Boston Celtics
Boston forward Jayson Tatum against the Atlanta Hawks. Photo: Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

What’s wrong with the Boston Celtics?

What is wrong with the Boston Celtics?

For the first time since head coach Brad Stevens took the helm of Boston’s good ship Celtic back in 2013, the team was underperforming against expectations. Stevens took over a squad led by Jared Sullinger, Avery Bradley and prime Jeff Green. Somehow, Stevens turned the Celtics into a playoff team and in his second season in charge, rebuilding Celtic Pride well ahead of schedule.

A series of transactions by over/underrated (delete as per your personal preference) general manager Danny Ainge, aligned with Stevens inventive offensive tactics and shrewd defensive scheming quickly saw the Celtics thrust into true contender status. Three conference finals appearances in the past four seasons are testament to Stevens’ ability to have his squads compete at the top end of the league.

This season, however, Boston isn’t their usual elite selves. After their recent loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, the Celtics dropped below .500 with a 25-26 record seeing them sit an uncomfortable 8th in the Eastern Conference. Should the regular season end today, the Celtics would enter a play-in round against the Indiana Pacers, a team that due to injuries, has yet to have its best lineup take the floor together. In other words, a team far better than their record suggests. Boston, on the other hand, has generally had close to a full deck to play with.

So, what is it that ails these Celtics?

Marcus Smart’s calf injury cost him 18 games through February. In a thin backcourt rotation that bears an unhealthy reliance on surprising rookie Payton Pritchard and, before his trade, a fossilized Jeff Teague, that hurt the Celtics. To add to the issues, Kemba Walker had a belated start to the season. The soon-to-be 31 year old’s constant need to take games off to maintain his troublesome knee doesn’t help matters. Missing Smart’s toughness and all world defense and Kemba’s ability to hit the deep trey off the dribble, unmatched outside of a pair of West Coast assassin’s, are not enough on their own to slow down such a talented team.

Jayson Tatum played the first half of the campaign well enough to earn his inaugural All-Star nod last season. After the showcase, though, he was immense. Check out Tatum’s pre and post All-Star stats from last season:

2019-20PPGRPGAPGSPGFG%3PFG3P%FTMFT%
Pre All Star22.46.92.91.344.3%2.638.2%3.681.3%
Post All Star26.67.13.41.547.1%3.746.0%4.880.9%
Jayson Tatum: pre/post 2020 All Star game. Per Basketball Reference

Tatum was a top 30 player before the break and a top 10 player afterward. He was the primary propellant of the Celtics run to the conference finals, where they ran into a Miami Heat juggernaut.

Tatum’s overall numbers are similar to last season, though he’s not quite been the flamethrower this year as he was to close 2020. He’s certainly not been a disappointment, by any measure though. He simply hasn’t been prime Kevin Durant. Tatum is shooting fewer shots at the rim and his free throw and three-point attempts have dropped. He’s shooting more floaters and contested jumpers which are all prime indicators of increased defensive attention. Part of that is a result of Tatum’s magnificence close to last season; part of that is the Smart/Kemba injuries; part of that is the realization that playing alongside Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter is easier than playing with Semi Ojeleye and Tristan Thompson.

Ahh, yes. Mr. Thompson. After Enes Kanter’s matador defense gave back every basket he scored, the long-time Cleveland Cavalier was seen as the defensive answer at center for the Celtics, and to a certain extent, he has been. He’s still an excellent rebounder and adequate shot blocker; better than Kanter, in any case. The issue is that the offense craters with him on the floor. Thompson has lost a step and doesn’t have the bounce that he possessed earlier in his career. That severely hampers his ability as a role man. He’s never been anything approaching a playmaker. That was fine when LeBron James or Kyrie Irving monopolized the basketball in Cleveland. In Stevens’ whirring attacking sets, Thompson’s lack of fluency and effectively puts the offense in treacle. That, in turn, means more hero ball from Tatum, Walker and the much improved Jaylen Brown.

Daniel Theis presented the opposite problem. He’s a good outside shooter, an underrated passer and can move his feet on defense. Theis is undersized at the five position so don’t expect him to slow down Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic or Anthony Davis. In any case, he’s a Chicago Bull after the trade deadline.

