Comparing current Celtics to last season - better? best in East?

As of this morning, three Celtics starters are out with injuries. Let's start with Gordon Hayward. First of all, I can't see a player ask for a basketball so soon after a devastating injury and then proceed to launch shots at the hoop from a chair that doesn't harbor at least a bit of hope of returning prior to the playoffs. Forget what he said about not returning this season. He didn't want to disappoint the fans or himself if he said he was attempting to return and then failed to do so. We will assume he won't be back this season and be thrilled if he does.

As of this writing, nothing more is known about the injuries to Al Horford or Jayson Tatum, but this article will assume the two players will not miss more than a few games. Here is the Boston Herald's Steve Bulpett on the comparison between last year's Celtics team and the current one:

They most certainly are not as good as they would be with Hayward, but with three weeks of evidence since the season-opening stunner, the light of perspective has revealed a club that is better than last season’s edition.

Conversations with general managers and scouts around the league in the past two days confirmed the latter notion.

“You can go player for player in their rotation, and it’s just a better team now,” one personnel director said.

In this same article, Bulpett rates Kyrie Irving above Isaiah Thomas. Tough to disagree with. He also places Jaylen Brown over Avery Bradley, mainly for Jaylen's size and ability to defend taller opponents.

If you had a choice right now between Jae Crowder and Jayson Tatum, who would you pick? In Jayson I see less toughness but equal defense and better offense. Tatum's the choice. If we see Aron Baynes, Daniel Theis and Marcus Morris taking the place of Amir Johnson, the trio gets the nod. Amir was reliable, but just looked worn out in the playoffs. Johnson is only 30-years-old but this is his 13th season in the NBA. His legs look tired.

Speaking of tired legs, you can bet Hayward would love to have that issue right now. In his Boston Herald article, Bulpett broached the distant possibility that Gordon could return this season:

With Hayward, the Celtics believed in their heart they had a very good shot at getting to the NBA Finals and would have been only too happy to play with house money there. Now they’re on a free roll of sorts anyway, with at least an outside chance they get Hayward back before the postseason.

Steve Bulpett is a well-respected writer, so I put his "outside chance" quote into the mix on the possibility of Gordon's return to action. With Hayward's injury, the three basic issues involve bone repair, combating muscle atrophy and restoring full strength and motion to disused joints. In short, the bone needs to repair to a point in the cast and then, with the cast removed, the leg needs to be gradually stressed to further repair the bone damage, restore lost muscle and get more function back into the joints. The Celtics medical staff has been all over that since the injury occurred.

So it is all about timing. Every individual has a different recovery rate, but the research lately on bone repair has been ground-breaking. And we are not talking Joe Average here. Hayward needs to come back to the level of a top athlete. That is the difference. Pro athletes repair quicker than regular humans because they are athletes, and secondly because they have a great medical staff with them from the time of the injury to their return to competition and beyond.

So I will take this team over last year's group with no reservations. Even without Hayward, we are tops in the Eastern Conference. Some of the subs get more minutes for now and get a chance to prove their worth. Jayson and Al return to action after several DNP's and we are off and running.

Follow Tom at @TomLaneHC

Photo via Matt Stone/Boston Herald