NBA

What’s Wrong with the Celtics?

Sep 23, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker (left) and guard Jaylen Brown (7) and forward Jayson Tatum (0) and Miami Heat guard Tyler Herro (right) look on as the official crew huddle after Walker was fouled during the second half of game four of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After losing to Washington on Sunday, the Celtics have dropped to 13-13. They have lost 7 of their last 10 and are 5th in the East. This team went to the conference finals last year and had high hopes for this season. This all begs the question: what’s wrong with the Celtics?

Defense

Feb 12, 2021; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Detroit Pistons guard Wayne Ellington (8) returns the ball against Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) in the third quarter at TD Garden.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Stevens came on as coach of the Celtics back in 2013 and has had success with the team ever since. After a trip to the Eastern Finals with an injury-depleted team in the 2018 playoffs (where the Celtics took LeBron and the Cavs to 7 games), Brad was subsequently voted the best head coach in the NBA by a majority of GM’s in the annual preseason survey. What makes Brad such a good coach? It all starts with his defense.

Outside of his first season in Boston, Brad Stevens has never had a team lower than 12th in defensive efficiency. Out of those 6 years, 4 times Boston has been top 10, and 3 times they’ve been top 5. In the 2017-18 season just mentioned, Boston was the best team in the league on defense. Of course, all of those considerations leave out this current season.

After the Wizards’ loss, the Celtics are 16th in defensive efficiency this year. This number makes things seem a lot better than they are. The defensive problems for the Celtics aren’t very measurable by stats. They aren’t as focused on defense as usual. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, who are usually two of the best defenders on the team, are routinely allowing their man to drive by them. It’s not only these guys; this is a trend for the team. The Celtics allow too many drives across the board, leading to easy buckets at the rim or on kick-outs.

As a whole, the Celtics aren’t a bad defensive team. The problem is, they aren’t consistent for full games. They allow opponents to go on runs, getting easy buckets as a result of drive after drive towards the rim. This comes down to putting in a full game of effort and focusing on the defensive end. If they do that, their defense will get back to what we expect.

When asking what’s wrong with the Celtics, the defense is a good answer up to this point. But with Marcus Smart set to return soon, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them get back to their elite defensive ways soon enough. If this keeps up heading into the 2nd half of the season, it’s time to get worried. For now, the biggest problem for the Celtics is on the other end of the court.

Ball Movement

Feb 14, 2021; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker (8) dribbles the ball as Washington Wizards guard Russell Westbrook (4) and Wizards center Moritz Wagner (21) defend in the first quarter at Capital One Arena.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics played some poor defense in their last two games against Detroit and Washington, but that wasn’t what lost those games. It was their offense that failed and put the games out of reach. They scored 91 against Washington and 102 against Detroit, truly abysmal numbers in the modern game. More than anything, it came down to the ball movement.

More and more, the Celtics offense is relying on Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. This is ok but not to the extent that we see right now. On too many possessions, there are 4 guys watching Tatum or Brown trying to get a bucket. It’s perfectly fine for the offense to include a heavy dosage of Tatum and Brown, but they should be utilized better.

This season 62% of Tatum’s 2-pointers are unassisted, and 58% of his 3-pointers are unassisted. For Brown, those numbers are 56% and 27%. These numbers are too high. For comparison, we can look at Bradley Beal’s percentages. He’s carrying his team in every respect of the phrase, so you’d expect most of his buckets to come unassisted. For Beal, 58% of 2’s and 19% of 3’s come unassisted. He’s finding his shots, especially 3’s within the offense, whereas Brown and Tatum are not. There’s no movement, and it’s resulting in these guys creating their own shot time and time again. No matter how good they are, a shot they work to create isn’t as good as an open 3 or drive coming from passing.

It’s not like Brown and Tatum are complete ball stoppers or anything; we’ve seen them find shots within the offense all the time. Currently, the problem is with the offense as a whole. There’s not enough movement and passing, and the Celtics have the 16th offensive rating in the league. The Celtics are playing slow (19th in pace) and not moving the ball (28th in assists per game). Anyone can tell you that this is a bad combination.

The Celtics are at the bottom of the league for nearly every assist stat available. Passes made (22nd), secondary assists (29th), potential assists (29th), points created off of assists (28th); this is what scares me most about this team. The Celtics have never been a high assist and ball movement team. Losing Gordon Hayward in the offseason only compounded this issue. Their roster isn’t good enough to overcome that this year. It’s clear that this roster is a little flawed, but it can still work; we saw it against the Raptors a few games ago.

When the Celtics move the ball, they are extremely successful, and that’s always been the case. In their 6 double-digit wins this year, the Celtics average 25.8 assists a game, which would put them at 9th in the league, a much more comforting number. The key to this is it allows guys other than Tatum and Brown to succeed. That game against the Raptors was the perfect example. The Celtics (especially Tatum and Brown) moved the ball wonderfully and racked up 30 assists. This ball movement got guys like Semi Ojeleye (career-high 24 points in the game) and Payton Pritchard (20 points) going. There’s no doubt that this is when the Celtics are at their best.

This isn’t on Brown and Tatum alone; it’s a teamwide thing. It starts with coach Brad integrating more movement into the offense and stressing that. Actually, before that, it probably comes down to Danny Ainge adding some more talent at the deadline. Giving the team a knockdown wing player would open up the floor and maybe allow Brad to get away from the two big lineups. Most importantly, it’s on the team. Everybody needs to be moving around Tatum, Brown, and Kemba when they have the ball. It’s then on the stars to find these guys for the open shots, and if it’s not there, keep moving the ball.

Looking Forward

Jan 27, 2021; San Antonio, Texas, USA; Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart (36) shoots as San Antonio Spurs forwards LaMarcus Aldridge (12) and Keldon Johnson (3) look on in the second quarter at AT&T Center.
Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, the Celtics have problems. And yes, the roster needs work. But this isn’t the end of the world for Celtics Nation. Walker, Smart, Brown, and Tatum have only played 28 minutes together this season. Smart will return, and the defense of past years will slowly return. Also, Smart is currently leading the Celtics in assists per game, so he could help on the other end as well. The offense is most important for the Celtics. They do have a $28.5 million exception that they can use to acquire somebody in a trade. Whatever deals they make (and yes, they really have to make a move this year) could make or break their season.

Coming up, the Celtics have two games against Atlanta, a poor defensive team. Look for the Celtics to get their offense going in these games, and if that doesn’t happen, well, then we can pull out the panic button. But maybe what’s wrong with the Celtics is the injuries; maybe Smart’s return will bring everything back. The only thing to do is sit back, watch the games, and try not to yell, “move the ball!” too much.

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