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The Celtics Are Still a Long Way From Greatness

Boston isn’t looking like the contender it was expected to be before the season. What needs to change to put the team back on track?

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Brad Stevens is trying, Jennifer. Things just aren’t working. The Celtics have lost two games in a row, are 4-6 over their past 10 games, and have one of the five worst offenses in the league. The Celtics’ depth was supposed to be their strength. And instead, it has warped into one of their main problems. Gordon Hayward isn’t confident enough in the integrity of his leg to play up to his potential yet. Jayson Tatum might be too confident, shooting long 2-pointers like he trained with Kobe over the summer (oh wait, he did). Terry Rozier wants more playing time. Jaylen Brown looks unsure of his new role. And Kyrie Irving, well, he’s had no choice but to try to win games himself like he did on Friday night in a 43-point performance against the Raptors. But, at the same time, he’s been playing shoddy defense, calling out the team’s lack of veteran leadership, and questioning the commitment of the team’s younger players. Boston is in an escape room and each player is looking for the way out on his own.

Stevens made his first big adjustment of the season on Monday in a loss to Charlotte, replacing Hayward in the starting lineup with Aron Baynes. It was long overdue—the Hayward starting lineup had played more minutes than any other for Boston while posting a minus-4.2 net rating—but it didn’t end up helping much. One of the sadder story lines this season has been watching Hayward, a shell of his former All-Star self, have to try to make a difference on a contending team right away. It’s hard to blame him and easier to blame Stevens, who even after removing Hayward from the starting lineup, still played him 31 minutes, including in crunch time when Boston was hit by a Kemba Walker avalanche. Hayward grabbed eight rebounds and had four assists, but scored only four points on one made field goal. Baynes played only seven minutes.

Hayward’s playmaking as a wing is badly needed, especially on nights when Irving struggles, but he can only provide it in short spurts right now, if at all. Hayward is essential to the best version of this Celtics team, the one that was supposed to be the favorite in the East. But right now, he is detrimental to their development. And the rest of the team’s shotmaking isn’t helping. Boston is taking about two more midrange shots per game than it did last season, averaging the sixth-most such shots in the league this season. And the Celtics are shooting 38.1 percent on those midrange attempts, putting them in the bottom third of the league.

The Celtics offense can’t pick a consistent strategy. On some nights, Boston tries to be egalitarian; on others, the team gives the ball to Irving and watches him go. Sometimes, the Celtics end up relying on guys like Marcus Morris to keep them in games. For the past few years, the Celtics have tried to build a team that could win now and in the future. They still have a treasure trove of assets to lead them into the next five years, but what happens when some of those assets, like Tatum, develop faster than expected and throw the present for a loop?

This is where Stevens is supposed to come into play. The coach should be able to juggle the personalities that make up a team oozing with talent. We know Stevens knows how to coach an underdog and get the best out of a team that doesn’t have enough. But now Stevens has a new problem. Can he lead a team when the roster’s talent overwhelms, even mitigates, his coaching genius?

Maybe part of the regular-season process is playing Hayward often in order to get him back into a groove, even if that may cost the team a few games. But the franchise has high expectations (Boston’s over/under was 60 wins and it’s on pace for just 43), and the spotlight won’t take take process-over-results philosophies into account. The Celtics were supposed to be a finished product. Right now, they’ve got a longer way to go than we all expected.