Despite a win against the struggling Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday, this has still undoubtedly been the toughest stretch of 2017 for this young Boston Celtics squad. Although Brad Stevens' team has hit a little bit of a rough patch dropping three of their last six, the Green still remain atop the Eastern Conference with a 25-7 record.
Ask any C's fan out there right now and they'll tell you without doubt that they wouldn't trade the start of this year for anything. But as many of them will sit back, thank their lucky stars, and enjoy the nightly show, for others however, it still remains mind-boggling just how we got here. Scratch that ... it still remains mind-boggling just how fast we got here.
What the C's front office and President Danny Ainge have pulled off is nothing short of miraculous, lets call it what it is. But even Trader Danny and co. will tell you it takes a little Celtic luck from time to time to make these things happen. One of form of that luck and things that has worked well for this team is the multitude of players who continue to exceed expectations. Many of these players are performing in roles that aren't very glamorous as well and don't receive a lot of shine, and that's not just bench players either.
Whether it be due to the arrival/stellar play of Kyrie Irving, Stevens' meteoric rise into the upper echelon of the NBA’s coaching ranks, or the emergence of young studs Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, not every player is receiving the credit due. So this where we do that. Here are the Celtic's top three Unsung Hero candidates (and two honorable mentions) for 2017-18: Aron Baynes - Yes, that's right folks, Aron freaking Baynes. Somebody who was seen as nothing more than an Amir Johnson replacement with a little more upside on the glass, oh did they ever do you wrong Baynesy. The Down Under Wonder (yes, I may have come up with that myself) is everything fans here were looking for out of Amir last season. Hustle up and down the floor, setting good screens, getting dirty on the glass - all things which were once Johnson's calling card have now become lost on him and found by his successor in Boston. Hell if this guy mixes in a few more of those elbow jumpers of one of Kyrie's drive dump-off's, I might go to his barber and ask for "the Baynes."
Terry Rozier - Something feels so criminal about leaving Terry off this list which is why you can consider him my 3A. When people reference "Celtics basketball," next to one other player coming up on the list, this is your guy. Never afraid to get on the floor for a ball, always getting his nose dirty on D as well, this is also a guy who has the confidence to take big shots.
His shooting consistency can be an issue at times and this shows in a below-.400 field goal percentage. But what we do know about Rozier is his consistency on defense and the consistency in his effort never waiver. Maybe it's a testament to this team's depth or the amount of guys who've bought into Stevens' system so much that I'm even leaving him off this list, but rules are rules! Sorry, Terry!!
3.) Marcus Morris - There may be an asterisk going next to his name here soon depending on the length of time he continues to miss down the road but is anyone not seeing how much the second unit misses this guy right now? A guy who was once thought to maybe not play a minute of NBA basketball this year due to legal issues is now one of the biggest surprises of 2017. Beginning most of the year in the starting five, it didn't take long for fans in Boston to start to see many of the things Danny Ainge felt Morris could bring to this team.
Not only a player who can almost act as a grease man as a big and hustle for you on the glass and defend opponent's of many different sizes, #13 also presented Coach Stevens with another piece who can create a lot of offense for his teammates and himself. Brad decided to utilize his ability off the bench in a very stagnant second unit and right off the bat there were results. Now back out due to knee problems, it remains to be seen what will be done next.
2.) Marcus Smart - The reason why Marcus Morris won't be in the running for Sixth Man of the Year? Simple -- the other Marcus on the team and new Mr. Celtic himself, Marcus Smart. The longest-tenured player in this organization currently, its almost too fitting that he's also the perfect embodiment of everything the fans in this town love - a blue-collared style guy who earns everything he is given.
However while you'd thinking people living around here could identify themselves with a guy like that, he still seems to receive the brunt of criticism for most of the team and on some nights, it's justified. Posting the worst field goal percentage of his career (32.1) while also playing some of the league's best defense only leaves Celtics' loyalists befuddled.
Best player defensive ratings in #NBA among players who average 30+ minutes:
1. Marcus Smart (BOS): 96.7
2. Eric Gordon (HOU): 97.6
3. Jaylen Brown (BOS): 97.7
4. Jayson Tatum (BOS): 99.1
9. Al Horford (BOS): 99.9
13. Kyrie Irving (BOS): 101#Celtics
Shot selection that leads to 2-9 shooting nights that drive you up a wall? Check. Head-scratching turnovers? Check. A few egregious flops (notice how loosely I use "few")? Check. All-NBA defense while always being at the right place at the right time/making ridiculously clutch plays/sparking runs which lead to wins? Check. Can someone please explain why he hasn't been voted top three in Defensive Player of the Year ballots yet?
1.)Al Horford - Leaving a place he called home for a decade where he was pretty much the focal point of the team to becoming the third wheel to an up-and-coming player/coach combo probably wasn't the career path Al expected to take. In fact many players of his caliber (or at least his pay grade) might be a little put off by the lack of attention and credit he's received in Boston to this point after making that move. Even when it seemed like the guy would finally get his due after a phenomenal playoff run, Danny Ainge went out and made one of the biggest NBA blockbusters of the last decade and were back to square one.
Don't get Big Al wrong though, he's eating up this whole under the radar thing. What more could a veteran in his position just looking for a ring want? The guy gets to come to work every day, put in his time with minimal distractions, not have to deal with the media circus and call it a day ... I don't the guys complaining. But all in all regardless of the attention he may or may not be receiving, it can't deter us from recognizing what he's done this year. Horford's play, while his numbers continue to not be as gaudy, is still integral to this team and is a point that cannot be lost on fans.
Playing with the best of the big men in the NBA this season, Horford has began to show his full maturation into a stretch-big who can not only hit from deep and defend three positions .. but facilitate the ball too. With a league-high 5.4 assists per game amongst true big men (A.K.A. guys who are 6'10" and up .. sorry Draymond Green), Horford not only may be the best facilitator on the Celtics, his mark is 19th best in the league and he plays center half the time!
The funniest thing here is we're not talking about a stat stuffer either. For a long while, people defending Al's criticisms have had to note how a lot of what he does isn't going to show up in the stat book. From setting screens, always positioning himself well on the floor to get a look from deep, or not making an overly aggressive pass and opting to reset plays, as noted a lot of these things can't be tallied by a stat keeper, or aren't.
But for now the difference #42 makes on this team as a main ingredient to it's nucleus shouldn't be understated .. yet somehow continues to be at times. This is why he's the 2017-18 Celtics Unsung Hero of the Year .. so far.