Before turning Gordon Hayward into $28 million of ‘potential’ last off-season, the Celtics were up to their ears in trade talks with the Indiana Pacers. Whilst the eventual sticking point was the value of Doug McDermott against Victor Oladipo, shot-blocking machine Myles Turner was Ainge’s ultimate target. Turner is an elite rim protector who currently spaces the floor. For an All-Star low post beast, Turner would fit hand-in-glove with these Celtics. Imagine how the Celtics would look on offense with the superior Turner in Theis’ former role, but with Rudy Gobert on defense! That’s what the Celtics could have had this season.

For all of their personnel concerns, there are two other factors holding the Celtics back that can’t be fixed by trades or any of Stevens’ whiteboard wizardry: youth and luck.

The Celtics primary offensive players are young aside from Walker. Tatum is 22, Brown is 24 and even Smart, a complementary offensive piece at best, is only 26. Most of these guys are still rounding out their games (which when you think about it is kind of frightening!). Youth and inconsistency go hand-in-hand. As such, it makes sense that they’ll go through peaks and troughs as they learn to deal with different scenarios and increased defensive attention.

Where that inconsistency has most clearly manifested itself this season is in the C’s clutch play. That first 25 win season aside, throughout Stevens’ tenure, Boston has been a positive clutch team, with net ratings ranging from +1.1 to a truly elite +11.7 per Basketball Reference. This season they’ve regressed to a ghastly -8.7 in clutch situations., With Thompson usually sitting in late-game situations, the defense hasn’t been great. Worryingly it’s Boston’s inability to put the ball in the bucket that has hurt the most: their 102.1 offensive rating in the clutch is over 10 points worse than last season.

So what can the Celtics do to pull themselves out of their predicament?

They could hope for another leap from Tatum. He has been better since the All-Star break, but the difference is not nearly as stark as at this point last season. Brown has unexpectedly regressed a touch from his red hot early season form, though he’s still performing at an All-Star level. Walker could find his groove and Boston will need him to if they’re to make a late push for home court in round one.

Of course, Ainge, despite being linked to former Orlando Magic men Aaron Gordon, who would have been a great fit, and Nikola Vucevic, wound up with a perceived consolation prize in their former running mate Evan Fournier. While it was seen as a failure in the transactions immediate aftermath, and Fournier has so far struggled to adapt to a less featured role, the Frenchman does open up some intriguing opportunities for a coach as creative as Stevens.

On a practical level, Fournier gives the Celtics another shooter to space the floor for Tatum, Brown and Walker. He also gives that backcourt some sorely-needed depth allowing Walker to rest that knee more regularly. He lessens the need to lean on Pritchard as he cuts his teeth in the league.

Interestingly, he opens up the possibility of a true 5-out lineup of Fournier/Smart/Walker/Brown/Tatum where Smart would nominally guard the opposition big man. That lineup would open the floor right up on offense and offer true switchability on defense. Realistically, only Embiid in the east and Jokic in the west have the low post chops to punish those lineups, but who do those behemoths guard at the other end? That five would play the likes of Brook Lopez, Clint Capela or Deandre Jordan off the floor.

The Theis trade, made as a cost-cutting side consideration to the Fournier deal, opens up more minutes for the Timelord Robert Williams. The third-year man has shown the ability to switch on defense while protecting the rim (1.8 blocks per game in only 19 minutes). He’s already a better playmaker than Theis. Even though he doesn’t have the German’s shooting range, that doesn’t matter as much if he plays with Fournier and the three star tandem.

Williams still makes all sorts of rotation mistakes on defense. He’s far too twitchy looking for blocked shots. He has enough speed and agility to recover his mistakes, though. He’s likely the Celtics center of the future and he might just be their center of the present.

As much as the Celtics are struggling – they haven’t won more than two consecutive games in over a month – there are viable paths for the C’s to get their mojo back as the playoffs approach. Be it the Timelord’s development, a funky small ball quintet, or internal improvement from the established leaders, the Celtics could be a team that nobody wants to see in round one of the playoffs. They could also flame out before the playoffs even begin.

What’s left of their season will be a fascinating study.

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