Boston Celtics Holiday Notes (Gifts of Lingering Injuries) — December 23rd Update

Inconsistency can be maddening. Especially when it relates to a likely contending team. Without health, we are left with “What ifs?”

All year, the Celtics have dealt with injuries and inconsistency. Early on it was Hayward returning and getting into shape after his second surgery in May. It was Kyrie getting his wind back after rehabbing the knee all summer. Then it was Jaylen Brown and Aron Baynes. Next, it was lingering knee soreness with Al Horford, who hasn’t quite looked like himself all year. Recently, Aron Baynes fractured his hand, and now he’s out for a month. Then it was Marcus Morris, who’s been Boston’s 2nd most important offensive player and certainly their best long-range threat at 43%, went out with knee soreness. After a PRP injection, he’ll be returning today or for the much-anticipated Christmas Day match-up with the Sixers.

Most difficult for many fans to absorb: an 8-game winning streak followed by 3 straight losses, including a deflating home loss to the teenage Phoenix Suns.

After 30 games of inconsistency and health concerns overshadowing the team, I was hoping to see how the C’s would do over this end-of-December stretch against top teams. With 10 games to go until the halfway point of the season, Boston’s record sits at 18–13. They’re currently four games behind the Bucks for the 2nd seed, and 5.5 behind Toronto.

To finish with 50 wins, they’ll need to go 32–19 the rest of the way. With upcoming games against the Sixers, and then on the road at Houston, Memphis and the San Antonio, a long Boston winning streak isn’t likely until a soft three game stretch in mid-January when they face Atlanta, Miami, and Cleveland.

Realistic Expectations for the Rest of the Season

At this point, 50 wins appears more realistic than 55 unless Morris and Horford return at close to 100% this week. The depth of talent hasn’t played out as many had anticipated.

Just after Gordon Hayward appears to flash his latent star potential (30 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists vs Wolves on 12/1), he sits out two games, then comes back and heaves up bricks (3 of 11, 3 of 13) against quality opponents (Detroit and Milwaukee). Though it’s overly simplistic, check out Hayward’s 3-point shooting and how it impacts the team: 44% in 15 wins, compared with 22% in losses. That’s dramatic.

Jaylen Brown has been better since coming off the bench. In 153 reserve minutes, he has a +14.2 on/off rating, compared with -1.5 in 557 starters minutes. On the plus side, he’s attempting twice as many free-throws per game with the bench crew. Still, those minutes came against weak opponents. It was good to see Jaylen have a big game against Milwaukee, despite the team’s ugly loss.

Real Plus-Minus (Missing Our Best Defensive Bigs)

ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus is an interesting stat. It seems to do a solid job of analyzing the efficiency of high-usage offensive players.

Kyrie Irving is 5th, with an offensive RPM rating only behind Harden, Curry, Lillard and Kemba Walker.

It also overvalues role-players, by de-emphasizing minutes played and neglecting that the impact of reserves comes against other reserves (worse competition) Examples:

Despite his 10.8 minutes per game, Clippers giant Boban Marjanovic is 33rd. In 16 minutes per game, Mavs forward/center Dwight Powell is 34th. Marcus Smart is 32nd, which means he’s the second most important Celtic so far this year.

When sorting through the most valuable defensive players in the NBA, both Al Horford and Aron Baynes pop up. Horford is currently 24th, while Baynes is 31st in Defensive RPM. Losing Baynes for a full month won’t be so painful if Horford is back to 30 healthy minutes this week. Rookie Robert Williams is a dynamic defensive force, with quick hops and a fear-inducing 7'6" wingspan. Hard not to love 2.6 blocks in 14 minutes over 7 December games. Now if only he can do that against top teams…

Marcus and Marcus Into the Starting Five

Marcus Smart’s inclusion into the starting lineup coincided with a stretch of weak opponents. His role (playmaker who doesn’t take many shots and keeps the ball moving, while creating chaos on the defensive end) fits much more seamlessly with the Kyrie-Tatum-Morris-Horford quartet than Jaylen Brown’s skill-set. Just as Marcus Morris’ newfound accuracy (career high pace) enables Kyrie and Tatum to operate with more space, whereas Hayward’s woeful early shooting clogged things up.

Still…every article that mentioned the 8-game winning streak ended with the caveat: Can this group maintain its offensive dominance against top-level defenses? The answer so far: We don’t know because Morris and Horford have been out.

For a team that was hopeful of a top seed in the East, 50 wins and a potential 4th or 5th seed would appear to be a major disappointment. But, as we know, playoff success is all that eventually matters. If they finish 4th/5th, it means a potential defensively-focused, grind-out battle with Indiana, followed by what seems likely to be a 57+ win Toronto Raptors team in the second round, instead of the East Finals. Finishing 2nd/3rd would more likely mean a match-up with the Sixers or Bucks. We’re a long way from April, but the stretch between the New Year and the All-Star break always zooms by. Only 25 games remain after the February break.

Last year’s shorthanded playoff run had fans leaping ahead in anticipation of another deep playoff run with a healthy combo of Kyrie and Hayward added to the mix. Instead, the first half of the season has seen the Celtics mix in lumpy losses with occasional smooth stretches. Let’s just hope they won’t be limping lumpily into April again.

Upcoming Schedule

Tue, Dec 25, 5:30 ET, vs Philadelphia (ABC)

Thu, Dec 27, 8pm ET, @ Houston (TNT)

Sat, Dec 29, 8pm ET, @ Memphis

Mon, Dec 31, 8:30pm ET, @ San Antonio

Wed, Jan 2, 8pm ET, vs Minnesota (ESPN)

Fri, Jan 4, 8pm ET, vs Dallas (ESPN)

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