A Harsh Look at the Boston Celtics: What’s Wrong?

Following an embarrassing 127-112 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the Boston Celtics now sit at 15-17 after an 8-3 start to the season. There are many problems and issues with this team right now, however I’m here to highlight the main concerns. 

Injuries

Seems like more of an excuse considering the Celtics two All-Stars have played in 57 of 64 possible games between them. However, before Friday night’s game against the Pacers, the Celtics 4 star perimeter players (Tatum, Brown, Kemba, Smart)  have been on the court for a total of 57 possessions together. If you add in Daniel Theis, the lineup that led them to an Eastern Conference finals appearance last season, it drops to 44 possessions. (Per CTG)

Kemba Walker has missed 16 games himself, and Marcus Smart is up to 15 games missed now and will be out until after the ASB. Injuries are not everything and there are plenty of other flaws that will be discussed, but we can’t ignore the fact that the team has been a revolving door all season.

Marcus Smart Impact

Casuals will laugh but what Marcus Smart brings to this team is not something you can replace easily. On court, the two biggest issues in my opinion have been ball movement on the offensive side of the ball, and defensively the team lacks effort, intensity, focus, and connectivity. These are things that Smart excels at bringing to the game.

On the defensive end, you can see the current Celtics basically just going through the motions. They lack a sense of urgency. When Smart is out there, he is constantly talking, making sure players know their assignments, and know where to be. He is the clear cut leader of this team and the most vocal player they have. Add in his All-World defensive ability and it make’s sense why the team has slipped down to 16th in Defensive Rating.

Offensively the team lacks ball movement and motion, it is as simple as that. Most possessions fizzle out and they’re stuck relying on one of the top 3 guys to bail them out, this has especially been a problem late in games. Smart brings another guy who can run the PNR, but most importantly he is a great connector. He excels at making quick decisions when the ball comes his way and keeps the ball moving side to side. Boston currently rank 15th in Offensive Rating and 29th in AST%.

Overall, in the dates ranging from when Marcus Smart was healthy the Celtics were 10th in offense and 12th in defense, after sustaining his injury the Celtics have been 18th in offense and 18th in defense. Outside of Brad Stevens there has been one constant in the Celtics 3 conference finals trips over the last 4 seasons, that’s Marcus Smart, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

Ball Movement

To put it bluntly, the ball movement on this team sucks. As I described when discussing what Marcus Smart brings to the table. The ball constantly sticks, particularly in Tatum and Browns hands and it is on them to create a shot for themselves or create an open look for a teammate.

There is no side to side with this team right now, there’s no making the extra pass, there is no off ball movement, it’s bland, simple, and predictable offense. There are a few reasons for this, some of it is due to losing Marcus Smart as discussed, as well as Hayward. But I also don’t want to give Tatum and Brown a pass, there has been far too much do it yourself from them as of late. I can’t say I blame them either, the rest of the roster is not very appealing and unless a shot is created for them, they can not create it themselves.

This is where I think Brad deserves some blame as well. Boston has not been a big ball movement team in some time, he has never prioritized ball movement and player movement. He tends to prioritize shot selection more than everything, but this team has hit dangerously low levels of movement. They show glimpses of it for stretches when it was clear Brad’s message was to move the ball, but then they fall back into bad habits.

Roster Talent or Lack Thereof

This roster is not very good, there I said it. This is especially true when any of those top 4 perimeter guys are out. Last season the Celtics were known as a “top-heavy” team, a lot of talent at the top but outside of it, who can you trust night in and night out? Well when the offseason came around, a top-heavy team lost one of those top guys in Gordon Hayward. Many shrugged it off at the time, rightfully so. The team had just made a conference finals appearance without Hayward, but not I. Hayward was a lot of what Smart was offensively a very good passer and very good connector, we are now down two of those guys from last season.

Yes, the Celtics have two All-Stars this season, but outside of that it’s a pretty rough collection of guys all things considered. Kemba is working his way back from a knee injury and has been a shell of himself. The center rotation has also been fine, but when you get past that you realize the Celtics are relying on 1st and 2nd year players across the board.

Payton Pritchard started the year off hot but since returning from his knee injury has shot the ball terribly. Semi Ojeleye has made some strides in terms of decision making and shot making ability but is still a backup 3/4 at best. Rookie Aaron Nesmith is finally getting extended run and has been up and down. Grant Williams is essentially out of the rotation, as is Carsen Edwards. Last years Number 14 pick, Romeo Langford has not appeared in a game due to wrist surgery. I’m not blaming these young guys either, they’re 1st or 2nd year players (4th in Semi’s case). They have been thrown into a very tough situation, on a team with high expectations, we should not be expecting much from them.

Danny, oh, Danny

This is where Danny Ainge receives all of his blame. This roster was built by him and has fundamental flaws up and down the board. It’s not exactly easy to fix, there is no cap flexibility and it is near impossible to add an impact player. However, all that is also due to him and his decisions. Losing Hayward for nothing may or may not have been his fault, we will probably never find out what Hayward wanted. But, in hindsight he probably should not have signed Tristan Thompson, Theis and Robert Williams are more than capable. With the way the center position is, a solid vet could have been signed for near the minimum and Brad would have got good minutes out of him. While I’m not out on Langford or Nesmith, it is tough to ignore the impact other young players selected around them are making around the league.

Ainge does have the TPE ready to be used if he wanted to improve this roster in the short term, but I think that would be a mistake. He has already eluded to waiting until the offseason to use it and that is probably the right move. There is no player that could be acquired with the full TPE right now that would put Boston over the top.

It is clear to me that Danny Ainge is envisioning a 2023 and beyond championship window for this team. By then Kemba Walker will be coming off the books, Brown and Tatum will be entering their prime, and he will have money to spend. The current pieces around Brown and Tatum don’t do a great job hiding their weaknesses, and maximizing their strengths. Celtics fans don’t want to hear it but this team is just a bridge team to get us to our championship caliber roster in a few seasons.

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