The Celtics just finished a very 2020s Celtics 5 game stretch. They suffered a heartbreaking late collapse against the almost completely healthy NBA Champion Bucks despite missing a couple of rotation players. Then they collapsed again against a Timberwolves team who basically ran out their G League team. They had another close loss against the starless Clippers. After that they blew the doors off the mostly healthy top of the league Suns. The final game of the 5 was an OT comeback against the awful, and injured, Orlando Magic.
How are they that inconsistent, and why does it seem like injuries and absences hit the Celtics harder than they do other teams? What I mean by that isn’t "why do the Celtics always have guys missing?" (They do. They still lead the league in Covid absences since the beginning of the pandemic, and I don’t know why.) What I mean is "when guys are missing why do the Celtics have a harder time than a lot of other teams?" The Celtics are actually a pretty deep team this year, but they still struggle to "next man up" their way through injuries. I think there are 2 main reasons for that.
1- It’s not so much that players are missing it’s the combination of players missing. In their first game vs Philly Horford and Rob smothered Embiid. In game 2 both were not available, and neither was Grant. Enes can actually handle Embiid pretty well here and there, but not for 40 minutes. Embiid was unstoppable late, and he ended with 41 (Points)/ 10 (rebounds)/ 5 (assists)/ 4 (blocks) on 14 of 27 shooting. That was a very disappointing loss, but in retrospect it was pretty impressive the Celtics had a lead to blow without 80-90% of their center minutes against an MVP level center. (The Cs benefited from a similar situation agains the Suns when they were missing Ayton and McGee.)
Another example of a tough absence combination is when the Celtics are down multiple playmakers. This was a problem last season. When Smart and Kemba were out last year the Celtics stunk. They went 3-6 with 4 losses to lottery teams. Those games were most of their worst losses last season. The Cs are 0-3 without Smart this year. Two of those games they were also missing Tatum and Schroder. You want to know how a team could go toe to toe with the virtually full strength Bucks and then lose to the Wolves and Clippers, but then blow out the Suns in the space of a week? Having vs not having playmaking is how. The Celtics need multiple playmakers to generate good looks for the team. When multiple initiators are not available the Celtics offense goes from solid to awful. That string of 4 games is a Marcus vs no Marcus case study. Smart played vs the healthy Bucks and relatively healthy Suns (the Suns did have a couple of notable absences). He didn’t play against the almost completely injured or sick Wolves and Clippers. Jaylen can create offense, but he can’t consistently create good shots for teammates. The Celtics NEED at least one of Tatum and Smart to beat pretty much anyone.
2- The Celtics don’t have a lot of guys who can expand their games and "next man up" a level. There are guys on the team who are capable of having big games, but they don’t have many players who can carry a heavier load with any kind of consistency. The Grizzlies lost their best player and principle offensive engine for a 12 game span, and went 10-2. They didn’t play many healthy winning teams in that stretch, but 10-2 against an easy schedule is still really good. Some combination of JJJ, Bane, and Brooks usually managed to fill the Ja void.
This is something Ben Taylor has talked about on his Thinking Basketball podcast and YouTube channel a few times, and in his book. He’s interested in how different players play together, and how context changes a player’s statistical output. One of the major pieces of that analysis is how much offensive "load" a player is capable of handling. The Nets were able to keep their head above water without Kyrie, Joe Harris, and 1/2 of Harden because KD can carry a massive offensive load. The Suns can keep winning without Booker because CP3 can always just do more stuff. We saw this from the Celtics in previous seasons. Guys like Tatum, Brown, and Rozier were ready to step into the void left by Kyrie and Hayward a few years back. When those two returned Terry, Tatum, and Brown took steps backward. Tatum exploded when Kemba's knee first took him out for an extended period of time, and that trend continued for both of Kemba's seasons in green. The Jays were ready for bigger roles. The Celtics don’t have guys like that chilling on the back burner anymore.
Most of the current Celtics’ players fit their roles pretty well, and aren’t really ready to take on bigger ones. Jaylen was able to will the Celtics to victory over the 7-31 Orlando Magic, who were missing key players, but he can’t drag them to wins against good teams with any kind of regularity. We’ve seen Josh Richardson wake up after 2 rough years primarily because he’s a 7th man in Boston, and not a starter like he was in Philly and Dallas. Schroder can, and did, fill a larger role for a few games here and there. Pritchard was able to fill in for Schroder off the bench. Tatum can take on a massive offensive load if Jaylen is out, but he’s not a truly "heliocentric" type star. Robert Williams probably should have a bigger role. Marcus can expand his game, but when he does too much it can be a mess. In general the Cs don’t have guys who fill a Tatum or Smart and Schroder sized hole, even in the aggregate. A guy like Romeo might be able to carry a larger offensive role in the future, but he can’t yet. The Celtics don’t have a ton of skill overlap or redundant talent, which is good. It means they fit together well and can optimize their talents when on the floor together. It also means they are going to struggle when they aren’t healthy.
The Celtics are two things at once. They are Jeykell and Hyde. They are a mediocre team, but also a really good team. That dual nature is the product of their construction and how they are able to handle, or not handle, rotation player absences. They have a lower floor and higher ceiling than a lot of other NBA teams. The "core four" and preferred starting 5 net rating numbers are excellent, but we perceive the team to be wildly inconsistent. They are little inconsistent, and they do have good and bad games. All teams are a little up and down. What's important is the Celtics aren’t super inconsistent because they aren’t good. But also they HAVE to be healthy to be good.