Hey, Santa. Know it’s a busy time of year for you -- and this is a little tardy -- but I’ve cobbled together a last-minute Christmas list for the Boston Celtics.
Nothing fancy here -- hey, these guys can afford whatever material goods their hearts desire -- but they could use a little of your magic reindeer dust to help make some of these following wishes come true:
Fifteen games with a healthy core
We might even settle for 10 games. But we’re left yearning to figure out the true potential of this group.
Here’s what we do know: The Celtics’ four-man core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams, and Marcus Smart has a net rating of plus-15.5 in 214 minutes of floor time in 12 appearances this season. That’s the sixth-best mark among all four-man groups with at least that much floor time.
Joe Johnson receives tremendous ovation in his return to the C's
Especially with Brown looking more like himself coming back from a hamstring injury, we’re left wondering how this team might fare if it had all its primary horses for an extended stretch. Would they buck their .500 ways?
Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens has to decide very soon if this team has a potential worth investing in, or if it’s better to sell off pieces with a firm gaze on the future. Boston’s 16-16 record and sitting in play-in position in the Eastern Conference doesn’t inspire much confidence. Nor does the fact that Boston is essentially a .500 team over the past 2.5 seasons worth of games.
But an extended stretch with near-full health would certainly help Stevens confidently plot a path forward.
A 48-minute performance
Actually, scratch that one. That would truly be a Christmas miracle.
More crunch-time poise
Maybe the most damning thing about these Celtics -- beyond even their maddening inconsistencies from quarter to quarter -- is that this team is a gruesome 6-11 in 17 clutch games (score within 5 points, final 5 minutes).
Boston’s crunch-time woes were on full display as the team coughed up a seven-point lead over the final 4-plus minutes against the Sixers on Monday night. In 84 crunch-time minutes -- the second highest total in the league -- the Celtics have a minus-5.4 net rating including an anemic offensive rating of 104.4 in those games.
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It feels a lot like last year where the Celtics were 17-26 in a league-high 43 clutch games. One hallmark of every great team is an ability to thrive in close contests. Boston needs to show it can ratchet things up when the game is in the balance.
Pave the way for the youths
Did we say, yoots? Look, Dennis Schroder was an incredible bargain addition this summer. He helped the team keep its head (barely) above water while Brown was sidelined. But there’s no long-term path to retaining his services, the numbers with him paired with the core are underwhelming, and his presence is ultimately clogging the path to playing time for Boston’s youngest players.
If there’s one teeny-tiny silver lining to all these recent COVID absences, with seven Celtics players in protocol, it’s that Payton Pritchard has offered a firm reminder of how impactful he can be off the Boston bench. Aaron Nesmith has had his moments, too. Romeo Langford and Grant Williams had already made their pitches for consistent roles.
Which is our longwinded way of saying that Stevens needs to find a contender that desires a Schroder under their Christmas tree and try to pry away either a future draft asset or maybe a shooter the green could retain beyond this season. Then turn the kids loose and figure out what you’ve got (or at least pump up their trade value before the hunt for a third star ramps up).
More Robert Williams
Whoops, that’s on my Christmas list. (But his 21-point, 11-rebound, 7-assist, 2-block, 2-steal night versus the Cavs was too nice not to shoehorn in here).
Even more of the playmaking Jays
There’s been a noticeable uptick in ball movement among Boston’s star players since Brown’s recent return from his hamstring injury.
Consider these numbers: Brown and Tatum are pairing up for an average of 90.6 passes per game during the homestand, that’s a spike of 17.4 passes per game since Brown’s return. The Jays are also averaging a combined 23.3 assist points created per game, up 8 points per game since Brown’s return.
Maybe more important, Brown and Tatum have seemingly worked in concert together much more since his return. Brown’s return opened up the floor and helped Tatum earn Eastern Conference Player of the Week. As Brown has ramped up his output the last two games, Tatum has been a willing facilitator, content to make sure his running mate gets the necessary touches when he’s got the obvious hot hand.
The best part is that it hasn’t just been "my turn" basketball. The Jays are taking shots within the flow of the offense and just making the right plays. They can be even better, especially in late-game situations like against Philadelphia when the offense went ice cold, but there’s a lot to like about the way the pillars have played on this homestand.
A third star for the Jays
None of the potentially available All-Star talent that have landed in early trade rumbles are particularly ideal fits to put alongside the Jays. And Boston might not have the assets to get any of them quite yet.
But the one sure-fire path to contention for this Celtics squad is Stevens figuring out how to pry a third star from another team, ideally one that accentuates the talents of the Jays and completes this team’s core.
We’re not sure who that player is quite yet. But we know there’s no reason to break up the Jays quite yet. The Celtics yearn to help them by adding more talent.
So, Santa, work your magic.