We’re about a quarter of the way into the season now, and the Boston Celtics currently sit at third in the eastern conference. That statement alone should disqualify them from being counted as a disappointment, but it’s hard to argue otherwise at this point. Sure, most pundits capped their ceiling as the third seed (some optimists made the case for a second seed, but those were few and far between), and it’s entirely possible that’s exactly where they stay as the season progresses. However, it’s not where they should be right now.
The Celtics have faced the 7th easiest schedule through 21 games according to basketball reference, and they have posted a less than stellar 1.6 net rating as well. That is the second lowest amongst all teams with a positive rating. They have improved in that area since the return of Al Horford and Jae Crowder, but not to the degree one might expect. In fact, since the return of the two aforementioned players, the team is posting the exact same net rating as it did last season.
It’s easy to say that the team will improve as the season goes on and it’s very likely that will be the case in some areas. But that statement also makes light of the issues that do need to be addressed if the team wants to make a playoff run.
Of course, it all starts on the defensive end. Coming into the season, ESPN writer Zach Lowe predicted the Celtics would lead the league in turnovers forced. So far, they rank only 14th in that category. They are forcing nearly two turnovers less per game this season, and it has hampered their offense at times.
During his tenure with the Celtics, head coach Brad Stevens has predicated his offense on a pace and space attack. The Celtics have experienced a steady rise in pace every season under Stevens and last year they averaged just over 101 possessions per game.
They also finished 16.3% of their possessions in transition. This year, that number is all the way down to 10.7%. They have also been less efficient on the fast break, dropping from 17th in points per possession down to 25th. They are not capitalizing on the easy opportunities and the inexperience of a few of their ball handlers may be to blame.
Smart and Rozier have probably been the biggest disappointments in this category so far. With the departure of Evan Turner, both men were primed for larger roles as ball handlers and neither has been up to the task so far.
Rozier has looked uncomfortable most of the times he has been asked to run the offense, and Smart has taken a step back in nearly every offensive category. Only his assist percentage has improved over last season, but with that has come a steep rise in his overall turnover rate.
It’s probably not fair to speculate on Smart’s future with the Celtics yet, after all, he remains one of the most versatile defenders in the league playing for a coach that values that skill immensely, but he has to start showing some progress on offense.
Last year Smart had what was statistically the worst three-point shooting season ever, and this year he hasn’t done much to inspire any hope of improvement. His three-point percentage, as juxtaposed with his number of attempts, is abysmal. He’s taking nearly 49.1% of his shots from deep, and his three-point accuracy he hits only 27.7% of those shots. Shooters as bad as Smart aren’t often allowed to chuck away at such alarming rates.
That isn’t to say he should be trading in those threes for drives to the rim, either. Smart makes just 47.1% of his shots within three feet, which again, is not very good at all. But the threat of him penetrating the paint opens up passing lanes and Smart may just be the best passer on the Celtics’ roster.
He’s crafty and knows how to look off defenders, and when he gets into the lane he’s very adept at finding cutters. It’s befuddling that such a gifted passer spends so much time hoisting threes before even trying to probe the defense.
A bigger issue may be the fact that the Celtics do not have as much versatility as many believed they would. The Celtics starting lineup has been terrific. They are staunch defensively and near Golden State level on offense.
They also rebound 76.4% of available defensive rebounds, a more than passable mark. Beyond that five-man unit, though, the Celtics haven’t found anything that has worked for more than brief stretches at a time.
Their next three most used lineups all sport net ratings so terrible, it makes you wonder why Stevens hasn’t axed them yet.
The Celtics small ball lineup (Isaiah Thomas-Avery Bradley-Marcus Smart-Jae Crowder-Al Horford) sounds menacing in theory. Bradley, Horford, and Crowder have all been hot from three and Thomas is a pick and roll whiz, nearly impossible to stop in space. The quintet also features four plus defenders, something not many small lineups can boast. But they have hemorrhaged points at an alarming rate. They give up 138 points per 100 possessions and rebound only 55.2% of their opponents’ misses.
Stevens has also been about trying to put his five best players on the floor and working out the kinks later, but if his five best players cannot produce positive results, that strategy loses a lot of its luster.
One lineup Stevens may want to experiment more with is the starting lineup, with the exception of putting Kelly Olynyk in for Amir Johnson. It’s a lineup that has played just 15 minutes together so far, but the potential is obvious. Surrounding Thomas with four near 40% three-point shooters is creating a matchup nightmare for defenses. Olynyk and Horford are both terrific passers as well, and for a team that lacks consistent on ball creators, the necessity for passing that leads to directly to assists is high.
Are there reasons to be optimistic? Definitely. Remember, the Celtics started out 19-19 last season before blazing to the finish line with a 29-15 record. There’s always a transition period with new players, and it may take time until they are all completely aware of their new big man’s tendencies before they morph into an elite defense and vice versa. Players also need more time to adapt to their new roles and grow comfortable with the newfound responsibilities.
Alas, though, that is the problem for the Celtics. They aren’t a finished product by any means, but they are also not a rebuilding team in the strictest sense of the word. The expectations are real now, and they have to advance in the playoffs to justify all the offseason hype. Trying to mold players into new roles takes time, and when it comes to the present, the Celtics just might not have that if they want to take the next step.