Come the playoffs, we'll still likely be better than last year's ECF Team

By LarBrd33

In the midst of last year's Eastern Conference Finals with Boston down 3-1 to the Heat, I made a poorly received Reddit post suggesting that Boston could regret that series for decades. The basic gist was that Boston had just blown their first genuine path to the Finals since 2010 (KG's gem made 2012 fun, but I never saw that as a serious contender). The Jays had undeniably bright futures, but I pointed to the 2012 Thunder as an example of a team with "unlimited potential" making the Finals (with 23 year old Durant, 23 year old Westbrook and 22 year old Harden) never to return.

My fear was that with Hayward likely opting out to sign elsewhere (an unpopular stance at the time) and the East potentially getting better, we may have messed up our best chance in the Jayson Tatum era to win a title. Before you know it, the Jays could hit free agency and go the way of that early 00s Thunder team.

It was reactionary. Truthfully, I was hoping a little reverse jinxery would get Boston back in the series. But alas, 26 games into this season it appears my doomsday fear-mongering is seeming more and more prescient. Here we are hovering with an underwhelming .500 record. Hayward's now in Charlotte just a half game behind us potentially setting up a hilarious 4th/5th seed 1st round playoff series against us if things continue on this trajectory. As feared, teams like Philly and the Bucks have made important improvements. The nightmarish Brooklyn Nets are gaining steam around their 3 prime Hall-of-Famers. Things are looking bleak.

Despite all of this... honestly... I'm not worried. Call me a serial contrarian, I guess. I think we'd all be wise to take some of the advice of the fans who downvoted that Reddit post of mine and remember we are still a promising young team built around two budding stars with incredibly bright futures. I still think we'll be fine.

On paper, barring injuries, we still are likely going to end up better than last season's team come playoff time. As an exercise, I think it would be helpful to compare last year's Eastern Conference Finals team to this roster. Let's do this in a very methodical way going down that roster one by one sorted by minutes played and see where we stand.

2020 Playoff Roster Compared to 2021 Roster (sorted by minutes)

  • 40.6 mpg - 2020 Jayson Tatum vs 2021 Jayson Tatum: This all starts and ends with Jayson Tatum. He's the franchise player. We only go as far as he takes us. By far our most impactful player. Last year in the playoffs he was sensational. 25.7 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, 1.2 blocks with .434/.373/.813 shooting. For the most part, he's picked up where he left off. 35.3mpg - 25.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.2 steals with .450/.407/.874. Last several games he's seen an uptick in his assist numbers as he evolves into our primary playmaker. It's fair to point out he's struggled scoring recently. In the 10 games since returning from COVID, he's only shot over 50% once. His last 5 games in particular have been terrible. 35% shooting from the field and 34% from three. It's clear Tatum is in a funk right now. It's arguably the biggest reason we've struggled recently. When the best player is off, the whole team is off. It's not something that concerns me, though. Long term, assuming he doesn't have some lingering post-COVID health issues or get injured, it's an easy assumption to make that 2021 Playoff Jayson Tatum will be better than 2020 Playoff Jayson Tatum.

  • 39.5mpg - 2020 Jaylen Brown vs 2021 Jaylen Brown: Brown was fantastic in the playoffs. 21.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.5 steals with .476/.358/.841 shooting. Nobody here needs me to convince them how sensational he's been so far this season. The man has seemingly taken another leap and has been shooting lights out. 26 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.3 steals with .513/.409/.752 shooting in 33.2mpg. Brown should be better in the playoffs than he was last year.

  • 38.1mpg - 2020 Marcus Smart vs 2021 Marcus Smart: Third most minutes on the team in the playoffs was none other than All-Defense 1st team Marcus Smart. He's a huge part of this team's success. We flat out don't beat the Raptors last season without Smart's heroics. Let's not forget he's injured right now and these games could be playing out a bit differently with him on the court. Presumably, he'll play a big part come playoff time.

  • 36.9 mpg - 2020 Kemba Walker vs 2021 Kemba Walker: In the playoffs Kemba averaged 19.6 points, 5.1 assists, 4.1 rebounds with .441/.310/.852 shooting. He was reportedly playing through pain, but still contributing at a relatively high level. He's reportedly pain-free right now, but he's been hit-and-miss since his return. 16.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, 4 assists with 36%/36%/89% shooting in 27.8mpg (much of his early games on minutes restriction). He is, however, coming off a couple of his better games. 21 points against Toronto on 42%/62% shooting. 25 points on the Wizards with 50%/57% shooting. Kemba's on the upswing. I've never been in the "sky is falling" camp with Kemba. Though he might not be an ideal fit next to the Jays, he still pencils in as a solid 3rd option. Come playoff time, assuming the knee issues don't creep up again, I'm confident he'll be an important part of our team's success.

  • 28.4mpg - 2020 Daniel Theis vs 2021 Theis/Thompson: Theis was a huge part of our team in the playoffs as our 5th man. He averaged 8.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks while playing huge minutes. He was terrible from three in the playoffs (15% shooting), but made an impact as our key big man. Here we are in 2021 with a 3-man big lineup. On paper, it should make us better. Theis has seen his minutes decrease to 24.1 while Tristan Thompson has taken 22.3. Theis remains solid averaging 9.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1 block with blistering .583/.418/.667 shooting. Thompson hasn't been outright terrible either. Solid rebounder and decent defender. The two of them might be slightly redundant, though. As I'll touch on later later, moving Thompson might make sense sense. Regardless, the important thing is that this role has not been downgraded and should be impactful come playoff time.

