After two consecutive losses to the two worst teams in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics find themselves sitting at .500 with a record of 13-13. After a solid start to the season, this team currently finds themselves mired in a deep slump, with a new rock bottom being established with each loss. There are a lot of things that have gone wrong for the Celtics so far this season, so it’s important to pinpoint those issues and seek ways to resolve them.
ISSUE #1: WHERE’S THE DEFENSE?
Ever since he took over as head coach of the Celtics, a staple of Brad Stevens teams have been their defensive efficiency. This year’s Celtics team has certainly bucked that trend, as they have struggled to consistently defend teams all over the court. They are right in the middle of the pack defensively, as they have a defensive rating of 111.1, good for 15th in the league. The Celtics have typically finished in the upper half of the league in defensive rating, so it’s strange to see them struggling so much on the defensive end of things.
Their struggles on the defensive end are largely due to their interior defending. Daniel Theis emerged as a solid interior defender last season, despite being undersized for the position. Theis’ defensive rating this season is 110, which is easily his highest in his tenure of the Celtics. Another stat that shows Theis decline in play is Defensive Win Shares, which provides an estimate of how many wins a player contributes to with his defensive play. Last season, Theis had 2.6 Defensive Win Shares, but this season he has only managed to provide 0.7, which just shows how far his defensive play has gone. Other options, such as Tristan Thompson and Robert Williams, have struggled to provide much of a complement to Theis, causing the struggles on the interior.
This causes the Celtics a myriad of other problems. If players are easily finding their way into the paint, that causes the perimeter defense to collapse inward in an effort to prevent those easy paint points. But when the perimeter players crash inward, it leaves shooters wide open at the three. While Boston’s opponents are only hitting 35.7% of their threes, many of them are completely uncontested, as the Celtics wings have to overcompensate for the lack of interior defending.
A potential solution to this issue could be implementing a zone defense. Coach Stevens has occasionally broken out zone defenses to try and slow down opposing offenses, and has had mixed results with it so far. Running a zone would allow the wings more freedom to rotate into the paint if the interior defense falters, while also maintaining a tight line at the perimeter. Worst comes to worst, it proves ineffective and the Celtics switch back to man coverage, but it’s worth taking a shot if it could improve the Celtics defensive struggles.
ISSUE #2 – LACK OF DEPTH
The Celtics have had to heavily rely on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown this season so far, and teams are starting to figure that out. Teams are making it more and more difficult for them to score because they’ve realized that if they don’t score, no one else will. Kemba Walker is still trying to find his form, and could help solve this issue if he’s able to fully regain his scoring capabilities, but right now it’s a constant struggle to find consistent scoring help for the Celtics.
Walker’s struggles are certainly not the Celtics only issue in this category. Jeff Teague was signed over the offseason to take the minutes left by Brad Wanamaker’s departure, but he has already lost his spot in the rotation to Payton Pritchard. Pritchard has really been the only bright spot of the Celtics second unit, but he can’t do it alone. Teague’s struggles to score at all have been a massive blow to the Celtics expectations this season, as he’s been relatively useless so far.
Going down the line, you’ll find equally uninspiring performances on the bench. Tristan Thompson has been mediocre at best to start the season, and hasn’t been as good a contributor on both ends of the court as expected. Semi Ojeleye and Grant Williams pretty much fill the same 3 and D roles as each other, except they don’t hit threes all that consistently. Aaron Nesmith was expected to help out in that department, but he’s struggled to crack the rotation, and when he has, he hasn’t done much. Many of the pieces the Celtics have expected to contribute haven’t produced in the desired capacity.
The solution for this problem is to try to find that missing depth. The trade deadline presents the best opportunity for the Celtics to fortify their missing depth, and they have a $28 million trade exemption to play around with heading into this period if they feel so inclined to use it. There are an ample amount of players set to be moved around with the trade deadline approaching, with Andre Drummond of the Cleveland Cavaliers looking to be the first player to get moved. While the Celtics probably won’t trade for him, expect them to be active at the trade deadline to fix their bench’s weaknesses.
ISSUE #3 – HEALTH
The Celtics have also been quite unlucky this season, as they’ve had to deal with a number of health related issues. It started with Kemba Walker not being healthy enough to start the season, and has persisted throughout the regular season. Walker has finally returned, but has struggled mightily in his return to action. He’s had a couple of solid performances recently, and will hopefully be able to build off of them in the next couple of games.
The team also dealt with a COVID outbreak that caused a number of postponements and significantly disrupted their schedule. This caused a couple of players, including Jayson Tatum, to miss a number of games once the team had the required number of players to be able to play the contests. This outbreak put the health of the players in jeopardy, and they lost their momentum to start the season.
And then once they came back, they continued to lose key pieces of their rotation. Payton Pritchard missed a couple games due to injury, but the biggest loss is easily Marcus Smart. It’s not a coincidence that the Celtics worst stretch of the season has come with Smart not on the court. Smart is the heart and soul of the Celtics squad, and he has been sorely missed during this team’s rough patch. Getting him back will hopefully help solve some of the Celtics problems, as they have yet to play a game at full strength this season. While there isn’t an immediate solution to the Celtics injury bug, they can continue to work on improving so that when players like Smart return, they can work on getting back to their winning ways.
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