Six months ago, the Boston Celtics were six minutes from reaching the NBA Finals – without two of their most talented players.
Six weeks ago, the Celtics were heavy favorites to win the Eastern Conference and play in the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.
After all, stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward were back from injuries alongside Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes, Daniel Theis and Semi Ojeleye.
If you guessed which team would be atop the East at the season's quarter pole, you would have picked Boston. Instead, the Celtics are 11-10 and behind conference-leading Toronto (18-4), Milwaukee (14-6), Philadelphia (14-8), Indiana (13-8) and Detroit (11-7).
Even Boston coach Brad Stevens conceded after a recent loss, “I just don’t know that we’re that good. Maybe it’s not a wake-up call if you keep getting beat.”
The Celtics had a road win Monday against New Orleans. Maybe that’s the beginning of turning around their season, but it will take more than one game to buy that version of this team.
After a recent loss, Irving said, “I hate to keep saying it takes time but this game, it’s just so fragile, you've got to do little things, you have to earn your wins in this league. … Until we figure that out, we’ll be struggling.”
So what’s wrong with the Celtics?
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Let’s start with Irving and Hayward. Re-introducing them into the rotation hasn’t been as smooth as some thought. Both are high-usage players (the percentage of plays used by a player while on the court) and finding the right mix is tricky.
Tatum and Brown emerged as offensive threats during the playoffs. They made plays without Irving and Hayward. Now, Irving has the ball a lot, and Hayward is looking for his offense.
They’re trying to do that while making sure other players, Horford included, are part of the offense. And let’s not forget Hayward missed all but one game last season, and while he might be 100% healthy, he’s not 100% the player he was. That’s going to take more time, coupled with Irving and Hayward learning how to play alongside each other.
Where's the offense?
Scoring was an issue for Boston last season, and it’s a bigger issue now. The Celtics are 25th in offensive rating, scoring 105.5 points per 100 possessions. Milwaukee is No. 1 at 115.6.
Boston is 26th in field goal percentage (44%) and 18th in three-point shooting (35%). The Celtics also are 29th in free throw attempts per game at 19.3. Eight teams make at least that many per game. Horford and Morris have better shooting percentages this season than last but Irving, Brown, Tatum and Rozier are shooting worse.
It’s easy to forget that Brown and Tatum are just in their third and second seasons, respectively. They’re still going to have those kinds of ups and downs. If you’re going to let them play major roles in the offense – and they should – those inconsistencies are part of the game.
Finding a way to maximize all that talent has proven problematic. The Celtics’ most-used lineup (Horford, Hayward, Irving, Brown, Tatum) has a negative minus-4.5 net rating, scoring just 90.5 points per 100 possessions. The unit’s defense is really good, but it can’t score.
With Brown (tailbone injury) sidelined against New Orleans, Stevens started Horford, Morris, Smart, Tatum and Irving, and that group had a plus-35 net rating, scoring 131.8 points per 100 possessions in 20 minutes. For the season, that five-man unit has a plus-25.2 net rating, scoring 121.7 points per 100 possessions.
Maybe that’s Boston’s best starting lineup with Hayward and Brown off the bench.
Stevens is good enough and the players are talented enough to figure this out. It’s a long season, and if the players are willing to sacrifice, there’s no reason to believe the Celtics can’t compete for the Eastern Conference title.
It’s too early to make drastic changes 21 games into the season considering the Celtics have incorporated two All-Stars into the rotation that weren’t there for significant portions of last season. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge has been patient for so long trying to put this team together, he shouldn't seek to dismantle it yet.
That doesn’t mean Ainge shouldn’t be plotting moves – whether it be before the trade deadline or after the Finals – depending on how the season unfolds. And come June, Boston will have to deal with Irving’s free agency. Irving got in front of the topic in the preseason, stating he plans to re-sign with Boston, but the two sides need to see eye to eye on financial terms.
Morris and Rozier are unrestricted free agents and Horford can opt out of the final year of his contract this summer.
That’s for later, but roster decisions hover over the team. How the Celtics perform in the remaining three quarters, plus the playoffs, will help determine those decisions.
In a league that moves fast, the calendar won't wait for the Celtics.