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Midseason grades for the Boston Celtics: the starters

Finishing off our midseason grades by evaluating the Celtics’ starting lineup

Boston Celtics v Indiana Pacers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

We’re back in the office once more passing out report cards to the Boston Celtics now that the first semester of the season is in the books. A few games have passed since the exact midpoint of Game 41, so there has been some opportunity for our remaining players to earn some extra credit at the last minute. Let’s see if any of the starters were able to take advantage.

If you missed PartI, you can peruse the grades for the bench unit here.

Jayson Tatum: B

Poll a wide sample of Celtics fans on their midseason grades for Jayson Tatum, and I’m sure you’d get every single grade possible in near-equal measure. That’s how mercurial the first half of the season has been for the star 23-year-old. The surface stats paint the confusing picture: a team-high 25 points per game on a massive 32% usage rate (the highest of his career), but sub-standard efficiency with an effective field goal percentage of just 48% (a career low).

The core of this down year has been the disappearance of Tatum’s three-point shot. Tatum is taking threes at the highest rate of his career, which would be a very good thing if the career 38% shooter wasn’t suddenly connecting on them at a lower rate than Dennis Schröder. Particularly concerning is his ineffectiveness on pull-up jumpers, which were previously his signature weapon as one of the premier three-point shot-creators in the NBA. He’s shooting just 28% on five pull-up threes per game, a sharp contrast to his 40% and 36% rates of the past two seasons on similar volume.

It’s tempting, then, to slap a lower grade on Tatum’s 2021-22 season — understandable, even, while watching him scuffle through another 7-of-21 outing. But to do so misses out on much of what Tatum has brought to the table outside of his scoring. Defensively, he’s started to return to peak form after taking several steps back as he recovered from his first bout with COVID. Look no further than his stellar defense down the stretch to secure the win over the Bulls on Saturday night as an example of his defensive effectiveness. And while it hasn’t necessarily translated on the stat sheet due to the team’s utter lack of shooters, he’s also grown significantly as a passer, reading the game and reacting more effectively and comfortably than ever.

Ultimately, the question to ask with Tatum is this: do you believe he’s no longer an effective shooter? I’m not inclined to believe that a half-season of sporadic scoring overrides four prior seasons that suggest quite the opposite. We have every reason to believe the shots will fall eventually, so for the time being, the totality of his overall game keeps him in the B range.

Boston Celtics v Indiana Pacers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Jaylen Brown: A-

Apart from some nagging health issues and a brief slump sans-Tatum, there’s very little to complain about with what we’ve seen from Brown this season. He essentially hasn’t missed a beat from his All-Star season last year, posting near-identical offensive stats and compiling an increasingly ludicrous list of highlights that includes 50- and 46-point performances and the first triple-double of his NBA career.

Concerns that Tatum and Brown cannot coexist are vastly overblown, but they can certainly be optimized together further. There are still too many stretches where it starts to feel like dueling banjos between the pair, though that’s no doubt exacerbated by the sheer lack of offensive support surrounding them. Defenses still don’t fear the duo in the pick-and-roll together; it’s an automatic switch that the pair will have to learn how to beat, much as Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have dealt with in Los Angeles. Brown could also still benefit from some growth as a passer, as he remains a few steps behind Tatum in that aspect of his game.

Beyond that, though, the only other major concern with Brown moving forward may simply be keeping him healthy into the playoffs. He struggled through multiple nagging injuries for much of his abbreviated 2020-21 season, and a particularly concerning knee issue carried over into this season and cost him a stretch of games early in the year. There’s been no indication of further injury for Brown since that point, but it’s undoubtedly something to keep an eye on as he continues to compile minutes.

Marcus Smart: B

Oh, to be able to grade Marcus Smart...

