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Celtics’ Slow Start Disappointing, But Not Surprising

Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire

If you’re a Boston Celtics fan, you’re probably a little disappointed with how the Celtics have started the season. Yes, they had a nice opening-night win, but that was against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers. Since then, they dropped an Atlantic Division showdown to the Toronto Raptors at home, fell to the San Antonio Spurs (okay, no big deal) and then proceeded to lose to the Indiana Pacers, a team that most felt Boston would be better than this year.

That leaves the C’s at 1-3 entering Friday night’s matchup against the Washington Wizards.

Discouraging? Yes. Surprising? Not really.

The Celtics entered the 2015-16 campaign not even knowing what their best starting five would be. Head coach Brad Stevens began the season rolling with Tyler Zeller and David Lee in the frontcourt. After that didn’t work out so well over the club’s first three games, Stevens switched to Amir Johnson and Jared Sullinger before Wednesday night’s loss to the Pacers.

Clearly, Stevens himself doesn’t even know which direction to go just yet.

“It’s not an easy job for Brad,” said Sullinger of how his coach is managing Boston’s depth, per Jay King of Mass Live. “I commend him on the way he’s handling it. He’s doing a damn good job.”

It’s certainly not easy. You have six guys fighting for minutes up front, not to mention a glut of combo guards:

“We’re just going to keep plugging away,” added the 6’9″ forward. “It’s only four games in. We’ve got 78 more to go. We’re not really worried.”

That may be so, but it could take a little while before Stevens finally settles on a rotation, and while the Eastern Conference is still clearly inferior to the West, it has absolutely improved this season. That means a smaller margin for error.

I mentioned in a recent article that the Celtics might actually have too much depth. Because so many guys are playing significant minutes, it’s difficult for the team as a whole to get into a rhythm. When there’s so much volatility in the rotation, players can’t get comfortable, nor can they get into any kind of set routine.

“We’ll petition again today to see if we can play (eight) players at time, but I don’t think we’ll be able to,” joked Stevens, via King.

While having too much depth may seem like a cushy problem to have, it isn’t when you don’t even really know who your best players are.

That brings us to our next point: are the Celtics even that good?

Some analytics gurus certainly thought they would be.

For example, Nathan Walker of Nylon Calculus used a formula that projected Boston to win 52 games this season.

Looking at Walker’s top 10, it’s almost like a case of “what doesn’t belong?” Above the C’s are the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Spurs, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers. In other words, the six teams that most people felt would be the six best teams in the league this year.

And then…the Celtics?

Now keep in mind that this isn’t necessarily Walker’s opinion. He used a mathematical formula to determine each team’s win-loss record for the 2015-16 season.

Of course, there’s a such thing as outliers, and that certainly seemed to be the case with the C’s.

No matter how much their young players improved, it was hard to fathom Boston being a 50+ win team, even in the East. There was just too much uncertainty, and, to put it flatly, not enough star power.

Sure, the Celtics have some nice young talent in the way of Sullinger, Marcus Smart and Isaiah Thomas, but their roster doesn’t jump off the page and make you say, “You know what? This could be a REALLY good team.”

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Boston isn’t that good. It’s a decent squad, but hardly one that any of the top-tier teams should fear.

Let’s be honest: not many people expected the C’s to even make the playoffs last year, and when Stevens’s group ultimately did qualify, it was with a 40-42 record. Based on their relatively subdued offseason, did you really envision a 12-win jump for them this year?

The Celtics still lack a consistently good offense, with the 5’9″ Thomas representing their most dependable threat on that end of the floor. Nothing against Thomas, who’s indeed a nice player, but when he’s your No. 1 option, your offense probably isn’t “there” yet.

Defensively, Boston remains thin on the interior. Johnson is its only true rim protector, and while Sullinger can use his strength and solid positioning to be a passable defender, he simply doesn’t have the length to be truly impactful.

The fact that Stevens is juggling the starting lineup so much is proof positive that the C’s don’t have the necessary talent to be one of the best ballclubs in the East. It’s one thing when you have depth like San Antonio. It has great guys off the bench who can start on a lot of other teams, but the distinction is that it also has a firm starting five. The Celtics kind of have the former (although I wouldn’t call their reserves “great”), but they don’t have the latter.

“We’re not gonna panic, but at the same time, changes need to be made, and we need to, as players, take accountability,” said Thomas after the Celtics’ loss to Indiana, per Adam Himmselsbach of The Boston Globe.

At some point, Stevens is going to have to come to a concrete decision on his starters. The problem is that so many of Boston’s players are so even that it’s difficult to do so. It really shouldn’t be this hard, either.

That it is such a quandary demonstrates that the C’s are probably far off from the 50+ win projections.

Now, on the bright side, two of the Celtics’ three losses were to teams that are essential playoff locks in the Raptors and Spurs. The disappointing aspect is that many felt Boston would be ready to challenge for the Atlantic Division crown this year, and Toronto sent an early message by going into TD Garden and really taking it to the C’s in the second half during a 113-103 win.

The game was knotted up after both the first and second quarters, but over the final 24 minutes, the Raptors displayed why they’re still better than the Celtics, particularly on the offensive end of the court.

That contest should’ve served as a wake-up call to Boston fans: the C’s aren’t ready yet. Their postseason chances remain solid and they’ll probably be a bit better than last year, but they’re still a couple of players away from truly being “scary.”

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