We are now closing in on two months into the regular season, and the Boston Celtics are making a legitimate case to be considered a top-four team in the Eastern Conference.
Clearly, those are some impressive numbers.
Of course, there will be some Celtics detractors, and those detractors have solid reasons as to why they may not think Boston is one of the best ballclubs in the East.
The C’s undoubtedly have some weaknesses mixed in with their strengths. Let’s break down what those are to see exactly where they stack up.
One of the Celtics’ biggest strengths is their depth.
Boston has guys up and down the roster that can contribute, and while those guys may not knock your socks off, they have been getting the job done.
The C’s rank third in bench scoring, with players like Kelly Olynyk and Evan Turner stepping up and providing some pop off the pine. They also rank fourth in bench point differential.
The Celtics’ reserves have won quite a few games this season, and if Boston does, in fact, make the playoffs and earn a decent seed in doing so, the bench will be a key reason.
The Celtics’ defense has been good across the board this year, but where they truly shine is on the perimeter.
Boston boasts two of the best perimeter defenders in the league in Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley, and while the former has been out recently with a leg injury, his impact was very tangible early on in the season.
Also, in the fray is Jae Crowder, who is developing into one of the better 3-and-D small forwards in the game.
When Smart returns, the Celtics’ perimeter D will get an even larger boost.
You saw flashes of Boston’s defensive ferocity against the Golden State Warriors, holding the seemingly invincible Stephen Curry to 9-of-27 shooting.
The C’s are quick, tough and physical on the outside.
The trademark of the Warriors—other than Curry’s otherworldly three-point shooting—is their ability to generate tons of possessions based on pace.The Celtics have emulated that model this year.
Boston ranks fourth in the league in possessions per game, and when you also have one of the NBA’s best defenses, playing at such a high pace pays dividends.For comparison’s sake, the C’s average 102.9 possessions a night, not too far behind Golden State’s league-leading 104.
Because the Celtics have quick guards and wings to make this work, it’s no wonder why they have gotten off to such an impressive start this season.
The Celtics’ perimeter defense gets all the glory for a reason.
Boston does not have much rim protection on the interior, and that is reflected in the fact that it ranks just 16th in blocks per game. While guys like Jared Sullinger and Olynyk are good positional defenders, rarely making mistakes and generally rotating well, they are hardly rim deterrents due to their lack of length.
Amir Johnson is the only C’s big man who consistently alters shots, tallying 1.3 blocks per game and two blocks per 36 minutes.
Fortunately, the Celtics’ perimeter defenders mitigate dribble penetration.
Only three Celtics players shoot 35 percent or better from three-point range: Bradley (43.1 percent), Olynyk (37 percent) and Crowder (35.8 percent). Isaiah Thomas shoots 34 percent, but no one else even cracks 30 percent.
This is something that could end up killing Boston in a playoff series. Against stronger defenses, the C’s are going to need to get looks and make looks from beyond the arc, especially if they are playing from behind.
There are some potential solutions on the roster, particularly in the way of youngsters R.J. Hunter and James Young, but the C’s may need to make a move by the trade deadline to fully address this problem.
Lack of Starpower
That brings us to the biggest issue the Celtics face: a lack of a true No. 1 option.
Thomas is currently Boston’s top guy on the offensive end, but as good of a scorer as Thomas is, he cannot be the go-to player on a true contender. This could (and probably will) absolutely pose problems for the C’s in the playoffs. Generally, postseason games are close, so how are the Celtics going to manage down the stretch of tight contests?
Sure, they can always share the ball and go with the hot hand, but at some point, you are going to need a guy who regularly gets you buckets when you need them.
Look at the top teams around the league. The Warriors have Curry and Klay Thompson. The San Antonio Spurs have Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Tony Parker (you can probably throw Manu Ginobili in there, too). The Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. The Oklahoma City Thunder have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
You get the picture, right? Boston’s top options are Thomas, Bradley and either Sullinger or Olynyk, depending on who is hotter that night. While the C’s have a lot of guys who can score, they don’t have any truly scary offensive players, and that could come back to bite them in a seven-game series.
So, Where Do They Stack Up?
Fortunately for the Celtics, the Eastern Conference is not exactly a juggernaut.
Yes, the East has a lot of solid teams that are evenly matched, but outside of the Cavaliers, there is not one squad that jumps out at you and makes you say, “You know what? They’re really good!”
At the very least, Boston is probably a top four team in the conference right now. Cleveland is the best, with the Toronto Raptors and the Miami Heat joining the C’s in rounding out the top four. You can make an argument for the Chicago Bulls, but their offensive woes are too much of a concern.
All of the Celtics’ quality performances this season don’t lie: they are one of the best teams in the East, and that’s not saying I even would have said two weeks ago.