  • 16.1mpg 2020 Brad Wanamaker vs 2021 Pritchard/Teague: Here we go. Now we're actually starting to genuinely deviate from last season. I made a joke after tonight's loss that "the team hasn't been the same since letting Brad Wanamaker walk". There's some truth to it, though. Funny enough, Wanamaker is the only key contributor from last year's ECF team that is no longer here. Brad was a steady hand in the playoffs getting decent backup guard minutes and shooting efficiently (44% from three). On paper, he was replaced this season by Jeff Teague (17.6mpg), but at this point it's a role more obviously going to Payton Pritchard (21.5mpg). Pritchard is having a solid season averaging 8.1 points, 2.2 assists, 2.5 rebounds with .483/.448/.917 shooting. My expectation is that on this current trajectory with the tightening of playoff rotations, Pritchard will take the bulk of the minutes with Teague's role all but eliminated. All signs point to this being an upgrade.

  • 2020 Williams/Williams vs 2021 Williams/Williams: Rounding out the key contributors of the 2020 ECF rotation was Robert Williams (11.5mpg) and Grant Williams (10mpg). Without going too deeply into either, I think it's absolutely fair to claim both of these youngsters have shown signs of improvement this season. Time Lord has seen his minutes increase to 15mpg and has proven impactful on both ends . Grant is averaging 19.5mpg while quietly shooting 44% from three. Both of these guys have evolved from fringe players to genuine assets and I expect if they are still here come playoff time, they'll play important roles.

There you have it. That was our top 9 guys during last year's playoff run. We also got some insignificant minutes from Semi and Kanter (both about 9mpg with several DNPs), but our core 9 were the above. You'll note that in the cases of Tatum, Brown, Smart and Kemba, all of them had typical playoff minute bumps that you should count on seeing again.

  • The Elephant in the Room: If you thought I was leaving out Hayward to be cheeky, I wasn't. Yes, Gordon Hayward was on our team last year. He played exactly 1 healthy playoff game, putting up 12 points before getting injured in a first round victory. He later returned on one leg a shadow of himself for 4 games, going 2-2 vs Miami. Yeah, 1-legged Hayward helped in that series averaging 10.8 points with 40%/29% shooting, but for the most part he was a non-factor and played zero part in us making the ECF. I loved Hayward and saw him as an all-star level player, but you simply can't claim that our playoff team will be "worse" without him. He was irrelevant.

The bottom line is that come playoff time, we have all the tools to be better than we were during last year's playoff run.

So where do we go from here?: We're obviously struggling right now. Some of this was an expected result of embarking on "showcase season". We've predictably spent the first half of this season playing with line-up configurations and getting close looks at our bench of talent. If our only goal was to win regular season games, we'd probably be seeing a tight 8 man rotation mirroring last season, but "wining regular season games" isn't our only goal right now. Players like Semi (18.6mpg), Grant (19.5 mpg), Javonte Green (15.5mpg) and even talent like Edwards (10.8mpg) and Waters (10.6mpg) have gotten opportunities either to earn long-term roles or showcase themselves as viable trade assets. For the most part, they've all shown signs of improvement that could result in them being desirable throw-ins in larger moves. Of course, this inconsistent rotation with sporadic minutes makes it difficult for the team to get into a rhythm. You should fully expect that to change in the second half of the season and after the trade deadline as we settle on a core line-up.

We will likely look to clean up this rotation late next month. Romeo Langford remains a key question mark. Despite the rough start, Aaron Nesmith remains a wildcard to get in a groove. Can one of these guys prove to be a key contributor late in the season? I could see the team moving one or more of the bigs alongside some of the expendable young talent as part of a move to acquire a solid switchable wing (we only need to replace the underwhelming minutes Hayward played in 5 playoff games). The TPE has been talked about a ton at this point, but it remains a real path we can use to make an immediate and tangible upgrade to this team.

You look at the rotation that just lost by 13 to the woeful Wizards. Sorted by minutes we had Semi (31), Nesmith (29), Walker (29), Brown (29), Tatum (23), Theis (20), Thompson (18), Pritchard (17), Grant (12). As a reasonable example, imagine us making a mid-season move of Thompson + Grant + Semi + Nesmith + picks for a significant wing upgrade utilizing the TPE. Come playoff time, our rotation could look more like this: Tatum (40), Brown (40), Smart (38), Kemba (34), TPE Wing Acquisition (33), Theis (25), Pritchard (25), Time Lord (22), Langford (15). This is just one example, but the point is that we don't have to make a profound shift to our roster to clean this up and be better than last year's team.

Bottom line:  Even without a major move, we still project out as a better team than last year's ECF participant. We have several ways to improve this roster that could push us even further over the top

LarBrd33 is a life-long Celtic fanatic who has contributed to CLNS, CelticsBlog, and CelticsLife. He currently co-hosts the “Celtics Reddit Podcast”. You can find more of his dumb takes via twitter @LarBrd33, via Reddit as u/LarBrd33, or via the weird Celtic videos he posts on his YouTube channel.