Nary two weeks ago, the Boston Celtics were coming off impressive road wins over the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets, not to mention a 13-point home victory over the Atlanta Hawks. That led some to believe that they might even be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. Not that that was saying much, but hey, being second-best isn’t that bad, even in the East.
Oh, how the tables have turned.
Going into Nov. 25, the Celtics sit at 7-7 and have lost three of their last four games, including an embarrassing defeat to the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center (which hurt them in more ways than one seeing as how Boston owns the Nets’ draft pick next summer) and then a national TV disaster in Atlanta on Tuesday night.
You can say whatever you want about Marcus Smart’s absence affecting the Celtics’ defense, but there’s no excuse for giving up 232 points over two contests, especially considering that one of those losses came to Brooklyn.
So, just why is Boston so inconsistent? Well, there are several reasons.
First of all, it lacks a star player. This has been discussed ad nauseam, but it’s blatantly obvious that the C’s don’t have a go-to guy, and it’s hurting them. As nice of a player as Isaiah Thomas is, he cannot be your No. 1 option. He’s either a low-end No. 2 or high-end No. 3; someone who can get you 20-25 points on any given night, but also someone you can’t regularly depend on.
The dearth of a true top-of-the-line scorer has bitten the Celtics in several of their losses. It was evident in both of their defeats to the Indiana Pacers and recent losses to the Dallas Mavericks and the Nets. In close games down the stretch, you need an Alpha that you can rely on to get you buckets. The fact that Boston doesn’t have such a player is one of the primary reasons it’s not a true contender in the East.
Second, the C’s don’t exactly light it up from the perimeter. The Celtics rank just 21st in three-point percentage, barely ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies, a team that’s become widely known for its lack of outside shooting. Boston has only two players shooting over 35 percent from downtown: Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger. The next closest is Thomas at 31.9 percent.
That isn’t going to cut it. It’s tough to play from behind when you don’t have the three-point shot as an equalizer.
Now, the C’s do have someone on their roster who can help remedy that problem: R.J. Hunter. With Smart sidelined, Hunter should have more of an opportunity to flash his smooth stroke, but it’s more than a little concerning that the Celtics have to depend on a rookie to aid in solving their woes from beyond the arc.
Another issue that Boston faces is its rotation.
At the beginning of the season, some were worried that the C’s were actually too deep, and that problem has appeared to manifest itself already. To clarify, having a lot of depth is generally a good thing, but that’s only when you have players who are actually productive across the board. Take the San Antonio Spurs, for example. They play a ton of guys, but many of those guys would be starting on most other teams.
That isn’t the case with the Celtics.
Stevens is using a plethora of different combinations, and while one might think that would keep the roster fresh as a whole, it’s actually working to the detriment of the squad. Boston has been employing six different players in its frontcourt despite the fact that some of them haven’t been producing and/or have no future with the team.
The two prime culprits are David Lee and Jonas Jerebko.
Lee is a 32-year-old impending free agent, and yet he’s playing 16 minutes a night. This in spite of the fact that the C’s are 12.1 points worse per 100 possessions offensively when he’s on the floor.
Jerebko was just re-signed by the C’s over the summer, but he’s been horrific. The Swede is shooting only 38.1 percent and has a putrid PER of 6.5. Also, he’s only knocked down two three-pointers this season. That’s pretty terrible for a hybrid forward who’s supposed to be able to spread the floor.
All of that makes you question why Stevens is electing to give Lee and Jerebko burn. Shouldn’t those minutes go to bigs like Sullinger and Amir Johnson, two guys who’ve actually been playing well?
The shuffling of the starting lineup has caused problems, too.
With Thomas now starting, opposing point guards can get a jump on their offensive output right off the bat. At 5’9″, Thomas isn’t an ideal defender, so bigger floor generals can either post him up or shoot over the top of him. Thomas would probably be better-served coming off the bench, not only to represent a sparkplug, but to mitigate the Celtics’ defensive issues early in games.
Of course, a lot of this also comes down to the realization that Boston simply doesn’t have the goods to be a serious threat in the East. Yes, the C’s are solid enough to beat good teams on occasion, but their inconsistency is due to a lack of sheer talent.
I feel like some Celtics fans don’t realize that this ballclub is still a work in progress. By the time they’re ready to seriously challenge for a title again, a good portion of the players on their current roster will likely be playing elsewhere.
While Boston is deep, it just doesn’t have enough versatility or diversity. Too many of its players fill similar roles and step on each other’s toes because of it.
Most of those problems can be handled during the offseason, but for now, Stevens at least needs to bite the bullet and shorten the rotation. It’s time to start weeding out the guys that you know won’t be in Beantown for the long haul.
And as far as the Celtics’ chances of making the playoffs? They probably should qualify, but don’t discount general manager Danny Ainge making some moves at the deadline that could jeopardize that probability. Remember: Sullinger, Tyler Zeller and Evan Turner are all free agents at the end of the year, the former two being of the restricted variety. So, there’s a possibility that Ainge tries to deal some of his players to get value while he still can.
What these past couple of games have told us is that Boston isn’t even remotely close to being ready to legitimately contend. At the moment, it’s merely a decent team playing in a poor (albeit improving) conference.
For a franchise with 17 championship banners, that’s not acceptable.
Hopefully, things turn around soon.