All-Star Weekend has come and gone, and the games are, mercifully, about to start counting again. Just 22 regular season games remain in the 2022-23 NBA Season, and the Boston Celtics are sprinting to the finish line with their lofty postseason hopes in mind. The Celtics are the NBA’s best team, but the 73-9 Warriors they are not; there is still plenty to ponder regarding this team as we enter the dog days of the regular season. As we look ahead to the stretch run, lets take a look at some of the key storylines the team will need to address moving forward.
Is the current wing depth sufficient?
With arguably the deepest roster in the NBA, the Celtics don’t exactly have very many holes in their lineup. The trade deadline brought erstwhile Oklahoma City Thunder big man Mike Muscala into the fold, adding needed depth and injury insurance to the frontcourt rotation, as well as another proven shooter. Now, the last point of concern lies on the wing: behind Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the depth chart consists of just Sam Hauser.
It’s been a rollercoaster of a season for Hauser. He looked like a breakthrough player in the early weeks, when just about nobody on the team could miss shots. Since that point, though, he’s spent a significant portion of the season teetering on the edge of the rotation, though he’s bounced back to an extent in February. The book on Hauser is fairly short: if the threes are falling, he works; if they aren’t, he doesn’t.
The Celtics’ open roster spot remains the wild card here. They have a $3.2 million Disabled Player Exception at their disposal, meaning that they can offer a free agent more money and a better chance at a title than just about any other playoff contending team. Buyout players are highly unlikely to make an impact in a playoff situation, but in the context of soaking up some regular season minutes to lighten the load on the stars, there’s some value to be found in players like Will Barton or Stanley Johnson.
Do the Celtics feel they need to add another wing presence outside of Hauser? Their reported interest in Danny Green (now with the Cleveland Cavaliers) suggests that they do. They’ll have until the end of the regular season to determine what the right fit may be.
How will they manage injury concerns?
It’s fortunate that the Celtics have the depth they do, because they haven’t been the beneficiaries of particularly good injury luck. They’ve seen players shuttle in and out of the lineup all year long, starting with Williams III’s 29-game absence to open the season and leading into a more recent rash of injuries that saw players like Smart and Brown sidelined for extended stretches of time. It’s remarkably impressive that the Celtics have maintained ownership of the league’s best record despite their losses.
Signs are pointing to a healthier Celtics roster in the near future. Smart returned to the court in the team’s final game before the break, and Brown debuted his new protective mask in the All-Star Game. When they return to play against Indiana on Thursday, they’ll do so with a clean injury report (Gallinari notwithstanding) for the first time in weeks.
Maintaining their health into the postseason becomes one of the team’s top priorities down the stretch. They’ve been judicious with rest and injury management to this point; Horford and Williams III have traded rest days on back-to-backs, and they’ve taken their time in returning players to the lineup after getting hurt. Those practices will likely continue, but additional consideration will have to be given to buying rest for Tatum and Brown. Can they keep the stars fresh while maintaining winning momentum down the stretch?
Should Derrick White start?
In the weeks leading up to the break, the story of the Celtics was the play of Derrick White. As more of the roster hit the sidelines with injuries, White’s responsibility on both ends of the floor increased immensely. He responded with some of the best basketball of his NBA career: 19 points, six assists, five rebounds and a block per game across the last 12 games before the break, including a 43% shooting mark from behind the three-point arc and the second-longest streak of at least two made threes in the NBA behind Steph Curry.
White’s hot streak has naturally raised some questions about where he should sit in the hierarchy of the Boston rotation. Ticketed as the seventh or eighth man on the roster entering the season, he’s now started 51 games for the Celtics, and he’s the only player in the roster to have appeared in all 59. Talent-wise, he may not be one of the four or five best players on the roster, but in terms of importance, perhaps only Tatum and Brown have mattered more.
Last season’s starting lineup of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Robert Williams III was one of the league’s best lineups, but it has barely been a factor this season. A combination of injuries and rest days has limited the five to just six games and 29 minutes of shared court time, with a less-than-impressive -1.3 net rating in that sparse amount of time.
With all this taken into account, should the Celtics turn his fill-in role as a starter into a more permanent one? With Tatum, Brown and Smart locked into their starting spots, a promotion for White would have to come at the expense of either Horford or Williams, sacrificing the double-big looks that have been at the heart of the team’s recent success. White certainly deserves an increased minutes load on the healthy roster, but until we can see more of the current starting five on the court, it may be a premature decision.
Can they hang onto the top seed in the East?
All of these smaller questions feed into the single big one facing the Celtics as the regular season nears its end: can they fend off the Milwaukee Bucks and ensure that the Eastern Conference Playoffs go through Boston?
Last season’s Celtics provide a reasonable case against the importance of playoff seeding and hunting for ideal matchups. Falling short of the top seed, the Celtics opted to play for the second — and a first-round matchup against Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets — while the Bucks rested their rotation to fall to the third — and, consequently, the Chicago Bulls. They proceeded to win their way through what was probably the most challenging sequence of playoff opponents possible: the Nets, Bucks and Heat.
This year, though, the landscape looks a little bit different. There’s no Durant-shaped boogeyman lurking on the lower end of the conference, but the cream of the crop looks more formidable. The Bucks are hanging around the top, riding a 12-game winning streak into the break, while the Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers are lurking with the second- and fourth-best net ratings in basketball, respectively. The Celtics currently boast the best road record in the NBA at 18-10, but in an especially home-court-driven NBA season (all four of the East’s top seeds have at least 23 wins at home) securing home court for the postseason would be phenomenally valuable.