Celtics Report Card: Finally, a first quarter worth celebrating
The 2019-20 Boston Celtics are famous (or infamous) for their slow starts. The best first quarter they’ve put together, ironically, might be to the season as a whole. Nearing the quarter pole of the year, the Celtics sit at 14-5 despite the fact that Gordon Hayward — maybe their most consistent player early in the season — has missed the last 11 games due to a left hand fracture.
Boston is unlikely to maintain this 60-win pace, but a mid-50 win total seems feasible with decent health. A lot of the question marks entering the season are trending positively and, yet, Boston still hasn’t seemingly played its best basketball and there’s plenty of areas to tighten up that could ultimately raise the ceiling of this squad.
Instead of our typical weekly report card, let’s hand out grades for the first quarter of the season:
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Jayson Tatum (A-)
Tatum, with his sexy new shot profile heavy on 3s and layups, is steamrolling towards his first All-Star appearance. Boston’s on/off splits hammer home his importance this season as the Celtics own a net rating of plus-11.4 with Tatum on the floor — best among anyone with more than 250 minutes played — and that number plummets to minus-4.9 when he’s off the court. He’s the only player with a negative off-court rating, and the next closest is Gordon Hayward at plus-3.5. To put it simpler: Tatum is a team-best plus-164 in plus/minus this season and the next closest Celtics player is Kemba Walker at plus-79. Tatum is slowly creeping up on Walker for the team lead in scoring average.
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Jaylen Brown (B+)
Not only has Brown’s scoring average spiked — up 6.3 points per game from a year ago — but he’s impacting the game in so many different ways now. Brown's rebounding is way up (7.1 per game), his assist percentage is a career best while his turnover rate is a career low. Brown appears to be blossoming with a more defined role. One thing is the same though: When Brown is aggressive and relentlessly attacks the basket, he’s a different player and a potential future All-Star.
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Marcus Smart (B)
Smart’s injuries seemed to be catching up to him even before the shot he took to the abdomen on Sunday in New York. If he’s sidelined for any period of time, the Celtics will be hard-pressed to replace what he does, particularly on the defensive side. Smart has gleefully defended all five positions on the floor, dubbing himself a stretch 6 and routinely taking on the challenge of defending players as much as a foot taller. His efforts are a big reason the Celtics sit sixth in defensive rating. Smart’s offensive efficiency has cooled a bit since a fast start but some of that might be he’s the human Operation board with injuries like a sprained ankle, bruised hip, jammed knuckle, sprained fingers, and now the abdomen ailment.
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Kemba Walker (B)
Walker has been excellent and the Celtics don’t have a .737 winning percentage without his scoring bursts, especially early in the season. Still, Walker hasn’t shot the ball as efficiently as he’d like as his 40.2 field goal percentage would be his lowest mark since the 2014-15 season, though he’s been fantastic while hitting 38.6 percent of his 8.8 3-point attempts per game. Walker gives max effort on defense despite his size limitations and his rebounding is at a career-best rate because Boston needs its guards to pitch in on the glass. Some of Walker’s roughest shooting nights have come against top competition (76ers, Clippers) and the Celtics will need him him to be better in those moments, especially by the playoffs.
Robert Williams (C+)
We’re admittedly being a bit harsh on Williams here, but only because it’s clear he has the potential to be so much more impactful. He’s got to be more disciplined on defense, knowing when to chase the big block and when to simply contest. The NBA’s defensive tracking data has players shooting 66 percent against him inside of 6 feet, or 6 percent higher than those players’ season average. Williams has to take better care of the ball, too. He’s one of the team’s best passers but has careless moments, highlighted Sunday in Brooklyn when he threw a careless no-look pass in the backcourt that led to a free dunk for the Nets. We remain convinced that Williams should be giving this team 20 consistent minutes per game by season’s end, but he has to be more consistent to get there.
Grant Williams (C)
We’re nitpicking here, too, with a different Williams. The rookie forward has undeniably made good things happen when he’s on the court as emphasized by a plus-9.3 net rating. The team’s 95.7 defensive rating with Williams on the court is the best on the team among regulars. About the only thing he really needs to improve is his shot making. Williams is shooting 25.9 percent overall and is now 0-for-22 beyond the 3-point arc to start his NBA career. That his shot has defied him this much and he’s still plus-57 on the season is a testament to all the little stuff that Williams does well. To the rookie’s credit, he remains confident in his shot and believes his percentages will level out after that first 3-ball drops.
