Takeaways From The Celtics' Struggles
It's been a... weird season in Bean Town to say the least as they sit at a disappointing 15-17. Injuries haven't been kind to the Celtics, who are still without 1st Team All-Defense guard Marcus Smart while Kemba Walker struggles to find consistency as he recovers from his knee injury. Boston has gone through a tough 4-7 stretch without Smart, including embarrassing back-to-back losses against the Pistons and Wizards. With many Celtics fans ready to burn down TD Garden while taking Ainge and Stevens hostage, there is still quite a lot of season left for Tatum and company to figure things out. Join me as I identify and analyze some key factors surrounding Boston's lacklustre performance.
One major problem that stifled Boston's run last year remains the same in the 20-21 campaign – a lack of depth off the bench. This is even more noticeable this season due to the fact that Gordon Hayward, who was arguably Boston's best playmaker last season, wasn't there to pour in an efficient 17.5/6.7/4.1 on 50%/38.3%/85.5% shooting splits as the fourth option. Hayward's presence allowed Marcus Smart to facilitate the second unit, while also taking pressure off of Kemba and the Jays (Jayson Tatum and Jalen Brown). Now with Smart consistently in the starting five, there isn't really a player off of the bench, aside from rookie Payton Pritchard, that can create a shot for themselves, let alone for others. Despite sitting in the top 10 in FG%, 3PT%, BLKs, and STLs, Boston is ranked bottom 10 in PTS, FT%, AST, TO, and PFs this year among bench units. The lack of production from the bench in volume offsets the formidable shooting splits, which means that Tatum, Brown, Walker and Smart are required to carry even more of the offensive load unless an unlikely source steps up or a move is made.
Rotations: Unleash Time Lord
Another glaring concern among Celtics fans is Brad's awkward three center rotation, which features Daniel Theis, Tristan Thompson and Robert Williams. Stevens has often played Theis and Thompson together as the four and five, which is mainly due to the fact that Walker, Smart, Brown, and Tatum have only played a whopping two games together. Nonetheless, the two-center lineups Stevens has put out this season have clearly changed the offensive flow from last year where Tatum spent most of his season as a small-ball four. Although Theis has somewhat improved his consistency from deep and Thompson has proven to be a walking double double with decent playmaking abilities, it seems clear to most that Robert Williams has the highest ceiling amongst the three centers.
Ranking second in the league in FG% (72.3%) thus far, Timelord has seen a slight increase in minutes over the last 5 games and he's showing everybody why he deserves some more shine in the Celtics rotation as he's averaging eight points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 1.4 steals in 18 minutes over this stretch. Statistics don't tell the full story of Williams' impact either. It's noteworthy how much chemistry he has with guys like Tatum, Brown and Pritchard. Williams is also one of the few bench players that promote ball movement/off-ball movement with his serviceable passing ability and athleticism. His ability to quickly take off helps him catch and finish miraculous lobs, as well as contest/block shots with multiple jumps. This versatility Williams brings to the game, coupled with his improvement in the close-mid range, makes him a talent worthy of starting – or at least logging 20+ minutes a night on an undersized Celtics roster.
While Robert Williams is arguably the biggest standout off the bench, it is important to note the contributions from rookies Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith. Pritchard has been one of the few surprising bright spots in this dim season thus far, quickly outperforming Jeff Teague and securing the backup point guard spot in the rotation. In 21 minutes, Pritchard is averaging 7.5 points, 2.2 rebound and 2.4 assists while boasting impressive shooting splits for a rookie at 44.9%/37.5%/93.3%. Pritchard has proven to be a reliable weapon offensively and a smart team defender with strong fundamentals.
On the other hand, Nesmith hasn't exactly had the season fans expected from the 14th overall pick. The rookie has only appeared in 17 games, but has earned serious minutes in the rotation due to his newfound confidence on the defensive end. Nesmith has seen 20+ minutes in the last six games and while the statistics won't jump out at you, his energy and numerous hustle plays on both ends have provided a much needed spark for this Celtics squad. The main concern with Nesmith is his struggles from the three point line. Although he has shot better over the last five games, he is still shooting a disappointing 32.6% from deep and 36.4% from the field overall this season. The main appeal of Nesmith coming out of college was his ability to shoot the three ball, so the hope is he can get into a rhythm as his minutes increase.
The Bottom Line
It is important for everybody to remember that Tatum, Brown, Walker and Smart have only played 28 minutes together this season. Therefore it's extremely difficult to determine exactly what moves need to be made in order to improve this roster with both short-term and long-term success in mind. Smart is projected to be out until after All-Star Weekend and Walker is still dealing with his degenerative knee issues, so what really is the right direction to go in? I'm of the opinion that we need to experience how this team plays with all four of our core guys healthy before we decide the fate of this roster. However, I also understand that the $28.5M Traded Player Exception can only last so long. What appears to be the problem with the trade market is that there's not much available that would outright benefit the Celtics in the long-term. It has become a complicated use it or lose it situation, but that does not mean that Ainge should use the exception just for the sake of using it. Rushing into a deal just doesn't seem worth it at this point in the season and it would be best to run with what we have for the time being and give some of the younger guys opportunities to develop/establish a role. So try your best to be patient, Celtics fans, or at least hold off on that nuclear panic button until we see Walker and Smart get some more run time with the Jays.
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