8 reasons not to count the Celtics out as contenders
If you've been following this website or our Twitter the past thirteen years, you know me. I'm not one to post Green Teamer nonsense just to get "likes" or "retweets." Probably have lost a lot of followers by being objective, but so be it. I always wanted to have an objective Celtics website. Not negative like most sports radio shows, but not fairy tale land like most social media takes.
With that said, I'm not going to sugarcoat the loss of Robert Williams and I'm definitely not going to overreact to the Celtics B squad being able to go toe to toe with the Raptors last night (Hate prisoner of the moment shite). The Celtics title odds went considerably down with the news of Time Lord's meniscus tear no doubt.
(NOTE: For this article I'm going to go with the assumption that Time Lord will not return until next season, since the Celtics will choose the meniscus surgery option that takes longer to rehab, but is better for you long term. There is another surgical option that can get a player back in six weeks, but is worse long term and due to Williams' age I doubt they will go that route. If they due and he can return this year, then just make it 9 reasons!).
BUT don't count this Celtics team out just yet! Here are eight reasons not to count the Celtics out as contenders:
1. Jayson Tatum plays for the Boston Celtics
If you've been following the NBA since its existence, the team with the best basketball player in the world tends to go far. Russell, Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Bird, Jordan, Shaq, and Duncan all made the Finals consistently. And the modern era's best player, LeBron James, has made it 12 times. While Tatum won't win the MVP award, since it's a full season award, and he shot poorly the first couple months (and the Celtics looked like hot garbage), he's been the league's best player in 2022.
I'll say that again. In the calendar year of 2022, our very own Boston Celtics' star, Jayson Tatum, has been the league's best player. And he seems to only be getting better. You can't count out the team with the current best player in the NBA. Shoot, LeBron made a couple Finals with his 2nd best player being either Zydrunas Ilgauskas or a hobbled Kevin Love.
Scottie Pippen barely could play by the end of the 1998 playoffs, yet Jordan still won that 6th ring. Don't believe me? Check the box scores. Pippen wasn't Pippen then due to his injury. Don't bet against the team with the current best player in the NBA.
Am I arguing that Tatum is the best player in the NBA? No. I'm arguing that he's the hottest superstar in the NBA right now. Guys have their moments. Think Charles Barkley in 1993, Dwyane Wade in 2006, or Giannis last year. Right now Tatum is playing as good as anyone in the NBA. Bar none.
2. The Celtics are the hottest team in the NBA
Momentum means something. No team is winning as much and blowing out their competition like the Celtics of late. The playoffs might still be two weeks away, but Boston peaked at the right time. Seedings are based on an 82 game regular season, but save for one extra home game in a series, the benefits of early season wins mean little come playoff time.
The Celtics went on a 13 game win streak early on during Kyrie Irving's final season in Boston. Come playoff time that helped give Boston a higher seed than if they struggled early in the season, but we were a mess going into the playoffs. And as soon as the smallest bit of adversity hit in round two, our star checked out and we were bounced.
A teams's record over the 2nd half of the season is a better indicator of playoff success than their full 82 game record.
3. The Celtics have been beating NBA teams these past few months even when a core player is out
Again, I'm not discounting the loss of Time Lord. I'm just saying, while the Celtics have been rather lucky health wise in 2022 prior to the Williams' injury, it's not like all their wins have featured their dominant starting 5. Smart has missed games. Horford has missed games. And Time Lord has missed games. While the team obviously has been its best when all 5 starters are in the line-up, they still have been dominant the past 3 months with just four of them in there.
What I'm saying is it's not like the Celtics don't know how to win. And it's not like they haven't shown they can win without Time Lord.
4. Daniel Theis is very competent replacement
Look I'm not as gung ho as others about the Celtics trade deadline. Again because I'm not a prisoner of the moment. 1st round picks are very valuable, both as players (Tatum, Brown, Smart, Time Lord, Grant, Pritchard all drafted by Boston) and as trade assets. I believe Boston overpaid for Derrick White, just like I believed they overpaid for Rodney Rogers back in 2002. Just like back then, most fans and "experts" liked the trade for Boston. In hindsight, while Rogers was fantastic for that 2002 team, giving up Joe Johnson (and another future 1st) was a major overpay.
With that said, since this article is only about our title odds this season, adding Derrick White and Daniel Theis make us a better team for the here and now. Whenever you give up first round picks in a deal you better be better now right? White is a good fit with this team, but bringing Daniel Theis back was the best move of that deadline.
Due to Horford's age and Time Lord's history of injuries, the team needed insurance in case one of the big men went down in the playoffs. Expecting both Horford and Time Lord to play every playoff game would have been crazy. Enes Kanter is an ok regular season back-up plan, but he didn't cut it. Theis does.
The last playoffs that Theis was a member of the the Boston Celtics, he was their #1 big man. And this was a team that went to the Eastern Conference Finals. A team that if not for the injury to Gordon Hayward, I believe wins that Micky Mouse bubble championship. Shoot, even with Hayward being injured, if we just got the Kemba Walker of before the All-Star game I believe we win it. He was never the same after it.
