The offseason and training camp gave us a glimpse of what Brad Stevens and Ime Udoka are trying to build in Boston. With their eight-man rotation of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Robert Williams, Dennis Schroder, Josh Richardson, and Grant Williams, at their best, the Celtics are a super-switchy, nasty defense and a multi-pronged offensive attack.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen the best of that system and the worst of that system in equal parts this year. That’s born out in their 17-19 record in this season of light and darkness, hope and despair.
Injuries have certainly played a part. COVID and the NBA’s health and safety protocols have ravaged the roster. That’s happened to every team and it’s fair to say that the Celtics haven’t navigated these choppy waters as effectively. In the East, more veteran coaches like Billy Donovan, Doc Rivers, and Erik Spoelstra have been able to integrate players into their system quickly and effectively. The circumstances have dictated different styles of play and they’ve adjusted.
On the other hand, Udoka has largely stuck to his guns. Sure, he’s made minor adjustments to the defensive system and called out individual players here and there, but for the most part, he’s double downed on how he sees the Celtics playing under him. On a night when the Celtics made just four of their 42 three-point attempts against the Clippers, he seemed to brush it off as just a bad night, saying, “it’s hard to say what we could do better because we got wide-open looks.”
The Celtics don’t have a superstar on the level of Steph Curry, Lebron James, or Kevin Durant that can force their presence and command a game. Instead, Boston is a collective of good-to-great players that have to rely on each other on both sides of the ball. Stevens has somewhat echoed those sentiments. In an interview with The Boston Globe, Adam Himmelsbach reports:
Stevens thinks there are reasons for optimism, too. The team showed at the start of this season that it can be elite defensively, and there are enough offensive playmakers to ignite a hot streak. Stevens also pointed out how the Celtics have generally held their ground against the top teams in the East, and while this recent downturn has been disappointing, they held fourth-quarter leads in each of their last five losses, so success isn’t too distant.
Bottom line: you can see what they’re trying to do here and there’s enough proof of concept to suggest they’re on the right track.
Despite a less than inspiring start, they’re 12th in net rating, anchored by the 9th best defense in the league. And while they haven’t shared the floor that often, the Core Four of Brown, Tatum, Smart, and Williams boast a 110.2 offensive and 98.0 defensive rating over 256 minutes. Stevens was sure to invest in the latter two over the summer with a pair of four-year extensions to the defensive identity of the team.
Could a deal before the deadline improve this team? Of course. Stevens acknowledges that the front office will take a hard look at anything that will help in the immediate and the future if it gets them closer to raising Banner 18 to the rafters.
But does something dramatic need to happen before February 10th though? Absolutely not. Over the next six weeks, we’ll continue to ask the unanswerable questions. Can Brown and Tatum co-exist? Are they leaders? Do the Celtics need a major upgrade at point guard to alleviate playmaking responsibilities? Who replaces Al Horford down the road?
Answer: we don’t know. A more detailed answer: we don’t need to know just yet.
Detractors will be vague. "Something feels off," they'll say. They'll read into innuendo and body language after a bad loss. A ten-second sound bite will turn into gospel after it makes its round on sports radio and talking heads. But the truth is, we don't know yet and that’s OK.
Youth isn't an excuse here. It's a gift and one that shouldn't be wasted. There will be experimenting and mistakes and growing pains. I get the frustration. In December, the Celtics were an underwhelming 6-9. Even considering the caveats of a bear of a road-heavy schedule against many of the league’s best teams, when they lost, they lost bad. In their nine losses, they averaged a minus 8.5 net rating and were miserably terrible in the fourth quarter. And yet, they registered big wins against the Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Phoenix...and dropped games to those same teams in spectacular fashion.
Ten January home games at TD Garden will give us a better evaluation of where the team is at. Knock on the parquet wood, a healthy roster seems just around the corner. Boston could be on the verge of a major push. The truth is, so much of this is about faith, right? From us fans to the head coach to all the way up to the front office. At .500, do you believe in the promise and potential we’ve seen this season or are the collapses and consistent inconsistency enough for you to hit the reset button?