The offensive regression is unfortunate. Smart has never been a prolific scorer, of course, but in recent seasons, he’d managed to become more of a net neutral on the offensive side of the court. In conjunction with his capable playmaking and low turnover rate, Smart’s three-point shot ticked up from the damaging sub-30% range to a much more palatable 35%. With that kind of profile, you’re looking at a perfectly palatable fourth or fifth offensive option in a given lineup.

Unfortunately, the shooting has slipped back into the danger zone. Like most of the roster, Smart isn’t converting on his catch-and-shoot looks with any consistency (32% on C&S threes) and the lack of spacing that has provided has been damaging both in terms of how much extra defensive attention it puts on Tatum and Brown as well as how it cripples lineups that feature both Smart and Dennis Schröder. He’s still moving the ball just fine, keeping his turnover rate within his career norms while the rest of the roster suffers through a bit of a turnover bug. But as we’ll discuss again shortly, the passing doesn’t quite pop as much without the credible threat of a jumper.

All that said — he’s been defending like a lunatic. A bit of a down year last season prompted some concerns that Smart might have lost a bit of his touch as a defender, and those concerns have been thoroughly rebuked through the Celtics’ first half. Third in the NBA in steals. Third in deflections. First in loose balls recovered. Marcus Smart has been in peak defensive form this season, and should make his return to the NBA’s All-Defensive Team at season’s end.

Al Horford: B-

Fresh off a half-season’s rest as part of his Oklahoma City vacation, Al Horford couldn’t have looked much better to open his fourth season in Celtics’ green. A bit slower than his last stint with the team, perhaps, but nonetheless effective, exceeding expectations as a defensive contributor and providing a stabilizing force offensively.

However, the real test of Horford’s return to Boston was always going to be how those 35-year-old legs looked once we truly got into the dog days of the regular season. Sure enough, issues have begun to arise over the past two months (aided in part by a stint with COVID, in fairness). After posting a true shooting percentage of 57% across his 14 games in November, his scoring efficiency has rapidly dropped. His 15-point outing against the Bulls on Saturday night was his first double-digit performance since scoring 16 against the Timberwolves on December 27, a span of time in which he shot just 35% from the field.

The three-point shot is the biggest concern, and perhaps the most surprising. Since he started shooting threes regularly, Horford has essentially been a lock to knock them down around a 35% clip. Much like Smart, though, he’s regressed heavily this season. His 28% mark from behind the arc simply isn’t going to cut it on a team as starved for three-point shooting as these Celtics. As with Smart, his playmaking has been as good as ever, but with teams sagging further and further off of him while the jumpers continue to brick, his passing simply isn’t getting as much opportunity to put the defense on their heels.

Obviously, the goal is to make the playoffs with a healthy version of Al Horford. Accomplishing that goal while also maximizing his performance on the court may involve a preservative change of role for the Celtics’ elder statesman.

Robert Williams: B+

The big bet of four-year extension Williams signed with the Celtics this past offseason was that his body would be able to hold up to the workload of a bona fide starter. Thus far, it has. Williams’ 29 minutes per game easily exceeds his previous career-high (18, last season), and he’s done so while avoiding significant injuries. He’s also been as efficient as ever despite the increased load, shooting the best percentage of his NBA career (74%) and swatting the third-most shots per game (2.1) in the NBA.

There is still work to be done. The defense continues to grow, but it hasn’t been without the occasional hiccup, including a disappointing five-foul performance that led to public criticism from coach Ime Udoka. There’s also been a puzzling lack of usage for Williams at times. Despite his increased minutes, Williams’ usage rate is actually down to the second-lowest mark of his NBA career (11.8%), and he hasn’t seen as much opportunity to utilize his impressive passing instincts. This is less Williams’ fault and more to do with coaching, and admittedly it’s an issue that has already been consciously addressed.

This is a grade that can change substantially in a hurry. Williams’ injury history is such that it will always be a little difficult to feel comfortable about his health. To this point, though, he’s been healthy and looked the part of a legitimate starting center, and that is the recipe to make his newly minted contract extension look like a bargain.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports