Celtics Report Card: Which players most deserve an All-Star nod?

Celtics Report Card: Which players most deserve an All-Star nod?

Fan balloting for the 2020 All-Star game opened on Christmas Day, and big scoring nights from both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in the immediate aftermath have started the conversation about just how many bodies Boston can get to Chicago for the midseason exhibition.

For this Celtics week’s report card, we decided to rank Boston’s top All-Star options based on who most deserves that All-Star nod. Later, we assess the pool of worthy candidates in the East and ponder if it muddies the road for Boston landing multiple spots.

A look at how we’d rank the Celtics possible All-Stars heading toward the new calendar year:

1. Kemba Walker

The All-Star pedigree — having earned a spot each of the past three years — helps Walker’s chances, but he’s truly Boston’s top option. Opposing teams are tailoring their defenses in hopes of slowing Walker, routinely blitzing him with multiple bodies, and yet Walker almost always makes the right play.

Boston’s offensive rating is a team-best 117.4 when Walker is on the court, nearly six points higher than Boston’s season average (111.8), which ranks fourth in the NBA. The Celtics’ offensive rating plummets to 99.6 when Walker is off the court, meaning the offense is an absurd 17.8 points per 100 possessions better with Walker.

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The Celtics aren’t asking Walker to do as much as his final year in Charlotte, but his usage rate still ranks 23rd in the NBA. He’s been as efficient as ever, connecting on an absurd 39.7 percent of the 9.2 3-pointers he launches per game.

His true shooting percentage is a career-best 58.4 percent. Walker’s size presents challenges on the defensive end and yet he’s a willing defender and he’s tied for third in the NBA, having drawn a team-best 12 charges. 

Essentially, Walker has been exactly as advertised when he arrived here. Teammates are thriving, in part, because of the attention Walker demands on the court. Add in his leadership qualities and Walker has been the biggest reason Boston is 22-8.

2. Jayson Tatum

Here’s why we lean towards Tatum over Brown: Despite his shooting inefficiencies, the Celtics have played their best basketball when Tatum is on the court. Boston’s on/off splits are impossible to ignore when you consider the team has a net rating of plus-13.2 when Tatum is on the court (second best on the team behind only Enes Kanter at plus-14.5).

More noticeable, the Celtics own a net rating of minus-3.6 when Tatum is off the court, and the next closest teammate is Kemba Walker at plus-4.9.

Here’s what really tips the argument for us in favor of Tatum: In the 335 minutes that Tatum has been on the court without Walker, the Celtics’ net rating spikes to plus-15.4. So even as Tatum draws more of the opposing team’s defensive attention, the Celtics are actually outscoring opponents by an even wider margin.

Considering how Tatum has had to helm some reserve-heavy units early in the season, that speaks to his ability to keep things afloat as the focal point. What’s more, Boston’s defensive rating in those non-Kemba minutes has been an absurd 90.2, which emphasizes just how good Tatum has been defensively.

Yes, Tatum needs to be more consistent with his shot. His shooting percentages are career lows at 42 percent overall and 35.9 percent beyond the arc.

Despite that, he’s still averaging 21.2 points per game — up 5.5 points from last year --and it’s fair to think there’s another spike looming when those layups and 3s start falling more consistently. 

3. Jaylen Brown

If All-Star nods were given solely on the individual improvements displayed by a player then Brown would be a slam dunk here.

Whatever perception we had about his so-called ceiling entering Year 4, he’s gone and launched it skyward by unlocking a set of tools that were were locked away a year ago. Brown’s been absurdly efficient, shooting 51.8 percent from the floor and 40 percent beyond the 3-point arc while averaging 20.6 points per game (up 7.6 points from a year ago).

His ball-handling is crisper, his vision is better, and it’s made him a more complete player. His rebounding (7 per game) and assists (2.4) are both career highs, he’s embraced the challenge of jousting with more 4s, and he’s even making free throws at a higher rate (75.2 percent after shooting 65.8 percent for his first three years in the league).

Brown is one of the last guys out of the gym most days, and it feels like his dedication to improving his game is part of the reason he’s made such a pronounced leap this year. It feels like Brown deserves to be rewarded for that effort. Alas, it’s hard to see a path to three All-Stars for Boston, especially if a daunting January slate keeps them in the pack of East teams chasing the Bucks.

The case for Tatum over Brown comes down to who’s doing more when the spotlight is on them. While we noted how Tatum’s net rating goes up even without Walker on the floor, Brown’s dips from plus-9.4 with Walker to plus-4.4 without him.

That’s still an encouraging number, but Boston’s offensive rating plummets to 99.1 in those 218 minutes with Brown and without Walker. Take both Walker and Tatum off the floor and Brown’s net rating dips to minus-3.1 with an offensive rating of 93.8 over 106 minutes.

What’s wild is that Tatum’s net rating actually spikes AGAIN to plus-16.8 in the 223 minutes that he’s played without either Walker or Brown. Tatum’s ability to elevate reserve groups has been astounding and is the difference in our vote.

4. Gordon Hayward

It’d be fascinating to know how voting might have been further muddied if Hayward hadn’t missed extended time with a broken hand and sore foot.

Sitting out a total of 16 games will likely keep voters away, which is probably a good thing if Tatum and Brown are already at risk of splitting Boston wing votes.

But Hayward has been excellent when available. He played to an All-Star level early in the season and it’s clear how much different the offense looks when Hayward is there to help defray ball-handling responsibilities. Hayward’s assist percentage is up and his assist-to-turnover ratio is the best it’s been in his career.

