A quarter of the season is over and both the Celtics and the fan base are in desperate need of a refresher after finishing with a disappointing 11-10 record. At the beginning of the season, the Celtics were atop the east with an over/under of 59 wins and looked to cruise into the NBA Finals with the departure of LeBron James to LA. Now, the team is fighting to race back up the standings as they currently place as the sixth seed. What went wrong during this quarter stretch of the season and how can the Celtics regain the confidence and swag they had last season?
We know what Brad Stevens can bring to the table, we've seen him climb up to the top as one of the best head coaches in the league. However, if we look back at Stevens track record, he has coached many underdog teams. From his time in Butler, he coached his team to the National Championship back to back years in 2010 and 2011. He took a rebuilding Celtics and Isaiah Thomas and turned them into the number one seed in 2017 and built a foreseeable future in Boston.
Now, he isn't playing the role of the underdog, the 2018-19 Celtics have one of the most talented teams since 2008 and yet, Stevens hasn't taken over the role of coaching the favorite team that's supposed to compete with Golden State. Shortly after the Celtics dominating win Monday night against New Orleans, Coach Stevens was asked about the starting lineup;
"We won't be settled on a starting lineup until forever."
While last night's lineup of Irving, Smart, Tatum, Morris, and Horford looked the best all season, the Celtics still need to answer their ability to consistently score. Boston is ranked 27th in shooting percentage (44.0%), the 3rd worst in the NBA. They also rank second to last in FT per game (15.0), 5th worst in shooting efficiency (1.068) and 10th worst in FGM (39.8).
Not only has their offense been a mess but their defense hasn't stepped up after being the fourth best defense last season. I went back to some of their losing games when the opposing teams player went off against the Celtics
Kawhi Leonard 31 PTS
Nikola Vucevic 24 PTS 12 REB
Victor Oladipo 24 PTS 12 REB
Jamal Murray 48 PTS
Joe Ingles 27 PTS
Damian Lillard 19 PTS 12 AST
Ricky Rubio 20 PTS
Kemba Walker 43 PTS
Trey Burke 29 PTS
JJ Barea 20 PTS
For a team that was supposed to dominate everyone and should be a top 5 team this season, giving up almost 30 points to Trey Burke and losing to the Knicks at home is embarrassing. Right now, the Celtics have no identity, but there's still more time to find their stride.
Back in the 2014-15 season, the Celtics were still in the process of rebuilding and were trying to dump as much salary as they could at the trade deadline. Isaiah Thomas was traded over from Phoenix and the Celtics were sitting on a 20-33 record with no playoffs in sight.
Thomas and the Celtics finished the season off 20-7 since the trade and snuck into the playoffs as the eighth seed before being swept by Lebron and the Cavs. During the run with Thomas, the team found their identity by playing tough and gritty basketball. Giving max effort on defense, playing with heart, and defining the improbable.
I'm not saying the team needs to make a midseason trade to change the dynamic and wake everyone up, the bridge Celtics team from 2014-2016 had different expectations than last year and this season's team.
The narrative has changed, the Celtics are faced with a new challenge and that's consistency. Last year's Celtics fit the narrative of tough and gritty basketball when Gordon Hayward went down with a catastrophic injury and Kyrie Irving having knee surgery before the playoffs.
Brown and Tatum stepped up in a big way and were seen as the key contributors to a championship when Irving and Hayward returned. Tatum has picked up the pace this season after starting off a little rusty, however, Brown has struggled and many fans want him out already.
Rozier became a force off the bench last season and even performed well in the place of Kyrie Irving. However, since his ugly Game 7 vs the Cavs in the East Finals where he shot 2-14 FG and 0-10 3PT, Rozier has been struggling all season to score and voiced his frustration to the media.
Aside from Brown and Rozier's struggles so far, the team as a whole is dwelling on the past and are just starting to focus on this season. For the young guys, it seems the regular season wasn't important at the beginning of the season. A few weeks ago, Jaylen Brown made these comments in a Bleacher Report interview with Taylor Rooks;
"I'm not going to jinx myself, but what's that, six years? I'm gonna go ahead and say five or six."
Brown is referring to how many rings he will win by 28. While Brown backtracked his comments by saying he has the mind of a champion how the team is going to take the right steps, it seems this comment might be affecting his play.
The Gordon Hayward experience has been a tough one so far as Hayward found his way to the bench and may never be the same again. While he may never reach that all-star caliber player again, one stat keeps the belief that Hayward can make a comeback at some point
In the six games Paul George returned from his catastrophic injury during the USA exhibition game, George averaged 8.8 PPG, .367 FG%, .459 eFG%, and .409 3PT%. Hayward so far is averaging 10.1 PPG, .400 FG%, .462 eFG%, and .292 3PT%.
While George and Hayward are two different players, they both went through the same rehab process and George eventually returned back to full health, George has averaged 22.3 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 3.2 APG .426 FG%, and .515 eFG% in his two-year duration in Oklahoma.
It's still a long recovery and we can't judge stats based on Hayward's play this season. It may take him another season to return to himself or he may not at all but he is fortunate to play under his college coach and a franchise that believed in him enough to give him a max contract two years ago.
No, we shouldn't panic yet with the current state of the team. The win over New Orleans was huge and they get the next few days off and come back home to face Cleveland Friday night.
Taking a look at some other under .500 teams that made the playoffs last year, but are struggling this season as well:
Houston Rockets: 9-10
New Orleans Pelicans: 10-11
Utah Jazz: 9-12
Minnesota Timberwolves: 10-10
Miami Heat: 7-12
Washington Wizards: 8-12
Granted, most of the teams listed are from the West and it is a tough conference, but with CP3 and Harden on the same team, the Rockets can easily come back especially when teams like the Clippers and Grizzlies are atop the standings currently.
The point is, the Celtics are not the only team that has had its struggles so far this season. They can make a run back towards contention even if this season is looking more like an "evaluation year" to see whom they trade for Anthony Davis or draft with their collection of 1st round picks.
Overall, the Celtics have one of the most talented and dynamic teams this season and eventually, the team will find its stride whether it's keeping Smart in the starting 5 or switching up Morris and Baynes into the lineup.
Patience will ultimately test the team heading into the 2nd quarter of the season and will also test the patience of the fan base if their inconsistent play keeps up.