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Reconsidering the Celtics

Boston thrived after losing Gordon Hayward but has been up and down since the new year. Which C’s team will we get for the rest of the season and in the playoffs?

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I’ll never forget the silence. Just five minutes had passed in the first NBA game of the 2017-18 season, and Gordon Hayward’s season was over. The prized free agent Boston had only months earlier signed away from Utah had jumped for a lob dunk, fell awkwardly, and snapped his leg. And not a word was spoken among a congregation of Ringer staffers watching.

When talking resumed, the conversation was grim: The Celtics’ season is over. But the void left by Hayward was quickly filled by Boston’s young players. After another loss the next day, the Celtics proceeded to rip off 16 straight wins—still the longest streak of consecutive victories by any team this season. Suddenly, Boston had solidified itself as one the NBA’s elite.

The Celtics, now 43-19 heading into Wednesday’s matchup with the Hornets, have already surpassed even the greenest expectations for a team without one of its best players. But their recent struggles—including a stretch in late January when they lost five of six—have raised some questions. Chief among them: Should we be concerned about Boston? Here’s where the Celtics stand with only 20 games remaining in the fifth season of their rebuild:

What Went Right?

The Celtics’ impressive early-season winning streak helped lift them to 34-10 overall by early January, the best record in the East at that time. Kyrie Irving dazzled with his dynamic scoring ability and surpassed expectations as a facilitator, defender, and leader. Jayson Tatum, a rookie who’s “only 19,” roared out of the gates, displaying a fluid scoring game well beyond his years.

In just a few months, Brad Stevens had already zapped the tendency to settle for midrange jumpers from Tatum’s system, and turned him into a 3-point shooter who doesn’t settle for bad shots. In a different universe, he might be building bad habits by jacking up low-efficiency shots on a losing team. But in Boston, Tatum is obligated to defend and pass, just like his veteran teammates.

Perhaps most importantly, the defense, led by All-Star big man Al Horford and energizer guard Marcus Smart, dominated. The Celtics led the NBA by a wide margin in defensive rating in early January, and were, at least statistically, one of the decade’s best defenses. Despite dealing Avery Bradley in the offseason to open up space to sign Hayward and losing Jae Crowder in the Irving trade, Boston’s defense (which ranked 12th last season) not only didn’t slip, it improved. Young players like Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, and Semi Ojeleye were able to help plug the holes. Brown, now in his second season, is a thick wing with elastic arms, giving him the versatility to defend multiple positions. He has significantly improved his technique and discipline, making him a more reliable defender against top-level players. Hayward’s absence has also freed Brown to receive more reps in the pick-and-roll.

Brown’s feel for the game and at-rim finishing has a long way to go, but he’s made progress with the opportunity, showcasing improved hesitation moves and fluidity pulling up for jumpers. Tatum is ahead of Brown offensively, but together, the Jay Team has admirably filled Hayward’s shoes.

Opportunity also knocked for Rozier, who has helped fill the void left by Bradley. Rozier, 23, is a streaky scorer, but he’s a feisty, energetic perimeter defender who sets a tone for the rest of the team. In the frontcourt, Marcus Morris missed games but contributed off the bench, and both Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis served as competent anchors.

Stevens once again worked his magic to turn a lost team into a Cinderella. Danny Ainge could’ve walked into any Chipotle in Boston and been served a free burrito bowl. The young Celtics were unprecedented.

What Went Wrong?

Boston’s season took a downturn after the team’s trip to London to the play the Sixers in early January. Since flying back over the Atlantic on January 12, the Celtics are 9-9 while outscoring teams by only 0.6 points per 100 possessions. The team lost the spark that made it one of the league’s best teams. The defense has regressed. Tatum hit the rookie wall—specifically as it relates to his unsustainably red-hot 3-point shooting. The team looked straight-up exhausted, as if the adrenaline from and motivation to make up for Hayward’s loss had worn them out.

My boss’s feelings were shared by other Celtics fans on social media. But while their recent play is a far cry from earlier in the season, it’s probably more accurate to say the team is regressing to the mean—or to the level expected after Hayward went down. They’re currently on a 57-win pace; preseason betting lines for the team were set at either 55.5 or 56.5. Even without Hayward, they’re exceeding original expectations.

The growing concern may also be a product of not taking advantage of their window by acquiring more help at the trade deadline. The Celtics tried to trade for Grizzlies guard Tyreke Evans, but were unable to come to an agreement. Joe Johnson was a top target on the buyout market, but Iso Joe opted to sign with the Rockets. Trader Danny ended up not making any trades, and instead only used the disabled player exception the league granted the team for Hayward to sign center Greg Monroe. In seven games with Boston, the veteran center has continuously gotten cooked.

