphis had better years than anyone saw coming and Boston ended up with the 14th pick in successive drafts. Where blame can be placed on Ainge is the unwillingness to move either or both of those picks while they were unknowns. Because of that, the Celtics are now reliant on a rotation filled with young players.
Now, an optimist will say “If those guys develop Boston is set for years” and there is some truth to that. But the twist is this: Time moves quickly in the NBA. Players who develop into quality rotation players, or more, become expensive very quickly. Even if the Celtics nailed every pick, the team was going to become too expensive to keep together after three or four seasons.
To put it more simply: trading at least a couple of those picks could have given Boston the veteran depth that they sorely lack right now.
6. Next, we have to look at Brad Stevens. This is Year 8 for Stevens as the Celtics head coach. That’s one of the longest current tenures in the NBA. By any marker, the previous seven seasons have been a success. Stevens went through a revolving door of players and built a playoff team, culminating in a rag tag roster of castoffs making the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017.
Then Ainge swung big and added Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving and that team made it back the following year, despite the two stars being out with injuries. 2019 was…well...yeah. 2020 finished with the Celtics in the East Finals once again.
But that’s now all in the past. Impatience creeps in once a team hits a plateau. It’s fair to ask the question: Can Stevens lift this team to the NBA Finals and Banner 18?
It doesn’t feel like Stevens has lost the team or forgotten how to coach. It seems more like the roster gives him nowhere to turn to when things aren’t working. But Larry Bird said he left the Pacers sideline after three great seasons because a coach’s voice gets stale. Who are we to argue with the Legend? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
7. This one is beating a dead horse and blame is equally shared by all. Boston’s pace is awful for such a young team. The Celtics regularly start games by pushing the ball and getting into their stuff quickly. Unfortunately, they fail to keep that up and resort to walking the ball up. That turns into isolation ball and the sort of “my turn, your turn” stuff that everyone hates.
Stevens can’t force the players to play faster. This isn’t high school. He can’t just sit them, because the question then becomes “Why aren’t the best guys playing?” The NBA isn’t about teaching lessons. And, if you want him to sit the main guys, who do you want to play instead? We already covered those guys aren’t good enough.
This is where it’s fair to ask if Stevens has lost some of his grip on the team. No one says that he has and the players aren’t questioning him. But the results and stats speak for themselves.
8. Boston’s defense isn’t very good right now. We’re accustomed to the Celtics being near the top of the NBA in defense. The only thing they do well right now, as they do every season, is defend the arc. Everything else is average at best. Where they really struggle is with committing fouls. Boston gives away too many free points, especially considering how slow the team plays. That has to change if the team is to start winning on a regular basis.
9. We’re going to keep this one simple and pose a question: If Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are really both All-Stars, shouldn’t Boston have a better record?
10. So... what now? The answer isn’t to tank. The team is clearly too good for that. So, end that nonsense now.
Getting Marcus Smart back will help. Of course, getting Kemba Walker back to normal would be huge. The first is going to happen. The second is a question mark.
Will Danny Ainge make a big move? By all accounts, he’s trying. The challenge at this point, over a month from the trade deadline, is that there aren’t very many sellers. And the players available right now either aren’t attainable for Boston or aren’t good or fit both descriptions.
The trade market will develop over the next couple of weeks. It’s imperative that Ainge does something, or the Celtics will probably be a slightly above average team the rest of this season. That doesn’t seem good enough.
And if that’s not good enough, then major changes will have to take place over the summer. You can’t fire the players, but expect some sort of roster overhaul. And if someone absolutely has to be held accountable, it could be Brad Stevens. It’s unlikely, but it’s got to be at least partially on the table. That’s life in the NBA.
Don’t abandon ship just yet. All is not lost. The Celtics, like so many teams, are a good week or two away from things looking a lot better. It’s fair to ask if that good week or two is ever coming. The feeling here is that it is, but that still might not be enough to be a contender. The real question then becomes: Is not contending really enough for this team this season? That’s hard to answer and it’s a tough pill to swallow if that answer is yes.