That 2020 bubble team was led by Tatum, Jaylen, and Smart (Sound familiar?) But after that, Daniel Theis was arguably their most important rotation piece. Kanter and a younger more raw Time Lord were the back-up bigs. Kemba struggled. Brad Wanamaker was like the 6th or 7th man on that team. I'm telling you, Theis was very likely the 4th best player on that Eastern Conference team. And he was playing hurt too!
While he's no Time Lord defensively or athletically, he's a "similar" player in what he can give you style wise. Plus as an added benefit he stretches the floor more than Time Lord. And the Celtics have Al Horford this post season. Boston's big man duo is better than it was the past Eastern Conference visit. Even without Time Lord.
5. The trio of Tatum, Brown, and Smart have a history of excelling in the playoffs
People forget just how good Marcus Smart was in the 2020 playoffs. While no one would ever accuse Marcus of not giving his all in regular season games, he does have a history of taking it into another gear when called upon. And I've barely even mentioned Jaylen Brown in this post. Not many teams can claim a second best player as good as him. None of these three players are old, so it's fair to expect more from them than you saw in 2020 or 2018.
Last year there was no Jaylen Brown in the playoffs and Tatum and Smart weren't enough to defeat Durant, Harden, Irving and the Nets. But let's be honest, if the Nets had stayed healthy through the playoffs, no one was beating them last year. Also, Boston's chemistry and momentum sucked last season. This is a different team.
The only playoffs that Tatum, Brown, and Smart have played together in where Boston didn't make the conference finals was that final 2019 Kyrie season. And those three young Celtics draftees were definitely not allowed to be the team's "Big 3" that campaign, If anything, the team's "star" Irving would tell them that the young players need to learn their place.
6. The Celtics have young players that could step up
Again, I'm not a Green Teamer that gets excited about adding guys like Mo Wagner, Moses Brown, Nick Stauskas, or the like. I know that a lot of players that come over in trades are just for salary reasons and the team would have preferred no one (Especially the Celtics who hate paying the luxury tax). With that said, we do have recent draftees like Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith on the roster. When the team has been at full strength, they've been relegated to 9th or 10th man duties (or DNP's). But as we are already seeing with Pritchard, when given the opportunity they have the potential to step up.
1st round picks in their second NBA seasons break out all the time. No one needs Prichard or Nesmith to become stars, but both have the talent to be rotation playoff performers. The team's depth is light, but it's good enough to survive one injury. Pritchard and Nesmith as playoff 8th and 8th men isn't unheard off.
They should only be getting better. Fans want old guys with names like Isaiah Thomas or Joe Johnson. In reality, it's much more likely that a recent 1st round pick steps up than an old, past his prime player turns back the clock.
Now I would argue that if it wasn't for the Celtics desire to get under the luxury tax that we'd have even more depth. For example, the Spurs didn't want Josh Richardson in the White deal. They wanted the very valuable draft assets. Boston could have gotten White for a TPE and the draft picks. But just like last year when Boston traded for Evan Fournier, a casualty was moving Theis' contract for tax purposes, the Celtics wanted to get rid of Richardson's contract if they were adding White's.
Boston could have also kept Schroder (as guard injury insurance) if they didn't care about the tax. But in the case of Schroder, Stevens kind of needed to get rid of him to allow Udoka to play Pritchard. Point is the Celtics could have more depth right now if they were owned by billionaires that prioritized winning over everything, but they are a franchise that balances winning with also being more financially conservative.
Since this article is only about surviving the Time Lord injury, and not any potential future additional injury, the point stands that with young players like Pritchard and Nesmith the Celtics have the depth to step up. And like Jaylen, who deserves more words in this post, let's not forget about the young recent draftee in Grant Williams that has already made a leap this season.
Grant will be called upon to play more minutes with his partner in surnames out, and we've seen this season that he's up to the task. Is Grant a top 2 offensive option? of course not. So forget about yesterday's game when Tatum, Brown, and Horford all sat. Grant Williams is a solid role player who is more than capable of stepping up. And just like with Theis, more Grant minutes will open the court up more for the drives our guards and forwards. Grant is a great 3 point threat.
Like it or not, we are in the 3-point era of the NBA. More minutes for the most recent Celtics draftees Grant, Pritchard, and Nesmith, makes for an even more lethal 3-point shooting Celtics team. And come playoff time, when opposing teams are doubling Tatum and Jaylen, you want guys around them that will make the opposition pay.
7. You never know who will get injured on other contending teams
This one is a little dark, but it's 100% accurate. When the "experts" guarantee titles to teams before the season, the playoffs, or even the NBA Finals, they are showing their ignorance. The Warriors were supposed to win the year the Raptors won, but Durant and Thompson went down in the playoffs. The Nets were supposed to win last year, but then Harden and Kyrie went down in the playoffs.