The Celtics prefer to switch on defense, but Monroe’s feet move like cinder blocks. He’s too slow to contain dribble penetration in pick-and-roll coverages or close out to effectively contest pull-up shooters. It’s conceivable that Monroe is still working his way back into basketball shape after playing sporadically for the Suns, but it’s not like he was ever a defensive stalwart.

The Celtics’ midseason addition has so far been a bust, but that’s only led to more opportunity for Theis, who has been surprisingly effective all season as a versatile rim protector and offensive floor spacer. They’re 3-0 since the All-Star break, and though the wins have come against the stumbling Pistons, Knicks, and Grizzlies, the recent run has been aided by rotation changes and the return of Smart, who missed 11 games after lacerating his right hand by punching a picture frame. Maybe changes weren’t necessary, and the Celtics just needed to ride out the storm. How quickly they rebounded from Hayward’s loss is atypical. It may be tough to see given the high bar they set earlier in the season, but what they’re going through now is a pretty common period of adjustment.

What’s Next?

The Celtics are in limbo right now. They’re simultaneously beating and failing to meet expectations. They’re a good, fun team that’s performing better than expected without Hayward, yet there’s still a feeling that they’re behind schedule. After making considerable progress in each of the past four seasons, things feel stagnant—which is perhaps the worst feeling possible.

While so much of the interest in the Celtics is tethered to their off-the-court moves, the postseason is the first order of business. And as it stands, I wouldn’t favor them in a series against either the Raptors or the Cavaliers. Toronto has two superstars; Boston has one. Cleveland has LeBron; Boston doesn’t. The Raptors also have a wealth of talented depth and a wonderful blend of firepower and defense; they might even be the favorites in the East, unless those old playoff habits come back to bite them in another postseason.

But NBA executives I chatted with the past few weeks are already wondering what Ainge and the front office will do thereafter. Hayward’s return, whether it comes this season (miraculously) or next, will automatically make the Celtics a whole lot better. Factor in the development of other young players—and the potential departure of LeBron James to the Western Conference this summer—and the Celtics are in position to become East favorites for the foreseeable future. The moment feels motionless, but take a step back and you’ll see that they’re still ascending.

I’ve long felt the Celtics should hold tight to their assets—from the Lakers/Kings first-round pick they received in the Tatum trade to Tatum himself—with the hopes of landing another big fish. But one executive I spoke with made a good point: The Pelicans trading Anthony Davis is nothing more than a fantasy. Even if AD, who can opt out of his current contract in 2020, was eventually made available, by that point, Boston may not even have the most to offer. Boston shouldn’t wait on that pipe dream, the executive contended, and should pounce on the next good opportunity that comes.

Makes sense. The Pelicans will hold on to Davis for dear life, and though the Celtics find themselves in this enviable position by remaining patient, there is a point when you can become too passive. The Celtics are at a stage where they need to be looking for an opportunity to put the Lakers/Kings first—which conveys this year if the Lakers end up with a pick in the 2-5 range; if it falls outside of that, the Celtics get the more favorable of the Kings’ and Sixers’ 2019 first—to use.

To act on certain opportunities, they’d have to shuffle the deck. The Celtics have an odd mix of salaries, with no players set to earn between $7 million and $20 million next season. This makes it difficult to build a package for a star player earning more than $20 million, such as Davis or Kawhi Leonard. The Celtics could conceivably re-sign Smart to a deal in the $12 million range with the intentions of later using his salary figure as a trade filler. But it seems potentially reckless to overpay for a player with anything but a guarantee you’d be able to later use the salary in a deal.

If I were the Celtics, I’d instead scope out the restricted free-agent market to potentially swing a sign-and-trade for a player who hasn’t quite hit his peak. The Magic weren’t shopping Aaron Gordon prior to the deadline, but they did listen to offers. Had Orlando not drafted Gordon fourth in 2014, he very well might’ve been Boston’s pick over Smart, whom the Celtics selected no. 6 overall. Then there’s Jabari Parker, who could pack a scoring punch off the bench. As reported prior to the deadline, it’s unlikely the Bucks will look to pay Parker this offseason.

The Celtics have avoided critical errors, such as trading five picks for Justise Winslow, and nailed virtually every notable transaction they’ve made. But there are no guarantees their hot streak continues. They shouldn’t overthink this now. They can stay on the same patient yet proactive path. Their next big decision will shape the franchise’s future.