BOSTON — Kemba Walker, rejuvenated after a rare weekend away from the NBA grind, one in which he switched off all the morning alarms on his iPhone and savored the ability to sleep in, peered out at the court at the Auerbach Center earlier this week and pondered a reporter’s request for a state of the Celtics union.
“Man, we haven’t had our full roster yet. We just haven’t,” said Walker, shaking his head. “I can’t wait for it. It’s been unfortunate. But when we do … “
Walker trailed off and then a smile formed as he silently assessed the full potential of the 2019-20 Celtics.
“We have a really good team, man.”
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All around him, however, was bad health news. Marcus Smart’s infection had spread to both eyes, extending his already weeklong absence. The Celtics had just announced that big man Robert Williams would be out indefinitely due to a left hip bruise. Nearby, Vincent Poirier emerged from a post-practice X-ray that confirmed he’d need surgery to repair a fractured pinkie and would be sidelined at least a month.
When Brad Stevens was asked later about all the bad injury luck for his team, he shrugged it off while noting, "I hate to say this, but I think we’re used to it here.”
Yes, in Boston, “Next Man Up” has become a way of life. This season, the Celtics have utilized eight different starting lineups in 24 games and players have missed a total of 46 games to injury and illness. It’s been key players, too, with Gordon Hayward missing 13 games due to a hand fracture, Enes Kanter sitting out seven with a knee bruise, and Marcus Smart set to miss his fifth game of the year on Wednesday, the last four because of the infection. Things could have been worse, especially after the scary moment in Denver when Kemba Walker injured his neck.
Through it all, the Celtics are 17-7, sit third in the crowded top of the East, and haven’t let their injury woes slow them much. Boston is fifth in the NBA in net rating behind only the Bucks, Lakers, Mavericks, and Clippers (while comfortably ahead of East rivals like Toronto, Philadelphia, Indiana, and Miami, who are all among the top 11 teams in the league in net rating). Boston is sixth in offensive rating and eighth in defensive rating.
While its fan base spends much of its free time on the Trade Machine trying to strategize a deal to add another big man or bench help, the Celtics, internally, remain curious to simply see what this puzzle looks like when fully constructed.
A preferred first-5 lineup of Walker, Jaylen Brown, Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Daniel Theis has started only six games together. A potential closing-time lineup with Smart in place of Theis has played a measly five minutes this season.
The good news for Boston is that its top-7 rotation could be intact by week’s end if Smart is healthy enough to get back from the eye infection. The Celtics might get a better idea of how things look with the ability to make Smart and Kanter early subs off the bench. The absence of Robert Williams could mean more time at the 5 for rookie Grant Williams, who has made the strongest case among rookies for a rotation role despite his shooting woes to start his pro career.
A pair of tough losses to Indiana and Philadelphia before Boston’s five-day break left a sour taste in the team’s mouth. Walker likes that the Celtics are still flying a bit under the radar, especially considering the team’s potential when closer to full strength.
"Early in the year, nobody expected us to even have this record. We’re playing well, man,” said Walker. "I think, at times, we have lapses but that happens. Hell, that goes with every team. Every team has it, then you correct it. We’re going to get stronger as the year goes, especially as guys get more healthy.”
Walker didn’t want to make any grand proclamations about this team’s potential — maybe not wanting to tempt the injury bug any further — but it’s clear he’s smitten by the talent around him and where this team is headed.
It would be fair to call Walker largely nonplussed as he offered his state of the Celtics, his trademark smile appearing often, but rarely talking above his typical whisper. But it’s clear how much fun he’s having with this group and how much winning means to him after all the lean years in Charlotte.
“When we win games, Kemba is one of the happiest guys in the locker room every time. He’s just screaming he loves winning,” said Theis. "I would say that’s especially because he’s the leader of the team. When he’s happy so much after winning games, everybody’s happy.”
Happiness around the Auerbach Center, especially after the slog that was last season, is not debatable. There’s a newfound joy that permeates every inch of Red’s House. But when people wish these Celtics health and happiness in calendar year 2020, these Celtics are eager for more of the latter.
"We just are really dynamic,” said Tatum. "We have a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things. I'm excited for everybody to get healthy. It's going to be fun.”
Part of that excitement surrounds the team’s potential closing-time lineup, a small-ball 5 featuring the team’s five best players — something Stevens hasn’t shied away from declaring while establishing a bit of a hierarchy on this year’s squad. That Walker-Smart-Brown-Hayward-Tatum 5-man lineup has logged a mere five minutes of playing time in two appearances but did post a solid plus-10 net rating in that tiny sample. It has the potential to be an offensive juggernaut and could be very good defensively if size doesn’t become an issue.
Stevens wasn’t sure if that 5 was his team’s best lineup, but you sure get the sense he’d like to find out.
"They could play together quite a bit. That's awfully small but I think that we do have to consider that,” said Stevens. "I do think we will see that once we get healthy some. I wouldn't say a lot. That would be a lot of stress on individuals if they have to guard up two or three positions each for a large amount of the game, but you certainly could see it at times.”
Maybe it’s the key to Boston’s championship hopes. Maybe it’s a lineup the team can’t often lean on.
The Celtics would just like a run of good health so they could figure out which it is.
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