With the trade deadline in the rearview mirror, fans will turn their attention to the stretch run as teams gear up for the playoffs. The Celtics have 26 games left in the season, and will only have 23 remaining after the quickly approaching All-star break. Here are the most important Celtics storylines to follow before the “real” games commence.
Health is not the most entertaining thing to monitor, but it is likely the most important when it comes to the Celtics’ pursuit of Banner 18. While the Celtics do not currently have any major long-term injuries (non-Gallo department), they are momentarily banged up with a good chunk of the roster on the injury report in some capacity. Brown’s facial fracture and Smart’s ankle injury are the most notable current issues in addition to a handful of day-to-day situations. Priority number one for the Celtics needs to be to get to the first round of the playoffs with the 8 members of their playoff rotation ready to roll.
Seeding and Home Court Advantage:
After team health, securing the #1 overall seed and home court advantage throughout the playoffs will have the greatest impact on the Celtics’ playoff hopes. The Celtics currently occupy the 1 seed in the East at 40-18, 1 game up on the 39-17 Bucks. Additionally, the Celtics should keep an eye on the 39-18 Nuggets (1.5 games back of the Celtics) in case they meet in the Finals down the road. According to Tankathon.com, the Celtics have the 15th hardest schedule remaining (combined opponent winning percentage of .500) while the Bucks have the 7th hardest remaining schedule (.514) and the Nuggets have the 23rd (.491).
Tatum MVP Race:
NBA.com’s Kia MVP ladder currently ranks the top-5 candidates in the following order: Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokoumpo, Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid, and Luka Doncic. At this point in the year, it would be a major surprise if one of those five players does not take home the coveted and newly minted Michael Jordan Trophy. In order to separate himself from the other four candidates (particularly the overwhelming statistics of Jokic and Giannis) Tatum likely needs two things to happen. Firstly, the Celtics need to pull away slightly from the field for the best record in the league. Secondly, Tatum needs to go on a Player-of-the-Month caliber heater and leave the voters with a lasting impression of his dominance right before they fill out their ballots. If Tatum gets hot from 3 point range and can elevate his 3P% from its current .353 to more in line with his career average of .378, he has a chance to do just that.
Brown All-NBA Watch:
For long-term impact, the question of whether Jaylen Brown can make All-NBA 3rd team is actually more important to the future than Tatum potentially taking home the MVP. Keith Smith broke down all of the future contract options available to Jaylen Brown. The headline is this: if Brown makes All-NBA this season, he becomes eligible for a Designated Veteran Extension that can pay him up to 5 years and $290 million. Access to that extension is the easiest way to ensure that Brown never reaches unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2024. Jaylen’s All-NBA candidacy is going to be close. He made the All-Star team, so he is definitely in the mix, but he will be competing with the likes of Kyrie Irving, Donovan Mitchell, Ja Morant, Steph Curry, Tyrese Haliburton, Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, Damian Lillard, Anthony Edwards, Jrue Holiday, DeMar DeRozan, and possibly Luka Doncic (if he slots in as a G) for just 6 All-NBA guard spots.
Rob Williams’ Health and Return to World-Wrecking Form:
Overall, Rob’s return to the lineup following offseason knee surgery has been extremely successful. His per-36-minute numbers are extremely similar to his breakout 2021-22 season. He is actually slightly outperforming his 2021-22 per-36 numbers in FGA, FG%, REBS, ASTS, and PTS. Of course, he is playing 6 fewer minutes per game (23.6 to 29.6 respectively). Additionally, the two areas where his impact is down on a per-36 basis are in steals and blocks. Last year, he averaged 1.1 steals and 2.7 blocks per-36, which has decreased to 0.8 steals and 2.0 blocks per-36 this season. When Rob is at his bounciest, most exuberant self, he racks up those impactful defensive statistics at a high rate. Will Rob be ready to hit the after-burners in May and June by simultaneously increasing his minutes per game and his frequency of possession-obliterating defensive plays?
Tracking Brogdon’s Minutes with the Jays as a Potential Playoff Option:
So far this year, Malcolm Brogdon (in his role as 6th man) has only shared the court with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown for 275 minutes. That is the 23rd most frequently used 3-man combination on the Celtics. That 3-man lineup has an offensive rating of 113.5 and a defensive rating of 110.9 for a net rating of +2.6. The team as a whole has an offensive rating of 116.6 and a defensive rating of 110.5 for a net rating of +6.2. Tatum, Brown, and Brogdon are the three best scorers on the Celtics. However, to this point, they have not amplified the team’s offensive output when they have shared the court together. I will be interested to see if that data remains the same or shifts at all over the rest of the regular season. Brogdon is likely to see more minutes in the playoffs, and he may even factor into closing lineups as another scorer around Tatum and Brown, so his effectiveness alongside those players is vitally important.
Offensive and Defensive Rating:
While the trade deadline acquisitions of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving has likely shifted the contender equation a bit, the current leaderboard in Net Rating correlates nicely with some of the primary contenders in the league. The Celtics are first at 6.2, followed by the Cavs (5.8), Nuggets (4.2), Grizzlies (3.8), 76ers (3.6), and Bucks (2.7). The Celtics have achieved their league-leading net rating by ranking 3rd in offense (116.6) and 4th in defense (110.5). They are the only team in the top 5 in both categories. While the stats won’t matter once the playoffs begin, if the Celtics can retain their top-5 offensive and defensive ratings through the end of the season, it will further confirm their standing as a legitimate title favorite.
Minutes Load for Tatum, Brown, and Horford:
Jayson Tatum is averaging 37.3 minutes per game, 1.4 minutes more than his previous high of 35.9. Jaylen Brown is averaging 35.6 minutes, 1.1 minutes more than his previous high of 34.5. Al Horford, at age 36, is averaging 30.8 minutes per game, his highest minutes load since the 2017-18 season. One would think that the Celtics would like to scale those minutes back a bit in the remaining 27 games. The addition of Mike Muscala should help limit Horford’s load, and the Celtics will likely scour the buyout market for wing help to provide another option to Hauser to reduce regular season minutes for the Jays.
Fringe Playoff Rotation:
The Celtics primarily employed a 7-man playoff rotation last year. It consisted of Smart, Brown, Tatum, Horford, Rob, White, and Grant. Those 7 played 5,111 out of the total 5,762 playoff minutes, or 89%. Daniel Theis and Payton Pritchard were fringe rotation players and combined for another 508 minutes or 9% of the total. The deep bench mopped up the remaining 142 minutes (2%). Of course, the Celtics have since acquired Malcolm Brogdon, who will play a vital playoff role along with the returners from last year’s playoff run. With 8 accomplished locks in the playoff rotation, is there room for any other Celtic to make a push for consideration as even a fringe rotation player in the playoffs? The Celtics top 8 is so versatile that position almost doesn’t matter. It will be interesting to see who plays the best out of Pritchard, Hauser, Muscala, Kornet, and Griffin in the regular season opportunities they have left as they audition for the playing time scraps left over from the big dogs in the playoffs.
*All statistics as of Friday, February 10*