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What’s up with the Celtics?

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are one of the best duos in the entire league, everyone is wanting more out of Kemba, the bench as a whole is inconsistent almost every night, we haven’t had all our key guys for any game yet this season, and we don’t have the size to counter Joel Embiid in a potential playoff series. Ok, how do we make sense of this all? Let’s explore.

The Celtics, in a snapshot, have a record of 12-11 which fits them into the 4-seed in the East, are 9th in the league in net rating, and have only played 8 home games so far, the fewest in the NBA. Our top four players––Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, and Marcus Smart––have only played two of the team’s 23 games together this season due to injuries and COVID. (Both were losses, at the Spurs and vs. the Lakers). Given the high expectations of the team entering this season, the 12-11 record is objectively underwhelming. However, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic.

Let’s start with the really good: Tatum and Brown. I wouldn’t disagree with someone if they said that these two are the third-best duo in the league right now behind LeBron-Davis and Durant-Harden. (Kyrie is the third banana there in Brooklyn) Obviously, I’m biased here, and I do recognize Kawhi-George, Lillard-McCollum, Embiid-Simmons, Luka-Porzingis, Jokic-Murray (although it isn’t the same Murray as what we saw in the bubble), Steph-Draymond, and others, but Jayson and Jaylen are each averaging a 26-5-3 on 40%+ 3PT%, which is patently ridiculous. Jaylen has taken his game to yet another level this season and should be an All-Star starter. The dude is always dialed in from the jump and has demonstrated the ability to consistently pick his spots, whether it being smoothly pulling up for three, driving hard right into a jump stop and finish, or working off of screens and making things happen. His evolution as an offensive talent has truly been a joy to watch. At the same time, his partner in crime, Jayson Tatum, is also playing at a very high level. He did have several moments, even games of frustration earlier on in the season, but it seems like he’s hit his stride since taking care of COVID, which is kind of ironic. (Not an endorsement to contract COVID, by the way) With Jaylen out these past two games, he’s locked in on both ends of the ball more, which is very nice to see. What we’ve seen out of these two guys gives me enough hope to think that the ceiling of reaching the Finals this season is still a possibility.

Jaylen Brown.

Alright, Kemba. Kemba, Kemba, Kemba. Sigh. He’s shooting, *double checks* 34.2% from the field, this season, and just under 31% from beyond the arc. Ugh. Disgusting. And the eye-test backs this up: He’s getting to his spots, but it just seems like he’s not in his typical rhythm. And as every Celtics fan will tell you, we cannot make it out of the East if he continues shooting this poorly. Him being small gives us enough of a matchup disadvantage on defense against good offensive guards, but we don’t have the margin of error to afford these shooting numbers come post-first-round playoff time. I expect these numbers to rise with time, but regardless, it should really only be Tatum or Brown taking the duty of handling the ball for the majority of the shot clock down the stretch of 4th quarters.

The bench has been another source of frustration this season. We can’t rely on that many guys on a nightly basis, and obviously, that will be a problem should it still be the case for the playoffs. Coach Stevens has always been one to experiment with giving different guys early and heavy minutes on any given night, but that’s kind of a reflection of not being confident with a 6th-7th and 8th man. To get an understanding of the Celtics bench, or rather, guys outside of the “Core Four” of Tatum, Brown, Kemba, and Smart, here’s a chart:

Tiers of TrustPlayers
Tier 1: I Consistently TrustPayton Pritchard, Daniel Theis
Tier 2: I Trust Most of the timeGrant Williams, Robert Williams
Tier 3: I Trust at times, but other times it’s quite shakySemi Ojeleye, Tristan Thompson, Jeff Teague, Javonte Green
Tier 4: I like the promise, but I need to see more Carsen Edwards
Tier 5: Brad must be getting weird with it if you’re playing real minutesTremont Waters, Aaron Nesmith
Tier 6: The Tacko Fall team chemistry guy tierTacko Fall

Some quick notes about the chart: Pritchard has been awesome for us. He’s a Celtic through and through. It’s too bad that Tommy couldn’t get to see him play. Theis is Theis. He’s solid. He’s trustworthy. Grant has taken a step up this season. He started out strong, then took a dip, but he’s back to being good for his role. Robert Williams is someone who’s upside I’ve been a fan of, but he’s turning into a decent player for us, and he needs to be to add that different big-man element. Semi is someone who I’m coming around on. Thompson is a terrible passer and can struggle to make shots, but he can have his good moments as well. Teague is the guy who Celtics Twitter wants to burn at the stake. In his first 9 games, he averaged 8.1 PPG on 52.9% 3PT% (but just 35.9% from the field), but in his last 11 games, he’s averaged a measly 3.8 PPG on 29.4% 3PT% with a 28.1% FG%. The new-shoe shine has worn off almost completely with him, as he simply short rims way too many of his shot attempts and struggles to finish in the paint. Javonte is Javonte; he’s an athletic freak and plays hard but can’t be someone who we should be relying on too much. And then Edwards had that nice game against the Clippers and appears to be someone that Brad is using to fill some of the Smart minutes. He’s a fun guy to root for.

Payton Pritchard is one of the most important members of this Celtics team despite being a rookie.

All things considered, I’m not panicking about the team. There’s something a little off about the team in regards to consistently playing “Celtics basketball,” but again, I’d like to reserve most judgement for when our “Core Four” plays a significant number of games together. Jayson and Jaylen can each be the best player on the court in any given game which is such a nice luxury to have. Kemba needs to be better but hopefully, that’ll come with time and reps. Perhaps some of the guys that I put in tier 2 and 3 can bump up to tier 1 and 2. And hopefully, Ainge uses our Hayward-exception money to acquire a big man who can at least give Embiid a sweat down-low. If all these things happen, and yes, I’m being a wishful thinker, and you parlay that with our “Core Four” being healthy at the same time, then we’ll have a good chance to make it out of the East at last.