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Expectations, explanations, and excuses: what to make of the Celtics’ disappointing season

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The Boston Celtics haven’t been good this year. Understanding why is a matter of perspective.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Early in the 2020-21 NBA season, the Boston Celtics played a two-week stretch of basketball during which they won seven out of the eight games they played. The stiffness of their competition throughout that span varied significantly, but the team appeared to have entered a groove. Boston’s victories came despite missing a key offensive cog in Kemba Walker, and gave hope to the notion that the Celtics may be able to pass last postseason’s heights despite losing Gordon Hayward in free agency.

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown appeared to have ascended to superstardom. The duo combined for 54.1 points, 13.1 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 2.9 steals, and 1.3 blocks during those eight games, while shooting 52.2% from the field and a scorching hot 46.7% from beyond the arc. The Celtics’ precocious wings have continued to compile impressive (though slightly less so) statistics, but the team has largely disappointed throughout the full duration of the season.

Boston is currently 24-25, landing them eighth in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics’ position within the standings isn’t quite so dire as it might seem at first blush. There is a glut of mediocrity below the East’s top three teams, and Boston is just 1.5 games behind the fourth seeded Charlotte Hornets who have lost Gordon Hayward for at least a month and LaMelo Ball for most likely the rest of the season. However, to have a losing record this deep into the year is a disappointment regardless.

Players, coaches, front office staff, and fans have all expressed their frustration with the Celtics’ inconsistent performance. The angst surrounding the team is tethered to expectations based in past success. Boston has reached the Eastern Conference Finals in three of the last four years. But the current roster isn’t the same teams that made those runs. Gone are Hayward, Kyrie Irving, and Al Horford, a trio that sports a combined 13 All-Star appearances, and it’s not just the top-end talent that has been drained from the Celtics’ coffers in recent years. Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes, and Enes Kanter all enjoyed stints in Boston as valuable role players.

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

The Celtics have attempted to draft and develop supplemental talent, but only Robert Williams has emerged as a real rotation contributor (shoutout to Payton Pritchard who appears to be headed in that direction as well). Beyond its dearth of homegrown contributors and until a recent trade for Evan Fournier, the Celtics have added just one player of real significance to replace all of the above, Kemba Walker, who was acquired via sign-and-trade last offseason. The jitterbug point guard has struggled with knee issues since the middle of last year, and is still working his way back to making a significant impact in the current season.

All of this was well-established heading into the current campaign. With Walker sidelined to start the year and paper thin depth with a bench made up of first and second year players, a dip in performance was predictable, but the Celtics early-season success eschewed concerns about the long-term depletion of their roster. Even those who did foresee a regression likely didn’t anticipate quite such a sizeable step backward. Dipping below .500 is something of a worst case scenario (non-serious injury edition) for Boston.

Boston Celtics v Washington Wizards Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Celtics have been a mess for the majority of the year. Their offense is stagnant, and their defense disconnected. Effort waxes and wanes, and far too often the team needs to build a double digit deficit before they find the inspiration to play with any sort of force and pace on either end of the court. Theories as to what is driving the Celtics sluggishness abound.

Some blame Brad Stevens, who for the first time in his career appears to have lost the ability to coax every last drip of defensive potential out of his roster. Stevens deserves some criticism for Boston’s lapses in focus and inability to execute a basic game plan, but he’s also been burdened with an inexperienced roster and almost no practice time as the result of a shortened season in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those who grant Stevens a pass may be inclined to point the finger at the Celtics’ front office. They’ve done little to manage a multi-year talent drain, failed to produce many meaningful contributors across a bevy of draft picks, and built a roster full of extreme limitations. Until it’s trade deadline moves, Boston was light on guards and wing players that could dribble or pass, and featured a logjam of centers.

Stevens’ commitment to playing two centers at a time – an approach that severely limited his team’s offensive potential – was in large part a result of having too few perimeter options he could trust. There’s only so much a coach can do with a team that has as few players capable facilitating offense as the Celtics have, several of whom have been injured for extended stretches throughout the year.

Atlanta Hawks v Boston Celtics Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Boston has had an incredible number of players miss time with a variety of maladies and in the NBA’s COVID health and safety protocols. The teams presumed best lineup heading into the year of Walker, Brown, Tatum, Marcus Smart, and Daniel Theis played just 163 non-garbage-time possessions together before Theis was traded away last week, per Cleaning the Glass. That same group with Robert Williams III swapped in for Theis – Boston’s new starting lineup – has played just 70 non-garbage-time possessions.

Those are miniscule sample sizes, that lend credence to the notion that Celtics’ overall performance for the year is far from the ceiling of Boston’s current collection of talent. But the Celtics aren’t alone in dealing with injuries and losses due to COVID. Teams throughout the NBA have been pummeled on both fronts, and a lack of options isn’t to blame for Boston’s consistently flat energy. That lies with both players and the coaching staff.

Blown defensive rotations, lack of movement on offense, and sluggish pace are all problems that can be corrected even when a team is without its full complement of players. Doing so requires a focus and commitment that the Celtics haven’t displayed with any consistency. Those things are easier to come by when a team is playing a joyful, winning brand of basketball.

Dallas Mavericks v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

The frustration of losing may just be compounding with the emotional and mental toll of the ongoing pandemic to a degree that Boston simply isn’t capable of coping with as a team, not to mention the physical toll it has taken on the Celtics’ best player.

Tatum hasn’t looked fully himself since contracting the virus back in early January. He’s still an incredibly positive force for Boston, but he’s been slow and disengaged at times. Whether or not that’s the result of ongoing recovery or simply manifestation of frustration with how the season has played out is something only he will know for certain, but Tatum doesn’t currently look the part of the best player on a championship contender.

And he probably shouldn’t be expected to be just yet. It’s exceedingly rare that a title team has a best player his age. In fact, just three times since the ABA/NBA merger has a player 22 or younger been even arguably the best player on a team that won a championship. Magic Johnson was 20 years old when the Los Angeles Lakers won a title in his rookie year at the age of 20. He happened to be paired with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the time. The other instance came via the Spurs, when Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard won Finals MVP honors at the age of 22 in 1999 and 2014 respectively.

Tatum is good enough that some day it may be fair to expect him to raise the level of his team to competitiveness night after night, but this year - at his age, dealing with COVID and given his surrounding talent – is not the time to hold him to such a standard. His play being simply great rather than otherworldly is nonetheless a reason why the Celtics aren’t performing at a higher level. Everyone else deserves to take a portion of that blame as well. No one is quite locked in enough on defense, and aside from Jaylen Brown, the entire team has been performing slightly below expectations on the offensive end.

There is a commonality across all the potential reasons for Boston’s struggles this year. Almost everything that has gone wrong has had a fairly reasonable explanation as to why. To the optimist, they are simply a string of unfortunate events that have sunk the season thus far. To the pessimist, they are excuses for slew of poor organizational decisions and a coach who has lost the ear of his locker room. The truth, as always, likely lives somewhere in between.

Something clearly isn’t right in Boston, but the Celtics demise has been overstated by the most negative of observers. The remainder of the year will go a long way toward revealing just how much ground needs to be made up before Boston has the look of a contender again. Feel free to build your opinion on the matter however you see fit. There is no shortage of variables in play to construct a case.