Carsen Edwards (C-)
His 3-point outburst in Cleveland late in the preseason probably set expectations irrationally high and the Celtics have been forced to lean on their rookies a lot because of injuries, but Edwards just hasn’t been able to get the offense going consistently. Boston’s offensive rating is a mere 93.5 when he’s on the court, by far the lowest among regulars and the next closest is 10.6 points away (Semi Ojeleye, 104.1). Edwards is shooting 30.7 percent overall and 31.8 percent beyond the 3-point arc. His résumé and obvious scoring talents suggest those numbers will climb. Edwards has done a good job keeping his defensive intensity cranked up, though there’s been some occasional lapses in focus.
Romeo Langford’s health (F)
Not to pile on Boston’s rookie class here, but Langford has simply been snakebitten early in his NBA career. He missed summer league recovering from thumb surgery, he missed parts of training camp with a groin injury, he missed parts of the exhibition season with a sprained knee, and he’s sprained his right ankle in each of the past two games in Maine. It’s unfair to blame the player for bad luck but it’s fair to wonder if Langford, the No. 14 pick overall, could be earning minutes now in Hayward’s absence if it weren’t for all his injuries.
Gordon Hayward would be at the head of the class if not for missing more than half of the season after the freak hand fracture while running into LaMarcus Aldridge in San Antonio. The team seems optimistic that Hayward will hit the ground running upon his return, which could come sooner than the team’s original six-week timeline. Hayward was playing with a confidence and aggression that he couldn’t consistently muster last season. He is shooting 55.5 percent from the floor and 43.3 percent beyond the 3-point arc. Boston’s offense hasn’t been the same without Hayward, and his return will give the team a nice jolt on both ends.
It’s truly been a tale of two halves for the Celtics’ offense this season. Boston has been one of the league’s creakiest offenses in the first halves this year, averaging a meager 102.9 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 25th in the NBA. In the second halves, that number spikes to an NBA-best 116.9. Entering the season with so many weapons, it felt like Boston had a surefire top-10 offense. It lingers just outside the top 10 at No. 11 overall through 19 games with a rating of 109.6 overall. The Celtics have shot just 34.5 percent beyond the 3-point arc this season so there’s plenty of room for growth there and this team has to take better care of the basketball, something that’s hurt them, especially since Hayward’s injury.
After the departures of Al Horford and Aron Baynes, it was fair to expect a dropoff from the Celtics’ defense. Instead, even with a rotating cast of bigs, the Celtics own the sixth best defense in the NBA while allowing 103.4 points per 100 possessions. With a switchy and active defense, the Celtics have limited opponents to 43.3 percent shooting overall and 34 percent beyond the 3-point arc — both top 10 marks — all while turning opponents over at the third best rate in the NBA. Credit Smart with a lot of Boston’s early success, especially with his desire to defend all five positions on the floor. When the Celtics are flying around on the perimeter and their back line is contesting without fouling, this defense has looked excellent. The big question has been whether the Celtics will need to upgrade that back line before the playoffs, but bigs like Daniel Theis have done a solid job to this point despite each’s players individual limitations.
Boston’s slow starts remain a mystery, especially considering that many of the starters that have struggled out of the gates are usually on the court for Boston’s fourth-quarter surges. Stevens has done a lot of mixing and matching, trying to figure out who on Boston’s bench he can lean on. His faith in 30-year-old sophomore Brad Wanamaker has been rewarded lately. Stevens has given his rookies a lot of rope, likely knowing the team needs at least of a couple of them to be trustworthy contributors. Ultimately, the Celtics have been able to pull out a lot of narrow wins with an 8-4 mark in clutch games (+/- 5 points in final 5 minutes) and Stevens’ whiteboard has helped that cause.
If, after opening night in Philadelphia, you told Celtics fans they’d be 14-5 and a half-game AHEAD of the Sixers at the start of December, they’d have gleefully taken it. The development of Brown and Tatum, along with the steadiness of a healthy Hayward, has elevated what’s possible for this team. But there are still a lot of question marks, including just how much this team can get out a rookie class that accounts for 41 percent of the 17-man roster when you include 2-way players. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index pegs Boston for nearly 55 wins and a 25.2 percent chance at making the East finals (only the Bucks and Raptors have better odds in the East through the first quarter of the season). Even though it’s quite obvious the Celtics can play even better, they deserve a strong early grade for what they’ve accomplished.