The Boston Celtics are coming off their most confidence-inspiring week of the season, highlighted by Gordon Hayward’s monster night in Minnesota that left him rinsing blue Gatorade out of his hair following his teammates’ celebratory postgame sneak attack.
An agreeable schedule ahead, there’s a real chance for the Celtics to build off these good vibes. But it was Hayward who cautioned that this team shouldn’t get too high or too low, particularly in a season of maddening inconsistency.
The Celtics still have some lingering issues to work through in order to play like a legitimate contender and coach Brad Stevens has some difficult decisions ahead about how to best utilize his talent. Here’s four storylines to watch while we navigate Boston’s four-day stretch without a game:
SCORING WHEN KYRIE IRVING IS ON THE BENCH
It’s no surprise that the Celtics’ offense drops off when Kyrie Irving goes to the bench. But just how much is staggering.
The Celtics own a team-best offensive rating of 109.6 when Irving is on the court this season. That’s a number that, if maintained, would rank the Celtics in the top 10 in offensive rating. But Boston’s offensive rating plummets to 95 when Irving is on the bench. For sake of comparison, the Atlanta Hawks rank 30th in the NBA in offensive rating at 100.5.
Irving had a spectacular November, averaging 25.2 points per game while shooting 50.5 percent overall and 42.7 percent beyond the 3-point arc. All while adding 6.6 assists, 4.9 rebounds, and 2.3 steals per game. The Celtics were plus-107 in his 451 minutes of floor time. And yet the Celtics went 7-7 for the month, in part because Irving can’t play 48 minutes per night.
Not even the recent shuffle of Hayward to the second unit has been able to save the Celtics from their non-Kyrie minutes. Over the past seven games since Hayward went to the bench, Irving has a team-best offensive rating of 119.5 and Hayward is right behind him at 119.2, and yet the Celtics’ offensive rating without Irving is still a meager 96.1. Maybe more staggering: There’s an 11-point gap to the next worst number on the team in terms of off-court offensive rating (Marcus Morris, 107.2).
Stagger Irving and Hayward, you say? It’s a fair suggestion and over the past three games, Hayward owns an offensive rating of 106.3 in the 38 minutes he played without Kyrie. The problem: the team’s net rating in that span was still a minus-12.5 as the defense took a nosedive. For the season, the Celtics have a net rating of 0.0 when Hayward is on the court without Kyrie (98.3 ratings on both sides). So there’s still work to be done to figure out how to do more than just tread water.
The lack of consistent offense without Irving has contributed greatly to the scoring lulls that Boston has been prone to all season. Recent strong starts have masked that a bit during the win streak but Stevens has to find non-Kyrie lineups capable of stretching leads. The good news for Boston is that non-Kyrie lineups have been so good defensively (96.4 defensive rating) this year that it’s given the team a chance to tread water.
The better news for Boston: While the Celtics rank 20th overall in offensive rating this season, they are trending in the right direction. Since the Hayward shuffle to the bench, Boston ranks fifth in the NBA with an offensive rating of 114.6.
Still, if the Celtics really want to maintain a top offense, they must find a way to score without Irving.
THE REINTEGRATION OF JAYLEN BROWN
Two big breaks in the schedule will allow the Celtics to give Jaylen Brown 11 full days off while missing only three games after suffering a back bruise on a hard fall in Dallas. All signs point to Brown being available again starting with Thursday’s visit from the Knicks, which means Stevens has some tough decisions ahead about his rotations.
Brown is already on record saying he’ll embrace whatever role he’s asked to play upon his return and, with the Celtics on a three-game win streak since Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris elevated to the starting 5, it might be best for Stevens to ride the current group until they lose their spark. Brown, who was already coming out of his offensive funk before the injury, could shake off some rust against reserve-heavy groups and Stevens can examine whether the offensively-challenged bench gets a spark from adding Brown’s scoring abilities.
If Stevens does bring both Hayward and Brown off the bench together, it will be interesting to see the results. The numbers for that duo were an eyesore when Boston’s original starting 5 struggled out of the gates. The Celtics own an offensive rating of 93 when Irving and Brown share the court this season but Hayward’s offensive rating spikes to 114.4 in 298 minutes without Brown (while Brown’s rises to 104.5). Now, Boston’s first unit as a whole had poor numbers so it can’t be pegged on just the two wings, but it’s something to monitor should they spend big minutes together off the bench.
While Brown heard some grumbles from fans for his slow start, it’s prudent to remember that he was the team’s leading scorer in the postseason last year and, as he settles into a less-defined role this year, he could be key to the team’s success. Like fellow youngster Jayson Tatum, the Celtics need Brown to be aggressive going at the basket and not settle for perimeter looks in order to maximize his skill set.
THE LONG-TERM STARTING 5
The Celtics were in desperate need of an energy jolt when Stevens elevated both Smart and Morris to the first group and it’s certainly produced the desired effect. But Stevens really likes the energy that Smart and Morris provide in reserve roles and it certainly seems like the team will eventually tinker with the starting group again.
Stevens has needled reporters about our fascination with the starting 5. To his point, the big takeaway from the recent lineup swap should probably be that the team just needs a bigger dose of Smart overall, regardless of when he enters games. An inspired Hayward helps, too. But Smart changes everything with his energy and has aided the first unit with his willingness to create for others rather than search for his own offense. It’s only hammered home that Boston benefits, right now at least, from having one less offensive-minded player with that first group.
So now the challenge for Stevens is figuring out when and how to re-elevate Hayward and Brown while setting up a rotation that both sustains the first unit’s recent level of play, all while figuring out the lingering issue of how to score without Irving.
Eventually, Boston might work its way back to the Irving-Brown-Tatum-Hayward-Al Horford lineup, if only because that’s the team’s most skilled and versatile group, one with the highest potential offensive ceiling given all the creators on the floor. It might not necessarily be their closing lineup given all the chaos that Smart creates, but it’s a lineup that absolutely should be better than what we saw earlier in the year.
The challenge still falls on Stevens to put these puzzle pieces in the right place. The recent juggling has seemingly helped some players find their individual grooves. Now Stevens has to find the right pairings when everyone isn’t in their own heads.
ARE THERE ENOUGH MINUTES FOR EVERYBODY WHEN HEALTHY?
It’s hard to ignore that, in Boston’s last four wins, they’ve been shorthanded at least one player (Brown missed the last three, Horford missed two of the four, and Daniel Theis was a healthy DNP in one of the wins).
All of which supports the notion that some players have been at their best when there are more minutes and opportunity. Brown’s impending return to an otherwise healthy team leaves Boston with nine players that can make a case for being a starter and there are only 240 minutes per night to share amongst them before you consider role players like Theis and Semi Ojeleye.
With the Celtics over the luxury tax, we’ve maintained that the team might eventually be able to alleviate two big issues by moving a rotation player before the deadline, both easing a minutes logjam and easing the tax burden for future seasons.
If the Celtics ultimately need all of their horses, the team can probably stomach the tax and just deal with occasional grumbles from players that yearn for more court time (of course, winning seems to make a minutes crunch a little easier to endure.) But it’s certainly a situation that bears monitoring through February.
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