Their issues are mainly on the offensive end. They have the worst offense in the league at the moment, scoring just a tick over 100 points per 100 possessions. That’s about four points worse than the Knicks, who rank 25th in what has been an early-season scoring surge across the league.
The loss to the Magic was illustrative. Orlando started strong and built a nice lead against the Celtics’ starters, who couldn’t keep pace. The reserve units — who have been generally excellent this season — chipped away at the advantage, but were never able to draw even. The C’s got stops down the stretch, but couldn’t score.
It was a discouraging loss because these are the games you’re supposed to win, especially at home. The Celtics are about to play seven of their next nine on the road, including a five-game trip through some of the toughest Western Conference buildings on the schedule. Taking care of business at home is a prerequisite for surviving this difficult phase of their season.
Their top-rated defense is just fine, and that’s helped the C’s split their first four games. We’re not looking for mediocrity from this team, though. We’re looking for dominance, and that’s been absent outside of an opening-night blowout against Philly.
The victory over the Sixers was so thorough that it obscured issues that have been on display since the preseason. Most importantly, the starting five of Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford needs time to gel before it can become a unit that challenges the very best in the league.
That’s understandable, considering Hayward’s season-ending injury in the opening minutes of 2017, which helped usher in the rise of Brown and Tatum as frontline players. Add Irving’s return from his own season-ending injury and you have a fascinating experiment playing out in real time with ancillary issues at every position.
There are two ways Stevens can go now. He can maintain the status quo and give this group time to develop, or start tinkering with lineups.
In a sense, he’s already doing both. The starting five has only played 26 minutes together, which is more than any other Celtics five-man unit, but it’s not a great deal of time. The starters have defended well, but struggled to score points, generating only 88.1 points per 100 possessions. Conversely, the four starters with Aron Baynes in place of Hayward has been dominant, albeit in just 11 minutes of action.
There’s a lot to like about the lineup with Baynes in the middle. His presence frees Horford to play power forward and eliminates the need for Brown or Hayward to deal with big forwards like Philly’s Dario Saric or Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac. Baynes was sorely missed against the Magic, who routinely got center Nik Vucevic mismatches in the post.
Baynes is also a low-maintenance offensive player who shoots a high percentage while not needing many attempts. He’s one less mouth to feed on an offense that needs to provide opportunity for four skilled scorers.
There is precedent for in-season lineup tunkering. Stevens routinely adjusted his starting five last season depending on the matchup, using Baynes in place of Marcus Morris or Marcus Smart when faced with a massive frontline. All three were consummate pros about the situation.
Asking one of the Brown-Hayward-Tatum wing troika to come off the bench is a bit trickier, but Stevens has already shown little regard for protocol. One of his defining traits as a coach is he makes no distinction between starters and reserves. He rode with Terry Rozier over Irving down the stretch of the opener, and few batted an eye.
Baynes has a hamstring injury, though, so this switch isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Long-term, that’s probably for the best, because their smaller lineup is exactly the kind of group that should thrive in the playoffs. What Stevens and his offensive stars need to figure out is how they will play together and through one another. This is the story of the whole season, and now Boston can’t run away from it.
Despite scoring just 90 points and shooting 40 percent from the floor against Orlando, Stevens was actually encouraged by the offensive attack. There was less settling for long two-point jumpers and the ball hit the paint before getting kicked out behind the arc. That the C’s shot only 9-for-40 from 3-point range was less important than the quality of the looks they generated. It’s a measure of how poor the offensive execution has been that this was a positive step, but all things in context.
So far, Tatum and Irving have taken on the highest share of the workload, with mixed results at best. Irving has shown flashes of his familiar brilliance on drives, but he’s shooting 39 percent from the floor and just 18 percent from behind the arc. One would assume that he’ll get his rhythm and timing back soon enough.
Tatum’s usage is more complicated. He has been feeling himself, working the mid-range to create his own shot at a higher rate than he did last season. At times he’s been brilliant; at others, he’s been forcing the action. In related news, he’s 20 years old and his development is crucial for their long-term prospects. Understanding when to take over and when to defer is as important as developing a killer turnaround jumper.
Hayward is on a minutes restriction and he acknowledged he’s feeling pain in his surgically repaired ankle. His outside shot has come around, which is encouraging, but he’s been caught in between on drives. It took Paul George most of his first season back from injury to fully recapture his form, so while they are different players in different situations, this figures to be an ongoing process.
The growing pains have been toughest for Brown, who been hunting for space and not finding much room to operate. Like everyone else on the team, his free-throw rate is way down and he hasn’t been able to finish around the rim.
As Irving and Hayward get their games back together and Tatum ascends toward stardom, Brown’s fit in the overall equation is one of the fascinating subplots of the Celtics’ evolution.
On paper this should all work beautifully, with shooting at every position and players who can create their own offense. It’s one of the few groups that could hold their own with the Warriors, Rockets, and Raptors, while also bringing a superior defensive effort. That’s the biggest reason why everyone should be patient with the process.
How many games is enough of a sample before we can begin to draw conclusions? Fifteen? Twenty? Stevens doesn’t operate like that. He treats each game and each practice as a chance to work on the things that are broken, and believes the improvements will take care of themselves with effort and attention to detail.
He’ll need that perspective this season. Like he said, they’re not as good as everyone thinks they are. Not yet, anyway.