The Boston Celtics are speeding toward a crossroads we all knew was approaching. Little about the team’s play has made it easy to pick a definitive path.
After watching the Celtics crumble on Christmas Day in Milwaukee, it’s understandable if you're leaning towards a future focus. Boston is a gruesome 6-12 in clutch games (score within five points in the final five minutes) this season and 23-38 (.377 winning percentage) in clutch games over the past two years. We’ve long subscribed to the notion that one of the biggest indicators about a team’s playoff potential is their success in close games, and the Celtics fail that test miserably.
Take a step back and a counterargument emerges. Despite this team’s roller coaster ways and a 16-17 record that has them stuck in the play-in tournament mud, Boston has a projected point differential of plus-2.5 -- fifth-best in the East -- and FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model suggests a 46-36 record behind a bit of a second-half surge.
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Boston’s core has played well despite the injuries and COVID issues that has created inconsistency in the players around them. The four-man lineup of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams, and Marcus Smart has a plus-12 net rating in 534 non-trash time possessions and ranks in the 96th percentile among high-usage lineups, per Cleaning the Glass data.
Boston’s December performance was supposed to help the Celtics decide the best path forward. The league’s COVID woes and Boston’s maddening swings in performance haven’t made decisions any easier.
It feels highly probable that, when the calendar flips to 2022, the Celtics will be 18-18 with the midseason checkpoint in sight. If Boston had found ways to get to the finish line of recent games against the 76ers and Bucks, then maybe investing in this core would be an easier decision. Fumbling away both games and sitting 7-11 versus teams .500 or better might suggest it’s more prudent to take a step back with hopes of accelerating future progress.
Poor Brad Stevens inherited a shoelace knot from Danny Ainge and has done a solid job of detangling. But the Celtics’ roster is still flawed and the team’s ability to reestablish itself as a legitimate contender might not happen until a third star -- or at least a high-end impact talent who complements the core of this team -- arrives.
Boston might ultimately toe a two-track path: one that sees the team move some veteran talent in hopes of replenishing a draft treasure chest that needs to be restocked if the C's hope to land another big fish via the trade market, but also puts the onus on the core of this team to carry it as far as it can go this year.
The prickliest question is whether Boston, if it does ultimately fade from contending for a prime spot in the East, should steer heavy into playing for the best possible lottery pick, something that could be a key asset in whatever comes next.
There are plenty more decisions for Stevens, but those have become easier given the state of the team:
- As Payton Pritchard starts to emerge from his sophomore slump, the desire to move Dennis Schroder for future assets should intensify. Schroder ensured the Celtics didn’t sink early in the season while Brown was sidelined with a hamstring issue but there’s no road map to a long-term relationship and his performance with the core -- a meager plus-1.1 net rating in 364 possessions alongside Tatum and Brown -- suggest it’s best to cash out.
That would also open the door to increased playing time for Pritchard and fellow 2020 draftee Aaron Nesmith, which is vital as the Celtics determine whether these two are complementary pieces of this core, or at least boost their trade value behind more minutes.
- Moving Schroder and some of this offseason’s other flotsam (Juancho Hernangomez, Bruno Fernando) could help the Celtics dip below the luxury tax line. This wouldn’t just ease repeater penalties moving forward -- making it easier for ownership to let Stevens splurge for a third star -- but would also position the team for a big rebate check given the big spending across the league.
Now, Joe Fan shouldn’t get excited about Celtics owners getting a $12 million refund, but it does matter when accounting for future spending.
- Will a legitimate contender call about Josh Richardson? His midlevel salary, with an extra season tacked on this past summer, could entice a team in need of a two-way wing. There will be some consideration to carrying Richardson through the season in case this team does surge and Richardson could always be salary filler in a bigger deal for an impact talent down the road.
- Is there any way to beef up this roster while still avoiding the tax and maintaining flexibility into the summer? Trading Schroder for a low-cost shooter could be advantageous, but might also leave the team with the same minutes-crunch for younger talent.
- The Celtics have three trade exceptions available to work with, including the $17.1 million exception generated from the Evan Fournier sign-and-trade to New York. Let Fournier be a reminder that a big deadline splurge doesn’t always pay off, and Boston might be better off stashing those for the early summer when it might need every available avenue to fill out a top-heavy roster.
Bigger questions could emerge about the core of this team, but Stevens can do some initial tinkering and the gauge where his team stands in the month leading up to February’s trade deadline.