The NBA All-Star festivities concluded last night, and the Celtics will return to play against the Brooklyn Nets and their new addition Blake Griffin on Thursday, March 11th. The Celtics went into the break riding a four game win streak, and currently sit at fourth in the Eastern Conference at 19-17. For Celtics fans, this season has been an emotional roller coaster ride, as the Celtics’ play has varied from game to game. It’s difficult to predict how the rest of this season will go for the C’s, but it’s always good to have goals. Here are the main goals that I would like the Celtics to focus on for the remainder of this season:
1.) Use the Hayward TPE. One of the biggest discussion points for Celtics fans this season is what Danny Ainge will do with the largest trade exception in NBA history. I recently completed a Trade Exception Target series that broke down some of the players Ainge could acquire with the exception, but who knows what will happen as the March 25th Trade Deadline approaches. Technically, the exception doesn’t have to be used during this season, as it will not expire until the 2021 NBA Offseason, but Ainge himself said that as currently constructed, the Celtics aren’t good enough to win a championship. Ainge shouldn’t use the exception just to use it, but if there was ever a time to demonstrate the meaning behind the nickname “Trader Danny,” now would be the time to do so.
2.) Maintain player health. This is something that is easier said than done, especially with coronavirus protocols, but the Celtics have been especially banged up this year. From COVID-19 cases, to injuries, Jayson Tatum, Rob Williams, Kemba Walker, and Marcus Smart have all missed significant time. Oh, and Jaylen Brown is nursing knee soreness/tendonitis that definitely will need to be monitored throughout the rest of the season. The final standings don’t matter as much this year as home court advantage holds less weight with limited fan capacity, so the Celtics should do their best to tread water in the standings, while getting as healthy as possible for the playoffs. Regardless of their final seed, this team won’t achieve anything significant if Tatum, Brown, Walker, and Smart are all fully healthy by season’s end.
3.) Develop the kids. The Celtics as presently rostered are the fifth youngest team in the league, with an average age of 25.1 years old. They are led by a 23 year old Jayson Tatum and a 24 year old Jaylen Brown. The Celtics bench employs a number of players on rookie contracts, including Payton Pritchard (23), Aaron Nesmith (21), Romeo Langford (21), Grant Williams (22), and Rob Williams (23). All five of these players were first round picks from the Celtics in the past three drafts, so while the Celtics should be actively trying to win, they need to see if anyone they drafted can be a long-term part of the team. Pritchard has been great in his first season, though he seems to have hit the rookie wall as of late. Rob Williams has looked like the future at center this season, though his injury issues are concerning. Langford has been injured throughout most of his Celtics tenure, Grant Williams is too inconsistent for regular minutes, and Nesmith is too inexperienced but has shown flashes in his rookie season. It’s difficult to win by playing young players regularly, but Coach Stevens needs to see what he has in these players, or if they have any value as trade pieces.
4.) Keep the Jay’s happy. Regardless of your own feelings on the modern NBA, the league is more of a player’s league than ever before, specifically a superstar player’s league. Tatum and Brown have solidified that they are both top twenty players in the league, and should only be improving from here on out. Brown is locked up through the 2023-24 season, and Tatum is signed through the 2024-25 season, with a player option for 2025-26. I’m not advocating that the Celtics make the Jay’s the de facto decision-makers for the team, ala James Harden in Houston, but the clock is ticking more quickly than you may think. Players switch teams to play with their friends more often than ever, and if Boston isn’t careful, even in a transition season, then one of the Jay’s could request a trade even before their contract expires.
5.) Find a team identity. For the past three seasons under Coach Stevens, the Celtics have been labeled as a defensive team. This year, the Celtics are average on both offense and defense. According to Lineups.com, the Celtics’ Defensive Rating is 19th in the league this year, and their Offensive Rating is 12th. Without a top ten defense or offense, the Celtics are unlikely to have much success come playoff time. Jaylen Brown has improved dramatically on offense this year, but his defense has undeniably slipped. It seems like the team’s defensive lapses have been about effort more than anything, and can be improved if Stevens can get his team to buy in again. The offseason additions of Jeff Teague and Tristan Thompson have done more harm than good, in that they were supposed to provide a veteran presence. Teague is a huge wash, who should be cut given the chance or need, but Thompson has started to play well, especially on defense as of late. Regardless of these two players’ performances, the Celtics need to do some soul searching and decide what their team identity is for this season.
I’m excited to see the Celtics return and build on how they closed the final four games before the All-Star Break. The Trade Deadline is fast approaching, so pressure is only increasing from here for the Celtics to either buy-in, or consider this season to be a complete wash, as super teams like the Nets and Lakers continue to load up.