Pick up any NBA preview article and you’ll see the Celtics listed among the top contenders for the title. However, championships are not won in October. There’s a lot of time between now and June and lots of things can go sideways over the course of the year. Also, only one team wins the title each year and a lot of other teams consider themselves title contenders as well. So, every preview tends to point out each team’s weaknesses or vulnerabilities.
I thought I’d look at the most commonly referenced Achilles’ heels related to the Boston Celtics. Of course, I’ll provide my own thoughts on how real those concerns are.
Jaylen’s left hand dribble
I’ve heard this so often (from analysts, announcers, friends, random people on Twitter, etc.) that I thought about making a drinking game out of it. I reconsidered since I didn’t want to send anyone to the ER.
Look, I get it. You and I can both close our eyes and picture Brown in the Finals against the Warriors and again in the ECF against the Heat. One moment he’s driving past his defender into the teeth of the defense, the next moment he’s hunched over like an old man trying to remember what pocket he put his reading glasses in while the ball is zipping up the court the other direction.
You can bet that Jaylen spent a lot of time working on his ball handling skills this summer. Then again, we know that he did the same last summer. There’s always room for growth and Brown has improved his game each and every year because he’s an insanely hard worker. Still, try as he might, he may never have the kind of handles that he would need to be the offensive hub of a team.
Here’s the thing though: He shouldn’t have to. He brings so many other elite skills to the table. He’s one of the better transition finishers in the game. He’s a deep threat, a talented cutter, and he has a midrange bag to keep defenses honest. He’s also an above average defender who excels at on ball defense when he’s really locked in.
He also happens to have a superstar teammate and two other All Star caliber teammates (and two other elite level support players). Maybe if he was playing on a lottery team that focused their whole offense around him he would need to prove that he can consistently drive to the left and not lose the ball. But on this team, maybe he can just accentuate his numerous strengths and try to limit situations where he’s forced to lean into a weakness.
Tatum’s off-games and inconsistency
Jayson Tatum was an MVP candidate last season. On the whole there’s not a lot you could say that he doesn’t thrive at. He’s an incredible basketball player that has already done things that put him in the conversation with the best Celtics of all time. In fact, he’s right at the level of greatness where people start looking for ways to pick him apart. This is only natural because when you reach a certain status, you stop being compared to the rest of the league and you are compared to the other MVP candidates. Which generally turns into a petty discussion of picking nits.
The narrative that is starting to come up about Tatum is that he sometimes disappears or turns in clunker games in the playoffs. Some of that is fair, some of it isn’t, some of it will only be quieted by an NBA championship.
There have been days when it just feels like Tatum just didn’t have it. The three-point shot isn’t falling, then he starts pressing, then he starts complaining to refs, and sometimes he just steps back and let’s Jaylen take over. I’ll note that sometimes he also finishes with a blistering 4th quarter that makes you forget all about the first 3 quarters.
On one hand, I don’t think it is completely fair to paint Tatum as inconsistent. If you were to chart out his performances in a scatterplot and compare them to other MVP candidates, you would probably find that everyone has bad games from time. I would also submit that even in games when his shot wasn’t falling, I’ve seen Tatum make game-winning plays in other areas (defense, rebounding, drawing defenders and distributing the ball).
Still, Tatum is in his prime now (no more “only 19 jokes”). If he wants to be an MVP or more importantly an NBA champion, he needs to minimize the bad days as much as possible. We’ve seen it before, when stars need to generate points on an off night, they find a way to get to the line. They get their points in other ways and still find ways to keep teammates involved.
Personally I’m not worried and I look forward to seeing him answer his critics in the playoffs.
Last season Mazzulla was a rookie head coach and there were times when he very much looked in over his head. To be fair, a lot of those moments occurred against Erik Spolestra (who happens to make 10-year veteran coaches look like rookies in the playoffs).
He would be the first to tell you that he didn’t make all the right calls last season, but that’s a valuable learning experience that he’s going to grow from and improve upon. The team has also set him up with a better support system. Specifically bringing in Charles Lee, Sam Cassell, and coaching consultant Jeff Van Gundy.
With a full offseason to reflect and prepare for the year, I would tend to think that a lot of the wrinkles from last year will be ironed out. And if all else fails, the team can always replace Joe with one of those assistants (but I don’t think it will come to that).
Team clutch offense (or lack of)
This is one of those things that has to be proven wrong over time (and in particular in the playoffs). The offense did get bogged down and predictable in the closing minutes of the game (or sometimes even the half or quarter). Part of that was an over-reliance on isolation basketball. Part of it was living and dying with 3 point shots. And some of it was just a lack of dynamic options in that scenario.
Mazzulla has spoken a lot about having a “curveball” this year. That means putting Porzingis into actions. That means letting Holiday play a role in the clutch offense. And it might just mean Tatum and Brown trusting their teammates more in those moments. They have all the tools and resources necessary. They just need to execute (and I tend to think that they will).
Let’s keep this short. Any team would slip in the standings and title chances if they suffered a significant injury. The Celtics traded away three guys (Smart, Williams, Brogdon) that were walking injury concerns. They still have to worry about Lady Luck, but so does every team.
Age is sneaking up on Holiday and has already become a daily part of Al Horford’s life. With that said, all those years provide the Celtics with needed experience and veteran grit. Father Time is undefeated but if these guys can hold him off another year or two the result could be a ring or two for each of them.
There are no perfect teams. Each team has flaws and weaknesses. That goes for the Celtics competitors as well. We’ll find out just how much of a contender this team is when the playoffs roll around. Till then I hope to enjoy a long season of the Celtics developing good habits and putting these narratives to bed.