The Boston Celtics are a study in mediocrity. Everything from their .500 record, to their lack of consistency from game to game (and even quarter to quarter), along with their inability to close out games at home or compete on the road, point to a team that is going nowhere but the middle of the standings.
Coming into Monday night’s game against the Pelicans, the C’s were closer to the bottom of the Eastern Conference than they were to the top, where their division rivals from Toronto have carved out a comfortable 6.5 game cushion. For a team that had a preseason over/under of 59 wins and was a trendy pick to win a championship, the first quarter of the season has been a massive disappointment.
The C’s have offensive problems ranging from poor shooting to an embarrassing lack of free throw attempts. They don’t play with cohesion or force, resulting in a mess of missed threes and contested jumpers.
Their elite defensive ranking is also a bit of a mirage. The C’s have been shredded by scoring guards like Jamal Murray (48 points), Devin Booker (38), and Kemba Walker (43), to say nothing of Trey Burke (29), the Knick vagabond who buried them last week in an unconscionable home loss. Even Utah’s Ricky Rubio, who’s been mired in a season-long shooting slump, got well against the C’s with 20 on the second night of a back-to-back.
That Utah game was just another in a long string of losses in which that extra bit of grittiness and resolve was beyond their grasp. When the going gets grimy, as it did on Saturday night in Dallas, the C’s crumbled under the wave of a J.J. Barea scoring splurge. This is not who we thought they were.
Let’s be charitable: slow starts have been a Celtics staple under Brad Stevens.
Three years ago, they were 22-21 before finally catching fire in late January. Two years ago they were 13-12 before developing into a consistent winner by mid-December. Every Celtics season has been a journey of discovery, and some have been slower ones than others.
Except, of course, for last season. The C’s were 17-3 after 20 games, impressing everyone with their toughness after a season-ending injury to Gordon Hayward.
But last year is so last year. We’re a quarter of the way through the season and this is a team without a discernible identity.
The loss to Burke and the Knicks was so horrific that everyone from Stevens to Kyrie Irving took turns calling out their lack of toughness. This has been a consistent theme from Marcus Smart, for whom toughness is a prerequisite. Beyond the woeful shooting and the lack of offense, this is the most troubling aspect of the Celtics’ struggles.
In previous years under Stevens, the Celtics won games by simply playing hard nearly every night. On nights when it wasn’t going their way, they dug deeper and made it happen.
That hasn’t happened enough over the full 48 minutes this year. We live in an analytical world where everything needs to be measured and diagrammed, but sometimes it really is that simple.
The Celtics, and everyone else, took a lot about last season for granted
This was supposed to be easy. Take a young and talented core, add in two veteran all-stars and proceed directly to the Finals. But it’s never that easy.
The good news is that Irving seems to be recovered from his season-ending knee surgery and is playing as well as ever. They’ve needed him to be great. Without Kyrie in the lineup, the offense goes from bad to unwatchable.
The bad news is that Hayward struggled so much that he’s now coming off the bench. There have been some positive signs — he’s been a solid rebounder and is still one of their better playmakers — but Hayward is trying to figure out what he can still do on the court after his injury. The C’s are trying to figure out the same thing.
Without Hayward last season, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were forced to grow up in a hurry. Without Irving during the postseason, Terry Rozier had to learn how to be a starting point guard. That all three succeeded tells us a lot about their talent. That all three are struggling now says a lot about their inexperience.
Tatum has been much better of late, averaging 18-and-6 on 50 percent shooting over his last nine games following a 1-for-7 dud against the Suns. Consistency is still an issue, but his offensive game is starting to fall into place. With select few exceptions, the growth trajectory of young players is anything but a straight line. (See also: Mitchell, Donovan.)
The outlook has been less promising for Brown, who has veered awkwardly between all-out aggression and looking completely lost. Rozier has been in a season-long shooting slump and hasn’t impacted games off the bench with his speed and tenacity.
The Celtics don’t need either of them to be great, but they need them to be great in their roles. Asking 20-something players who have tasted individual success to sacrifice for the greater good while everyone around them struggles is a tricky compromise, but one that has to be made for a team with championship aspirations.
If you’ve ever wanted to get your shots in on Brad Stevens, now is the time
You can’t give Stevens credit for all the good things that have happened on his watch and not point out the inconsistencies that have plagued this group. Just as overachieving isn’t all coaching, underachieving isn’t all on the players.
Take the Celtics’ maddening habit of operating in the mid-range area. The two most notable offenders are Irving and Tatum, who also happen to be their best scorers by a wide margin. Those long 2’s aren’t always acts of basketball heresy. Sometimes they’re acts of desperation for an offense that can’t generate a good enough look on its own.
Those long 2’s haven’t come at the expense of three-point shots. The C’s still get up almost 36 three-point attempts per game, the fourth-most in the league. They just don’t make that many of them. If you’re looking for a silver lining, it should be only a matter of time before some of those shots start falling a little more consistently.
But those long 2’s do come at the expense of shots at the rim. As a team, the C’s just don’t attack the basket all that often. They’re also not a great passing team, ranking 19th in passes per game and 17th in points generated via assists. For an offense that relies on ball movement and unselfish play, too often they’re left trying to create one-on-one. That’s fine if you’re Kyrie Irving, but less great if you’re anyone else.
You can say that some of their problems are structural, or you could say that some of it is messaging. Their focus has been on getting great shots, when good ones would be preferable to relying on mid-range voodoo.
Whatever the case, Stevens has not gotten the best out of this group yet. His track record says that he will. The schedule eases off a bit in December, and January is loaded with home games. If we’re still talking about these issues at the NBA All-Star break, then we may have gone past the point of no return.
Their win over New Orleans on Monday was huge
Not only was it a quality win against a solid Western Conference opponent, it was also as complete and thorough a performance as they’ve had since opening night against Philly.
They played with pace and got out in transition. They employed a balanced offensive attack and rarely settled. Contributions came from everywhere, and when New Orleans made its runs, the C’s had answers.
There’s no reason they shouldn’t play that hard, and that well, most nights.
So can the Celtics make a run back toward contention?
That’s the immediate concern. The Celtics are already flirting with the luxury tax and are about to get a lot more expensive.
Irving has said publicly that he’d like to be back, and with that comes a max contract extension. Horford can opt out of his current deal, although one wonders if he will considering he’s due another $30 million if he plays out his option. Hayward is signed for two more years at $30-plus million a season. Marcus Morris, who has been one of the team’s most consistent players this year, will enter free agency this summer. Rozier will be a restricted free agent.
They’ve got future draft picks from the Clippers and Grizzlies coming due that look to be in the teens or even 20s, and that highly valued 2019 selection from Sacramento via the Tatum/Markelle Fultz trade now looks more like a late lottery pick than a top-three choice. If the Celtics can’t get Anthony Davis or some other equivalent superstar, this is their team going forward. Patience is required, even as it gets harder to justify remaining calm.
It should be somewhat comforting that the Celtics are not alone in their early-season struggles.
The Utah Jazz have also been maddeningly inconsistent, while the Houston Rockets are a sub-.500 team. No one’s giving up the ghost on either Utah or Houston, and they shouldn’t with the Celtics either.
After all, they own victories over the other three top Eastern Conference teams: Toronto, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. Even if Hayward is never able to recapture his all-star form, there are enough quality players on hand to contend for a trip to the Finals.
The Celtics are simply too talented to continue playing with this level of dysfunction.