What if this is who the Boston Celtics are? The Celtics ended the roughest stretch of their season with yet another painful loss, this one to Kemba Walker and (to a lesser extent) the Charlotte Hornets. With the 117-112 defeat, the Celtics fell to 9-8 on the young season, good for 6th place in the Eastern Conference. It’s still early, obviously, but there is every reason to be concerned that these Celtics, despite their talent, are currently just a good-not-great team. The question now is: will the team continue to play this way and, if so, should the Celtics be looking to make a move?
Now, as tough as it has been to watch, Boston struggling isn’t entirely shocking. Before the season began, analysts predicted that the Celtics could start slowly. The Celtics had to reintegrate both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, both returning from serious injuries, into a team which had a period of remarkable success without them. Plus, two of their best players during the postseason, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, had a mere three years of NBA experience between them. It wasn’t unlikely that they would have some growing pains, particularly with the return of the team’s two biggest stars. Combined with the fact that the schedule began with its toughest stretch of games, including a dreaded West Coast road trip, all of this suggested that there was a realistic chance that Boston would appear out of sorts during these first few weeks.
Still, these Celtics have been downright frustrating to watch so far. They remain one of the best defensive teams in the league, at times the best from a statistical standpoint, but remain one of its worst offensive teams. They have an uncanny ability at creating open looks and an even more uncanny ability at missing them. Irving has already returned to his position as one of the most dangerous players in the NBA but Hayward looks a long way away from being completely recovered, a shell of his former All-Star self. Some players, most notably Brown, have suffered from an obvious lack of confidence. The Bench With Attitude, despite a career-best year from Marcus Morris, has been a disappointment. The team shares the 2017-18 Celtics’ bewildering ability to surrender double-digit leads to opponents but doesn’t have that squad’s ability to pull out last second wins (although recent overtime wins over the Raptors and the Phoenix Suns were certainly encouraging, not to mention desperately needed).
So, what exactly is wrong? While it’s always dangerous playing armchair psychiatrist, there’s an element of the Celtics’ struggles that could be mental. As recently as last week, head coach Brad Stevens called them out saying “we have to build a tougher team mindset than we have,” a comment which seemed to be aimed at players’ ability to handle adversity. Last season, they were underdogs and played like it. This time around there was a part of the team that accepted the preseason hype, they came in thinking that they could come in and win games. That clearly has not been the case.
Part of the reason is, certainly, that the competition is stronger than they had imagined. The Eastern Conference is much more difficult, and not just because of the trades that brought Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors and Jimmy Butler to the Philadelphia 76ers. LeBron James’s departure to the Los Angeles Lakers seemed to spark something in the East, the idea that the conference was more wide open than it had been in years, and the preseason anointment of the Celtics only put a target on their back.
Certainly, opposing players seem to take a certain delight in torching Boston’s vaunted defense. After the loss to the Hornets, Stevens, was careful not to blame his players, saying he saw encouraging signs. Instead, he praised Walker for putting together a jaw-dropping game. He was right in doing so, but his glowing comments about Walker’s performance didn’t address the reality: opposing players have been making a habit of having season-best scoring nights against Boston. At this point, it’s not an aberration but a regular event, and that should worry the Celtics despite their otherwise intact reputation as the NBA’s toughest defense.
Should the team look into making moves? While it’s more likely now than it seemed at season’s start, it would be surprising for them to make any franchise-altering trades any time soon. While fans might look at the impending Washington Wizards fire sale and contemplate adding a Bradley Beal or John Wall to the mix, it’s hard to imagine how the team would finagle a deal for a major contract even if they wanted to. Marcus Smart might have their most tradeable contract given the salary cap, and he won’t be eligible to be traded until January 15.
Also, Boston isn’t just playing for this season. They see their current roster as the core of a team that can compete for the foreseeable future and won’t make any moves based solely on how they’re playing in the fall of 2018. It’s more likely that they will first see whether get back on track now that they’re finally facing the softer stretch of their schedule. Tonight’s game against the 4-14 New York Knicks, for instance, should be just what the doctor ordered. Their seeding in the Eastern Conference standings circa November 21st isn’t as important as how the team looks come playoff time.
Still, the Celtics should be worried about how they’re playing now and they should feel a sense of urgency. Recently, Stevens has done things like substituting his starters for the guys at the back of the bench at the end of Saturday’s loss to the Utah Jazz and starting Aron Baynes over Hayward to begin the Hornets game. There was a message behind those moves: Yes, the Celtics do have plenty of time to turn things around but it’s important for them to remember that they – like the rest of us – may not have as much time as they would like to think.