After a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals and a complete reshuffle of their roster, the Boston Celtics came into this season with sky-high expectations.
Las Vegas odds slowly shifted the Celtics to the top of their conference, placing them as the favorites to meet the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
Tragically, those expectations didn’t last a full quarter of actual game play, as star free agent acquisition Gordon Hayward shattered his ankle within the first five minutes of the Celtics’ new season. Boston lost their opener, and lost their next game to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Yet somehow, someway, here we are. Twelve games into the season, the Celtics have the best record in the NBA and the second best net rating.
Led by Kyrie Irving, a resurgent Al Horford, and breakout years from Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum, the Celtics have won ten games in a row. With the Cleveland Cavaliers in complete collapse and the Washington Wizards showing nothing resembling consistency, the Celtics have to feel like they are back in the title picture.
Unfortunately, these three factors say the Celtics may be in for more disappointment.
Unsustainable three-point shooting
Celtics three-point percentage: 36.8 percent, 12th in the league
Jaylen Brown three-point percentage: 42.6
Al Horford three-point percentage: 51.5
Jayson Tatum three-point percentage: 51.
Coach Brad Stevens’ most used lineup features Irving, Brown, Tatum, Horford, and center Aron Baynes. On paper, this is a lineup with only two outside shooters, unusual for Stevens, who typically ran his system with three or four shooters on the floor last year. Currently, it’s a lineup with four shooters, due to the fact that Tatum and Brown have been absolutely lights out from outside.
Brown shot only 34-percent from three in his rookie year, and 29-percent in college. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the swingman improve his three-point shooting again this year, but it would be a shock to see him stay above 40-percent.
Horford has been a strong shooter his whole career, and Tatum has a great stroke that suggests he could be a strong shooter despite shooting only 34-percent from three in college. Neither of them are going to shoot more than fifty percent, however. It just doesn’t happen.
This isn’t an inherently bad thing. These three guys shooting well from outside shows Stevens system is being run effectively, and getting them quality shots. The concerning part comes elsewhere.
Despite this clearly unsustainable trend, the Celtics are currently only 14th in the league in offensive rating. If Boston’s shooting trio merely cools down to above-average shooting instead of steaming hot, this offense could fall out of the top 20.
So far, the Celtics have been relying on its league-best defense to win basically every game of their ten-game winning streak. If the offense gets any worse, the defense will have even more pressure to perform.
Which brings us to our next point.
Can a team with this little experience play defense this well?
Currently, Stevens is relying on 90 minutes per game from three rookies — Tatum, Daniel Theis, and Semi Ojeleye — and second-year player Jaylen Brown, whose minutes have nearly doubled from his rookie season.
Some of these minutes will be reassigned to Marcus Morris now that he has returned to the lineup. But Brown and Tatum’s length have been a massive boon to the Celtics’ defensive triumph. Through the first 10 games, Boston had an incredible defensive rating of 94.9 with Brown on the court, and 94.5 with Tatum on the court.
It’s extremely unusual for players this young to have this big of an impact on either side of the ball, but especially on the defensive end. It’s fair to question whether this is going to keep up.
Neither Brown nor Tatum have shouldered anything near the load they are going to be expected to carry over the next 70 games, and into the playoffs. They are easily the two biggest rookie wall candidates in the league, and if they fall off, the team simply doesn’t have the horses to replace their minutes at this high a level.
Brown and Tatum look like back-to-back fantastic draft picks for Boston, but their impact this year is unlikely to be as tremendous as it has been thus far.
The entire league is in chaos and everyone else is going to get sorted out eventually
Boston is benefitting greatly from two things right now: the chip on their shoulder, and the Brad Stevens factor.
The Celtics are playing with a lot more urgency and purpose than most other teams in the league right now after the Hayward injury. It was easy to see in their matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder, when the C’s looked significantly overmatched in the first half, only to come roaring back in the second when the Thunder took their foot off of the gas.
A bunch of teams, like the Thunder, Spurs, and Bucks — all teams the Celtics have beaten during this winning streak — are playing super weird ball right now. But the Celtics are playing hard, and due to the Stevens factor, they’re also playing well. That will always be an advantage Boston has, and will be a major reason this flawed roster will probably overachieve. But eventually the rest of the league is going to get sorted out, and the Celtics general lack of manpower post-Hayward injury will begin to show — though their use of the $8.4 million injury exception they received could help with this issue.
Boston basically has a free pass this season. An already unpredictable team became unrecognizable when it lost its best player. If they can win 50 games and a playoff series, it would be a massive victory. If they win 38 games and end up with the eighth seed, there will be no reason to hang their heads.
It’s most likely they will end up somewhere between those two paths.