He’s content to create for others and then take his scoring opportunities when they present themselves. Hayward is rebounding more than any point in his career. It's clear how vital he will be for the Celtics moving forward, even if the Walker/Brown/Tatum troika get much of the attention for their scoring exploits.

So who gets the All-Star nods for Boston?

There’s one potential curveball looming in All-Star voting and, ironically, it’s Kyrie Irving.

Fan voting opened on Christmas Day and we’ll soon get a glimpse at first returns. Fan ballots account for 50 percent of the vote towards the five starters from each conference (media and player voting account for 25 percent apiece, as well).

If Irving dominates the fan vote, there’s a very good chance he could steal a starting guard spot despite all the time he’s missed to injury (some players will still vote for him, even if media probably won’t). If Irving lands a starting spot, it makes it even tough for Boston to muscle on additional players, especially if Walker doesn’t get a starting spot.

In the case that Walker isn’t a starter, East coaches would then be asked to vote for their seven reserves and would have three Celtics candidates to choose from. Walker almost certainly gets on, in that instance, but Tatum and Brown end up splitting votes. If Walker is a starter, then maybe East coaches are more likely to consider both players, especially when they can’t vote for their own.

The pool of available East All-Stars is robust. You’ve got slam dunks like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Pascal Siakam, Jimmy Butler, Bradley Beal, and Walker. From there, each of the East’s current playoff teams has at least one secondary candidate.

Brown and Tatum could find themselves battling for spots with Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, Miami’s Bam Adebayo, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris, Indiana’s Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis, and Brooklyn’s Spencer Dinwiddie. What, too, becomes of Atlanta’s Trae Young or Chicago’s Zach Lavine — big scorers on bad teams?

There’s a small chance that Boston ends up with only one representative based on voting and is left at the mercy of the commissioner to send a second representative based on injury replacement. 

What’s clear is that both Tatum and Brown have to continue to play well over the next three weeks before coaches vote to ensure a chance of landing on the All-Star rosters without having to leave anything to chance.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Hornets, which tips off Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike and Scal have the call at 3 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Another Larry Bird milestone to assert his place among the all-time greats

Another Larry Bird milestone to assert his place among the all-time greats

BOSTON -- The 1986 Boston Celtics are considered one of the greatest teams of all time, having run through the regular season with ease towards a dominant postseason that ended with the team hanging Banner 16.

But weeks before the franchise’s triumphant conclusion to the season, there was another historic milestone.

Larry Bird was named the league’s MVP 24 years ago this week for the third straight season, a feat that only two others - Bill Russell (1961-1963) and Wilt Chamberlain (1966-1968) - had ever done.

It’s significant because it serves as yet another reminder of how historically great Bird was; not only for the Boston Celtics but for the entire league.

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To carve out a spot in history with such an elusive group speaks to Bird’s greatness as a player who at the very least should be in the conversation as one of the greatest power forwards in NBA history. 

And what made that season even more special was that during the playoffs, the elite level at which Bird played during the regular season did not waiver or lessen up in the games that mattered the most. 

In the playoffs that year, he averaged 25.9 points (0.1 points less than his season average) while increasing his field goal shooting (51.7 percent in the playoffs, 49.6 in the regular season), assists (9.8, from 8.2) and steals (2.1, from 2.0).

And when the game was on the line, the only thing larger than Bird’s ability to come through in the clutch, was his confidence.

“There’s no doubt I’m in control of what I do out there,” Bird said in an interview in 1986. “I can score any number of points my team wants me to if they give me the ball in the right situations.”

And he did, over and over and over again before finally calling it quits on his Hall of Fame career in 1992. 

Throughout his time in Boston, Bird had a number of stretches of brilliance as a basketball player. 

But the three-year run in which he was the league’s best player, resulting in three consecutive league MVP awards, stands out in a career that was filled with standout moments.

NBA Rumors: Celtics 'most likely' will offer Jayson Tatum max contract after season

NBA Rumors: Celtics 'most likely' will offer Jayson Tatum max contract after season

Just before the 2019-20 NBA season was suspended due to the coronavirus, Jayson Tatum was turning into a superstar before our very eyes. Now, it appears the Boston Celtics are ready to pay him like one.

Saturday on SportsCenter, ESPN's Brian Windhorst said the C's "most likely" will offer the No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft a max contract this offseason.

"If Jayson Tatum is the superstar that they envisioned when they began this whole rebuilding process when they traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for all of those draft picks hoping to land a player like this, we could see 'Glory Days' for the Celtics again," Windhorst said, as transcribed by Bleacher Report.

"But it's very much up in the air, and I'm gonna tell ya, they're gonna have to pay him like it because after this season ends, he is going to get most likely a max contract. They're going to bet that he becomes that player."

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The Celtics recently have signed both Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown to four-year contract extensions, so signing Tatum to a max deal and locking up their core for the foreseeable future seems like a no-brainer. One potential hurdle for Danny Ainge and the C's front office, however, is the effect the coronavirus pandemic could have on the league's 2020-21 salary cap.

Regardless, we can expect Boston to do whatever it takes to assure their budding superstar is here to stay. This season, the 22-year-old leads the team with 23.6 points per game while averaging 7.1 rebounds and shooting 39.8 percent from 3-point range. He was named an All-Star for the first time in his promising career.

Tatum currently is set to make $9.9 million next year on his rookie contract.