The Celtics' Search for a New Identity

The Celtics haven't played as well as advertised to start the season. It'll take a little more than better shot selection to get back on track.

The Boston Celtics have been a great case study as proof that chemistry and identity are essential for success in the NBA.

Scoring across the league has exploded in its opening week, and yet, the most hyped Celtics roster in a decade is having trouble filling up the basket. It's hard to pinpoint any one thing as the cause of their struggles because most everything on the court looks like sound basketball. Their defensive intensity hasn't missed a beat. The ball movement started off stagnant, but has been coming along nicely. They've been given tons of open shots from their favorite spots and missed most of them. They play a classically unselfish brand of basketball that Brad Stevens has taught them to play. Sometimes, I think this leads to passive plays that hold the team back instead of getting everyone involved.

Identified by injuries

The Hospital Celtics lit the Eastern Conference on fire down the final stretch of last season. We asked the same questions over and over as they toppled tough Western Conference opponents and feisty Eastern Conference playoff matchups - How on Earth are they this good? Why won't they die already? Should they trade everybody and build around Terry Rozier?

As little sense as it makes, we knew how the Celtics would manage to wins games, even if we didn't know why it worked. Marcus Morris will hit totally unreasonable fade-aways over strong defenders. Terry Rozier will cross somebody over so badly that their ankles fly into the stands. Semi Ojeleye will defend the best players on the planet without breaking a sweat. Marcus Smart will play the center position for a minute. Jayson Tatum will score the big buckets. It'll work out. There was some security in knowing the game plan and how nobody could plan against it. There was strength in the chaos. Now, they're back to square one. How can they turn it around?

Organic naming process

The fact that I called them the "Hospital Celtics" to begin with tells you what that group had that this one lacks: a story.

Is there any surprise there? The team rallied around what they didn't have, and are just now getting the opportunity to see what they can do with a healthy starting five. The quest for a new identity is concerning for fans that slouch deeper into the couch every time an uncontested three-pointer rattles out of the rim, and obviously aggravating to Brad Stevens who isn't shy to give credit where it's due, admitting that "Orlando is better than Boston right now" after a 93-90 home loss to the Magic.

Sometimes the low points bring the best out of a team. We've been writing and talking about the Celtics as if they're too good to fail since the first preseason game, so we can try to spin bad losses into future successes if we see the glass half full. The other possible direction is that this is the beginning of the descent into madness and mediocrity. I don't think it will come to that.

Whatever form the Celtics take on next is one that has to come organically. It's not a matter of deciding how they're going to close out games, but recognizing their strengths when things work out. Maybe the isolation plays start to work out and we call them the "Iso Celtics". Maybe Kyrie Irving becomes the next King in the Fourth and we remember this as "the Kyrie era". The insistence I see from some people that the team needs to figure things out sooner rather than later tells me that they don't value the process of building chemistry. For some perspective, consider the fact that The Miami Heat started their first season with LeBron James with a 9-8 record after kicking off the season with an 88-80 loss to Boston in his debut. At the time, it was trendy to trash LeBron for deferring to his teammates in late-game situations where people thought he should take over. I even remember him passing up a potential game-winner to shovel the ball to Udonis Haslem instead. He missed. It wasn't a bad play, but it wasn't the right play either. And that's where the Celtics are right now. They're doing the right things, while also taking a lot of bad shots.

Whether or not you think these October games matter, there are situations that show what the team is made out of that shouldn't be ignored. The Celtics were passing and then over-passing in a tight game against Orlando. They barely squeezed out a win before that in New York when Kyrie decided to take over. All the while, Jayson Tatum has been the leading scorer in each victory as of now (10/26). If nothing else, there's been some consistency with Tatum, which is as good a starting point as any. As for fixing other problems, we won't know how it's done until we see it.

What we know

The defense is as capable as it was last year, if not better. While Hayward's offense is still coming back to him, he's kept the score within reach by playing disruptive, physical defense. Opponents have targeted Hayward on offense, presumably because of that recovering ankle, but Hayward has held his own nicely so far. If a guy like him can still defend, run the fast break, and facilitate offense as he has been, then I have no doubts that his shot will come around eventually. It just wouldn't make sense for his athleticism to recover fully without his shooting mechanics eventually coming around as well. The same can be said about Irving. Six months away from basketball is a long time and it might be too much to ask that he pick up from where he left off from the jump. The Hospital Celtics (now partially known as the Bench With Attitude) haven't missed a beat, so they'll act as the backbone of the team while everybody works through their struggles.

At their peak, not much will look different than it is now. There's nothing currently wrong that some all around better shooting can't fix.

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