Heading into the 2021 NBA season, the expectations for the Boston Celtics were as high as they’ve been in recent years. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were poised for breakout seasons, and they had finally gotten rid of Gordon Hayward who was constantly hurt or underperforming. There’s no doubting their top end talent level, and their ceiling is another ECF and maybe a Finals appearance. But with the way the team is playing right now, it looks like they’ll be lucky to get there with teams like the Nets and 76ers playing at extremely high levels as of late. The Celtics have gone the opposite direction, and have lost 3 straight including a heartbreaking Luka Doncic buzzer beater on Tuesday, before they got dismantled by Danilo Gallinari and the Hawks on Wednesday. They’ve lost 6 out of their last 8 games, and look to be spiraling out of control.
After their blowout loss to the Hawks on Thursday, while Tatum was doing his post game press conference, there was what seemed to be some very clear commotion in the Celtics locker room. There were some very clear loud bangs and what appeared to be Brad Stevens yelling stop. Even if this isn’t what happened, the Celtics and their fan base are in full panic mode. They have slid all the way down the Eastern Conference standings to 9th at 15-17, the same record as teams like the Knicks and Heat. With their recent struggles I thought it would be interesting to break down the reasons for this slide, and examine if I think they can turn the corner.
Lack of Solid Big Men
Danny Ainge and the Celtics have always been aggressive in signing free agents and getting their guys, but this offseason was disappointing to say the least. With an obvious hole at the center position, the only free agent center they were able to sign was Tristan Thompson. Thompson doesn’t provide much for the team past decent rebounding and defense. This is even more disappointing when you consider that Myles Turner was available and that the Celtics couldn’t get a deal done with him. According to multiple sources, Ainge and the Pacers were very close to a deal with Turner as the centerpiece involving a Gordon Hayward sign and trade. The deal eventually fell through because Ainge reportedly wanted T.J. Warren or Victor Oladipo in place of Doug McDermott. Ainge preferred receiving a trade exception, over signing Turner.
Well, shortly after Gordon Hayward left for nothing, and signed a massive deal with the Charlotte Hornets. According to Zach Lowe of ESPN, the Celtics weren’t very high on Turner and didn’t believe Turner was a significant upgrade from their current front court. Myles Turner is averaging 13.3 PPG and 3.4 blocks per game. Turner has taken a step up, and has become a frontrunner for DPOY. He’s exactly what this current Celtics team needs: A defensive anchor that can provide some offensive relief to the team’s two superstars. It’s fair to say that the front court combination of Daniel Theis, Thompson, and Robert Williams III isn’t getting it done, they rank right in the middle of the league in defensive efficiency at 15th. Late in games teams find a way to attack the weakest link on the floor which is usually the Celtics big men, and this was evident in Sunday’s loss to the Pelicans. They were up 24 at one point in the game, and were up 13 heading into the 4th, and somehow still managed to lose to a mediocre Pelicans team 120-115. The possibility of a buyout market big man is still real, but for now one of the reasons for the Celtics struggles has been their hole at the center position.
Kemba Walker’s Inconsistent Play
Another reason why the Celtics haven’t lived up to expectations this year has been the up and down play of Kemba Walker. Kemba was brought to Boston on a 4 year $141 million dollar deal in 2019 to replace Kyrie Irving. He played moderately well last year, averaging around 20 PPG in 56 games played, but had his moments of inconsistency. This year, the moments of inconsistency have come more often than ever before. He’s averaging 17.3 PPG in 16 out of 32 games played, and has slipped to 35% from three, his lowest mark since the 2014-2015 season. As of late he’s been better, but still has 3 games this year where he’s scored less than 10 points. With Gordon Hayward’s departure, this team needs Kemba to be a reliable third option on a nightly basis. The combination of his early season injuries, and his inconsistent play have resulted in an unrealistic offensive workload for Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
Marcus Smart Injury
Since Marcus Smart strained his calf on January 30th the Celtics have gone 5-9 over that stretch. Smart’s defensive presence has not been understated. After being named to NBA All Defensive First Team last season, Smart has proved to be one of the league’s most aggressive and consistent defenders. His absence was painfully obvious last night against the Hawks where in the first half Trae Young scored 25 along with Danilo Gallinari scoring 24 leading to a 70 point first half for Atlanta. His leadership skills on the court have also been missed. This Celtics group is mostly young guys with the exception of a few veterans. I think his presence on the court is essential for this team’s success. He’s never afraid to call a teammate out, and will be the first one to pick them up off the floor. My point being that Smart’s absence has been detrimental to the Celtics defense, along with his absence as an on and off the court leader. He’s slated to be back after the All Star Break, so there is light at the end of the tunnel for this Celtics team. The All Star Break couldn’t come soon enough for the Celtics.
All in all, I think the Celtics’ recent struggles boil down to a few fairly fixable issues. Signing a center in the buyout market is something that the Celtics should be very interested in. Other than that the available guys are slim to none. Andre Drummond’s contract is too big for them to take on, and there aren’t many better options. A trade is still on the table, but Danny Ainge has yet to get anything done.
As Kemba continues to play his way back into top form, I think there’s definitely hope for this Celtics team. Mostly because Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are fantastic. They were both recently named as All Star Reserves, and the Celtics’ slip has been no fault of their own. Every night, they are asked to score 25+ and be engaged on the defensive end of the floor. Eventually something’s going to give there and it’s been their defense. It’s understandable considering they’re both playing 33+ minutes a night, giving everything they have on offense to stay in these games. Like I said, their top end talent level is undeniable, and this team could be really scary if they figure it out before the playoffs. But with no real defensive anchor, and a lack of scoring outside the 3 superstars, the Celtics could be headed down a path that might find them out of home court advantage in the playoffs.