Are the Boston Celtics in Trouble?

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)AP

I’ve held off on this article for about a month now. The reality is that I am optimistic about teams I favor … and the Celtics, being one of those, got the benefit of the doubt. However, when they lost the heartbreaker to Dallas last night, behind Luka Doncic’s heroics, the team dipped below .500 for the first time since 12/27 when they were an unremarkable 1-2. This year, we are almost at the halfway point of the shortened season. With less time to regroup and put a run together, the 15-16 record they maintain, hurts that much more. This is a team with great expectations, whether that be due to the tradition of the franchise itself, the money management has spent, or the fact that their two young stud assets are emerging as leaders with a handful of years under their belts. So what has gone wrong?

The Celtics big 3 era saw that success can come when you bring stars to Boston. Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett brought a guaranteed success to the city before even stepping foot on the court for the green and white. The one championship carried a lot of weight in turning the mood for the Celtics around after the franchise had been one of the league’s worst in the early 2000’s. They might have even seen more success had Lebron’s own big 3 not emerged in South Beach and halted another few Celtics playoff runs. When the big 3 left, and Brad Stevens took the reigns in 2013 the expectations were as low as possible. But miraculously, as soon as his second year, Stevens took a team of Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jarred Sullinger to the playoffs. The team even moved on from their last championship piece in Rajon Rondo, in a deal with Dallas that sent Jae Crowder and others to Boston to help with the rebuild.

The rebuild was expeditious. Helped by the emergence of the diminutive Isaiah Thomas becoming an all-star, Avery Bradley becoming a top defender, and Jae Crowder establishing himself as a big man who could stretch the floor and bring 100% every night. Yet these pieces weren’t going to bring them the glory in a league that now saw talent seeking to join forces. The growth of the team was thwarted by a first round exit to the Hawks in 2015-16, before they lost to the Cavs (4-1) in the conference finals the following season. It was time for change. The Celtics signed Gordon Hayward and moved on from their heart and soul isaiah thomas to acquire Kyrie Irving. In this time they also drafted Jaylen Brown and later Jayson Tatum, making use of the draft stock accumulated in the Big 3 to Brooklyn deal. Yet things began ominously when Gordon Hayward fractured his ankle less than 6 minutes into his opening game for the Boston Celtics and would not return that season. Irving, Al Horford (acquired year prior) and the young parts around him would mostly pick up the pieces surging through the east before losing a heartbreaking game 7 ECF to the Cavs. The following season with Hayward still not back to full health, the east got a whole lot stronger, with the Raptors and Bucks surging, and when the Celtics met the Bucks in the second round, the Bucks dominated them in 5 games. This was the effective end of another era. The Kyrie era. Irving and Horford moved on and the handicapped Hayward was here for another year.

Last season was a bit more difficult to assess. The pandemic year as it will come to be known, was one that mostly saw positive growth from the Celtics two young Jays. Brown and Tatum found their way into the NBA’s elite, seeing more crucial responsibilities without Horford, Irving, and Rozier gone, and Hayward still limited. They both took off. To highlight the extent of improvement here are some notable leaps taken from the season’s prior:



Both players increased their ppg by over 7, increased their rebound and assist numbers, and substantially improved their 3 point shooting each while taking significantly more. Tatum made his first all-star game in the process. The addition of Kemba Walker only helped. His energy and ability to facilitate/score added another dimension, though his health wavered. In the bubble playoffs, the Heat eventually saw them out, but it was not a matter of being overmatched. Jimmy Butler, Bam, and Tyler Herro just made more plays down the stretch and the Celtics tossed away two games early in the series that would haunt them as they eventually fell in 6.

When Gordon Hayward decided to leave for Charlotte this offseason, most Celtics fans were relieved. Sensing that his contract had become a hindrance compared to what he could produce even when he made it on the court. There was a hope that Kemba would be healthier as well, and that the Celtics would try to get an upgrade in the frontcourt (Christian Wood etc) to help bolster this team against some of the east’s top contending big men (Embiid, Giannis). Instead, an underwhelming offseason, that saw Jeff Teague and Tristan Thompson enter the fray, as well as the draft night additions of Aaron Nesmith, and Payton Prichard. Yikes. Teague has thus far been a disaster, and while Tristan battles, his offensive skillset is limited. Prichard has been fantastic and Nesmith is starting to gain some traction, but it’s hard to win now when Tatum and Brown have no other assets to rely upon. This is partially due to Kemba’s injuries. He has gone from a guy who made 4 consecutive All-Star games to shooting 37% from the field and there’s no way around that. The eye test reveals that he’s hobbling, and the reports on his health don’t help ease matters.

Ainge has gone on the record in recent weeks saying that it’s clear the roster needs some adjusting. He shouldered the blame for the roster construction and the weaknesses that should have been filled preemptively, before they inevitably stood in this position. The other side of the coin, is the players. They have squandered leads and shown an inability to close out games. That might have a bit to do with Brad Stevens surely, but ultimately beyond the sets, halftime briefings and ATO plays, the results hinge on your reliable players making the crunch time plays. In the coming month, we mostly likely will see the Celtics make a move for a big man, which has been a long time coming. Depending on the pieces moved and who they acquire some of their problems might be gone soon enough. Yesterday, Tatum and Brown were both named All-Stars. Teams with two All-Stars when healthy, don’t finish seasons under .500 nor miss the playoffs. Last time it happened was 2015/16 with Gasol/Butler for the Bulls, and I don’t expect the same fate. It’s time this team learns how to maintain a lead and it’s time Danny Ainge upgrades the PF/C position.

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1 Response

  1. Paul says:

    Excellent piece on my hometown ☘️ team!