Is This a Mirage? Are The Boston Celtics a True Contender?

After the season from hell, the Boston Celtics and their fans were secretly, or not-so-secretly ready to move on from the enigmatic Kyrie Irving and his moody disposition. While losing Irving and his on-court production seemed to spell disaster for Boston, another all-star guard arrived into town. One with a track record of being the exact opposite of Irving. With the integration of Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward looking like his old self and the Jays looking comfortable in expanded roles the Celtics might be one piece away from a serious title contender.

The Boston Celtics sit alone at the top of the Eastern Conference with a record of 11-3. They own the no. 7 offense in the NBA and the no. 7 defense. They have a net rating of plus-7.5, the fifth-best in the league and an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.93, second in the league. The numbers check out for this team, they also have some great wins against the Bucks, Raptors, Spurs, and Mavericks. But is this all real? Can we trust this team to remain one of the best teams in the league for the entirety of the season? Sure, why not.

Unfortunately, Hayward will be out of the lineup for six weeks as he recovers from his broken hand, but him bouncing back after spending a season trying to reacclimate himself to the game shouldn’t be a surprise. Walker producing at an all-star level now that he has more offensive weapons surrounding him shouldn’t raise any eyebrows. And Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown raising their games to another level with known ball-stoppers like Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier gone sounds just right.

Thank you, Michael Jordan

As news trickled out of Irving’s impending decision to leave Boston over the summer a lot of fans thought, “good riddance”. I was in that camp. However, right after that thought was “well, then what?” No matter how much Irving had alienated himself from the fanbase and his teammates he was still an all-NBA player who by basketball metrics makes your team better no matter his quirks and offbeat personality. It turns out the Celtics simply had to embrace the idea of moving on and an opportunity to come out with the best-possible scenario presented itself. Michael Jordan decided he didn’t want to pay Walker the max amount of money he was eligible for. MJ offered the greatest player in the franchise’s history $160 million, so Walker looked elsewhere.

The Celtics jumped on the opportunity knowing the on-court production Walker would bring to the table rivaled the statistical output Irving brought the team. A sign-and-trade for Terry Rozier, who wanted an opportunity to shine elsewhere (good luck Charlotte) made perfect sense for Boston.

We’ve heard how great of a leader Walker is, and the immediate impact his presence has had on the locker room, and trust me I think all of that is great. It wouldn’t matter one bit if he wasn’t producing on the court, but he is. In 33.8 minutes of action, he’s averaging 22.6 points per game, 4.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists. He’s doing that all while shooting 39.2 percent on 3-pointers on 9.3 attempts and 91.7 percent on his free-throws on 5.1 attempts.

I can’t emphasize this enough: “Thank you, Michael Jordan”

The Jays are ready

The two players who suffered the most from the “Kyrie Irving Experience” were Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Brown went from getting Kawhi Leonard/Paul Geroge comparisons to being relegated to a 3-and-D specialist. He went from averaging 30.7 minutes a game in 2017-18 to averaging 25.9 in 2018-19. His 3-point percentage dropped from 39 percent to 34 percent, his scoring dipped from 14.5 to 13.0 and reports named Brown as the Celtic most at odds with Irving. Tatum regressed as well, but you wouldn’t know it from simply peering over boxscores. You actually had to watch to pick up on Tatum’s struggles. He spent a lot of time taking (and missing) long 2-pointers, losing the ball on his drives to the basket and being really inefficient in isolation scenarios. That last point was a brutal one; Tatum was dead last in the league in points per possession in isolation among players who played a minimum of 60 games and isolated at least two times per game. Like I said, brutal.

It’s been a different story for both players this season. Brown looks more comfortable with his handle than I’ve seen him at any point in his career. He plays with a deliberate pace, and he no longer allows the defense to rush him. Since becoming a better shooter he’s used the extra defensive attention when a defender closes out to take his time and drive to the basket. In 14 games, Brown is averaging 18.5 points, 7.2 rebounds on 47.3 percent shooting from the field. He’s also averaging a career-high in free throw attempts at just under four per game. He’s taken the leap that was expected from him a season ago. 

For Tatum, the improvements have been encouraging as well. He’s struggled shooting the ball inside the arc, but he’s shooting 39.1 percent on his 3-pointers, averaging 20.9 points, 7.4 rebounds and overall looking like a player who is successfully implementing some of the lessons he learned over the summer. He’s making a concerted effort to make sure he’s taking 3s when they are available and his numbers look impressive: 39.6 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers and 39.5 percent on pull up shots from beyond the arc. As Tatum becomes more comfortable with the adjustments to his game I’m sure his efficiency will improve. 

Do they have the size for this?

Before letting the Washington Wizards drop 133 points on them the Celtics had one of the league’s best defenses. They still have a good defense but their defensive rating took a hit after that contest, and they’ve been able to get it back up within the top 10. The problem with the Celtics is they’re small. Or is it an actual problem? Boston’s most-used lineup of Hayward, Walker, Marcus Smart, Tatum, and Daniel Theis has a defensive rating of 89.2. 

Those five guys have played 50 minutes together and the tallest players in that lineup are Hayward, Tatum, and Theis, who are listed 6-foot-8. They have the flexibility to switch on screens. They have the quickness to help on drives and recover on rotations, which has been a big part of their surprising defensive performance this season. However, they need a defensive big man with size. Theis has been good, but in a playoff series against the Bucks, the Raptors, or the Sixers a 6-foot-8 big who isn’t great from behind the arc turns into a liability. Boston’s other big men: Enes Kanter and Robert Williams III are decent options but flawed. Kanter is a poor defender and Williams III is an overzealous one. 

Boston is one move away from being a legitimate title contender and that move comes in finding a big man they can deploy for matchups against Eastern Conference teams with mega-lineups. If the Cavaliers start wholesaling some of their veterans an interesting option would be trading for Tristan Thompson, who is having a career year. He’s averaging 14.5 points and 10.1 rebounds per game and looks revitalized. Thompson is the perfect center to drop right into the mixture of wings and guards the Celtics have. 

If he becomes available and a deal seems possible, Danny Ainge should pull the trigger on it to give Boston that last piece it would need to be a true title contender. 

I am from Houston, Texas where I am in my senior year of college with the goal of graduating and joining a sports media publication and helping them create content. I have experience writing articles and covering sporting events for my university. I am a big Boston Celtics fan, but you can catch me flipping through multiple games on League Pass any given day. My hope is to continue getting better.

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