We spent all of last week’s Celtics Mailbag detailing the reasons why the Celtics seemed unlikely to make a big-splash trade during the season.
Then we asked for questions for this week’s bag and — with readers clearly swept up in the unofficial December 15 start of Trade Season — it was 90 percent questions about what moves the Celtics could make to bolster their frontcourt.
To be fair, the run of injuries at the big-man position this week does leave the team dangerously thin up front. While Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter have tag-teamed the majority of big-man minutes recently, the Celtics will now have to lean harder on rookies, especially Grant Williams — and maybe even two-way center Tacko Fall — to bridge the gap until Robert Williams (out at least 3 weeks with a hip bruise) and Vincent Poirier (out 6 weeks with a fractured pinkie) are able to return.
It’s fair to wonder if the Celtics might eventually need another big, even though we’ve documented just how thin the trade market should be, at least with Boston unwilling to sacrifice prime assets in the pursuit of what might be only a marginal upgrade. The list of potentially available bodies is rather underwhelming.
Unfazed, let’s tackle your non “they need a big man!” questions of the week:
What’s on your Celtics wish list for Christmas? — @harrypeoples
Better health. This team has been jokingly dubbed the Hospital Celtics for three seasons now (maybe longer) and Boston doesn’t seem in any hurry to shed the nickname. When coach Brad Stevens was asked about navigating all the recent injuries at Tuesday’s practice, he noted, "I hate to say this but I think we’re used to it here. It’s just the way it’s been.”
The Celtics simply haven’t been at full strength since opening night and, even amid all their early success, it’s left us yearning to see what the full puzzle looks like. That might not happen until February, though the Celtics would probably settle for just having their core five available at the same time.
That could happen by week’s end if Marcus Smart is able to kick the double-eye infection that will prevent him from traveling to his native Dallas for Wednesday’s game. But between Kanter’s knee bruise, Gordon Hayward’s broken hand, Jaylen Brown’s illness, and Smart’s infection, this team hasn’t had much of a chance to show us how it might all look when their top players are all upright at the same time.
The encouraging part is that, despite all the maladies, the Celtics own the fourth-best net rating in the league at plus-6.8 (behind only the Bucks, Lakers, and Mavericks). Boston ranks sixth in offensive rating and eighth in defensive rating — one of only three teams in the top 10 on both sides of the ball (the others being the Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers).
Health will come. Eventually. Maybe. It should be at the top of Stevens’ Christmas list, but it probably has been for a while now.
What’s the Celtics’ biggest weakness right now? — @twade9673
Big-man defense is the oft-cited concern, at least when Boston goes up against beefier bigs like Joel Embiid. We understand why most fans think the team needs an upgrade and yet, for the cost, we’re simply not certain you’re going to find one on the trade market. Bench scoring has been inconsistent and, yet, we keep wondering if having a healthy Smart/Kanter combo off the bench could alleviate some of those concerns.
The biggest worry, from this vantage point, might simply be Boston’s underwhelming free-throw attempt rate (22nd in the NBA at 0.246). Good teams get to the stripe and take the pressure off having to make shots every night. Boston is at its best when its perimeter stars are attacking the basket and that should ultimately lead to free throws for Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward. Boston can take some of the stress of its offense by attacking more and it’ll lead to either open looks or more freebies.
What Celtics would you consider to be on the trading block? — @holmesamongstthegumtrees
I'm not sure the Celtics have a block. It’s more like a trading twig. The team isn’t moving its core pieces and there’s not much trade value in a rookie-heavy supporting cast. Boston’s best hope of a deal is cobbling spare parts together to make salaries match then enticing potential partners with its draft assets (which includes two late first-round picks this year and a Memphis pick that could potentially convey this season and is unprotected next year).
Who from this year's team will be joining Kemba and Tatum in Chicago for the All-Star Game? — @jfesgreen
We’ll leave the door cracked for Brown to sneak in if he has a solid end of December/early January run of play. Hayward might have missed too much time and Boston’s wings might ultimately split a lot of the coaches’ votes.
What player, in your opinion, has had the biggest impact? — @mike.deveney15
The on/off numbers suggest it’s Tatum. He has a team-best on-court net rating of plus-12.8, and that number plummets to a team-worst minus-5.3 when he’s on the bench. What’s crazy is that no player is even close to him in off-court rating, with the next worst number on the team being Theis at PLUS-4.7.
You can convince me that Walker has been equally important, especially with the crazy offensive numbers the team puts up when he’s on the floor (team-best offensive rating of 116.3 that falls to 99.9 without him). That it’s even a conversation, and one that you could throw Brown, Smart, and Hayward into as well, is a good thing for the Celtics.
What seed do you think the Celtics end up at? — @tyraleon
Interesting question. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index currently projects Boston at 55 wins and the second seed in the East. FiveThirtyEight has the same 55 wins but slots Boston fourth behind the Bucks, Sixers, and Raptors. It feels likely that Boston, Toronto, and Philadelphia will be jockeying for spots 2-4. Indiana and Miami could potentially muscle into that chase, depending on health and in-season moves, but we’re less bullish on those squads at the moment.
We’ll say the Celtics land at No. 3. But things could get interesting at the finish line. If the Bucks and 76ers are the top two seeds, will teams try to line up for a preferred second-round matchup? Would the Celtics prefer to joust with Giannis or Embiid more in Round 2? There could be some strategy involved down the stretch.
Will Kanter get a shot at being the starting center? Or is Theis that much better? — @dk1ng1287
The Celtics went with Kanter on opening night, in part to match size against Embiid and the Sixers, but Theis has been really good this year. He looks springier now that he's further removed from the meniscus tear, and he complements the first-unit players well.
He’s got a lock on that starter job for now but will simply see his role reduced on nights where the Celtics need Kanter to joust with stronger bigs. What’s encouraging is that none of the bigs tend to sulk when their roles get diminished on a given night and seem to understand that their minutes will fluctuate based on matchups.
If healthy, can Robert Williams develop into the defensive big the Celtics are looking for? — @jferzocopga
Eventually but I don’t know if that’s this season or further out. I don’t think Williams is strong enough right now to hold up in a playoff series against the likes of Embiid or Giannis, but I do think his overall skill set makes him a really intriguing option as a high-minutes big man playing alongside this core.
That’s why this injury is particularly frustrating. It sets Williams back again. He’s rarely had a chance to build off any progress he’s made because of injuries. He should use this downtime to really attack the weight and film rooms and come back ready to show exactly what sort of player he can be.
What do you think the Celtics should do with Langford? — @marcobv78
We got a couple questions on Romeo Langford in this week’s bag. That one was fairly benign. Others were a bit more pointed …
Is Romeo the next James Young? — @too.ec
Listen, it feels like we’ve gotten this question in every mailbag this season. We wrote it in our rookie report card this week but the Celtics are really high on Langford behind the scenes, his ability to make plays out of the pick-and-roll routinely cited as one of his obvious strengths. Like the rest of the roster, Langford needs a run of good health to quiet some of the pundits who want to grade the 2019 draft class after 25 games.
It’s tough for Langford because there might have been the potential for minutes if he hadn’t followed the thumb rehab with injuries to the groin, knee, and ankle (twice). We’d like to see more of a healthy Langford before we make any grand proclamations about what he may (or may not) become.
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