The Lakers Bubble championship is party due to Anthony Davis staying healthy, but also due to opposing teams playing without some of their best players. The Nuggets were on fire and then Jamal Murray who was playing out of his mind went down for the playoffs. The Heat were looking great, but half their rotation was out for the Finals. The Celtics actually had the best odds in Vegas to win that title at one point, but then Hayward's return couldn't last (He really played those final games on one leg).
Point is Boston just got dealt a major blow. It's still March. Other teams might lose a top four player as well. Shit happens. There's a reason you play the games. And quite often than not the league champion wasn't the one everyone said would win.
8. The Celtics chemistry is good as we've ever seen
Honestly when has the team's chemistry been this good? And I'm not talking about fake press quotes about how we are all "brothers." Again that's for the Green Teamer head in the sand crowd. Intelligent people knew that Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen couldn't stand each other their final years. Or that something was wrong with the 2020-21 Celtics and they were't just going to flip some switch. We saw that play out before during Kyrie's last season on the Celtics, or in 2011 after the Perkins trade.
Chemistry does matter. Sure, talent is king, but plenty of talented teams come up short. Winning always helps with chemistry, no doubt. But there is a certain vibe that is around a winning team their first year with a new coach. While the 2007-2008 Celtics had some players who had played for Doc Rivers the prior few years, that was a NEW team! Whenever you add Kevin Garnett to a team you change the whole recipe.
That season was the beginning of Ubuntu, and it was the year that Doc Rivers would have the most power. A recent example is Nate McMillian when he took over in Atlanta last season and they proceeded to go on a winning steak and make it to the conference finals. These honeymoon stages don't last, so you need to maximize them while you can.
As a completely new head coach Ime Udoka struggled the first couple months, but in terms of system he stayed true to what he demanded. And eventually the team bought into it and became the league's best defense. If you want minutes on Udoka's Celtics, you have to play defense. Trust me, Pritchard has been busting his arse daily working on his defense to get minutes. Udoka also wanted the team to share the ball. So did Stevens. The problem there was that the players weren't listening... Until all of a sudden they did and the wins started piling up and that became contagious.
When people say nonsense like "If you were down on the Celtics early in the season, then you don't deserve to root for them now" they are being complete morons. Every sane person was down on the team early in the season (and last year). Celtics winning teams have always shared the ball, and this group continued to bring up the rear in assists. They were painful to watch. Udoka called them out repeatedly. So did Smart and Horford. At the end of the day it was on the team's two stars in Tatum and Brown to change (especially Jayson) and when they did, that's when this team became something.
The team deserved the criticism they received and the questions of whether a Tatum and Brown pairing could work deserved to be asked as well. Athletes love bulletin board material and I'd say the external criticism even helped. Jayson and Jaylen had to get together and decide that they were going to make this work and "show everyone." And they have. There was nothing wrong with calling the team's early season (and last season) play trash. It was. Their play is night and day now. The adversity and criticism helped.
To be a winner at the greatest stage, you need to be able to handle the truth. When fans would say, "Don't criticize Jayson or he'll leave (or demand to be traded), that was a horrendous take. The LeBron's, Jordan's, and Durant's of the world always get criticized when their team comes up short. The guys who will lead you to titles, take that, use it as fuel, and get better. Others like let's say Carmelo Anthony or Patrick Ewing, don't change at all, and then not shockingly never win.
Stevens wanted to use this season to evaluate if Tatum and Brown could work. If they didn't, Brad would have been negligent in not exploring trading at least one of them. They got their shite together though and the team now all looks like they love playing together. It's not an everyone going for their own squad. This is a Celtics team. One that has as much joy in disturbing the bounce pass as being the recipient and getting the slam.
One bonus of living the dangerous life of not having a lot of depth is you don't have players complaining about minutes and touches. That 2019 team with all those talented players and egos, was too deep. Again, you'd like a couple more capable NBA players on this roster just in case of further injury, but no one can say on the current team they don't know their role. And everyone who deserves a role has one. You don't have a Terry Rozier as your 3rd point guard, or 5 or 6 guys thinking they should be the 1st or 2nd option.
Everyone knows that Tatum is the 1st option and Jaylen is the 2nd option. All the other players' roles are then to compliment those two great scorers. Smart has finally turned into the playmaker we always needed. White is a great addition as another playmaker and is a MUCH better fit than a talented player like Schroder. Dennis hurt the team as much as he helped it with his iso scoring.
The players love Udoka and will go to the mats for him. Again first year winning coaches get this. Stevens was loved as well at first. Problem was the talent wasn't there and by the time the talent had been accumulated, Brad was no longer in that honeymoon stage. Plus you had all the jealously over roles and the unfair criticism of Brad for being loyal to Hayward when he returned.
This team is all for one. IF the remaining nine players in the rotation all remain healthy throughout this playoff run, I would not bet against this Celtics team. Not saying they are the favorite. I'm saying they still have a chance.