The Boston Celtics’ brutal December slate was supposed to offer answers to the many questions surrounding this team and its seemingly murky path back to being a legitimate contender.
Alas, here we are on the first day of January 2022, and we’re still not ready to make any firm declarations about this team.
Now, we have a gut feeling about this team. And our hesitancy might ultimately be recency bias. Because just when it looked like the Celtics might make embracing a future focus easy by dropping four games under .500 for the first time since April 2015, Boston responded with one of its most encouraging performances of the season with a wire-to-wire win over one of the best teams in basketball.
Put all the asterisks you want on it due to missing personnel -- and the NBA’s COVID woes are a big reason we don’t have the answers we sought to this point -- but Boston played to the upper reaches of its potential, all without its best player, and produced the sort of win that gives you a tiny glimmer of hope that they might eventually figure things out.
The harsher reality is that Boston went an underwhelming 6-9 over a 15-game December run and routinely wilted in the fourth quarter against some of the teams that will serve as primary playoff roadblocks. Even against the Suns it felt like they were holding on for dear life with a 20-point lead. Boston had the 15th-ranked offense and the 18th-ranked defense for the month of December.
All of the Celtics' crunch-time woes leave the team at 17-19 overall and in a big ol’ log jam with the Knicks, Raptors, and Hawks for spots 9-12 in the Eastern Conference. That’s less than ideal positioning near the midway point of the year.
The big question: Does Brad Stevens, in his first year as president of basketball operations, swallow hard and embrace building towards next season when the Celtics might have a less flawed roster and add the sort of impact talent that truly pushes them closer to the teams at the top of the East? Or does Stevens make minor tweaks, give this core the green light to keep fighting, and hope that health and continuity makes this team a dark horse by the time the playoffs roll around?
The worst possible place for an NBA team is to be stuck somewhere in the middle, that maddening gap between legitimate contenders and tankers. That’s where Boston ended up last season and it led to an overhaul of the power structure and forced Stevens to peddle the team’s mid-round draft pick just to start creating the flexibility that might allow Boston to seek the impact talent it seems to need to reaffirm its contender status.
We don’t envy Stevens. He was already dealt a tough hand. A team once overflowing with draft treasures now finds its treasure chest in need of a complete restock. This while the jury remains out on some of their most recent draftees.
It has not been Stevens’ modus operandi to lean into losing. Our minds flash back to January 2015 when, after dropping seven of its first eight games after shipping out Rajon Rondo, Jae Crowder approached Celtics brass to brashly ask what the bleepin’ plan was moving forward. Stevens was adamant then that he wanted to win. A midseason infusion headlined by Isaiah Thomas accelerated the Celtics back to respectability, they drafted Jaylen Brown a year later, and soon free agents like Al Horford and Kevin Durant were taking meetings given Boston’s rosy outlook.
This time around, the Celtics have their pillars entrenched in Jayson Tatum and Brown. Despite taking the Celtics to the cusp of the NBA Finals in their NBA infancy, there’s understandable questions about whether the Celtics can compete with this core. Still, it’s obvious that Plan A is surrounding the Jays with the pieces that best accentuate their talents before any real consideration will be given to breaking up the nucleus.
The numbers with the four-man core of Tatum, Brown, Marcus Smart, and Robert Williams have been fantastic this season, that group ranking among the best four-man lineups in the entire league. Is adding one more key piece and bolstering the bench enough to truly allow the Celtics to hang with the Nets and Bucks in the East? That is the great unknown. Even murkier: The path to adding the best possible talent given Boston’s limited resources.
In order to take the biggest step forward, the Celtics might have to be willing to take a step back. That’s not ideal because no season with two healthy Jays is ever guaranteed. But if the Celtics simply do not show themselves capable of sustaining a high level of play, then a lottery pick might be far more valuable than clinging to the hope of a playoff surge coming out of the play-in bracket.
Games like Friday offer that glimmer of hope though. Watching Williams go for his first career triple-double, all while Smart plays an impactful two-way game, and Brown hits big shots to fend off every Suns charge, will leave you wondering what might be.
Grant Williams, with his improved shooting and defensive intensity, is making a strong case to shuffle up to the starting group. Payton Pritchard has made Dennis Schroder a bit more expendable if/when trade suitors emerge. Boston could use a bit more shooting and we’ll continue to yearn for Aaron Nesmith to get time once he’s out of health and safety protocols.
Which is why we’re giving the Celtics a two-week extension to determine the best path forward. NBA general managers were hardly able to think about trades in December because of all the COVID issues that left teams scrambling just have enough bodies for their next game.
The NBA trade deadline is February 10. Business probably isn’t going to pick up until mid-January at the earliest. So we’re circling January 17. The Celtic have an MLK Day matinee against New Orleans that day and Stevens will have three weeks in the aftermath to do his tinkering.
The Celtics play nine games in that 17-day span. The first six are against teams under .500, including four at home. A back-to-back against Philadelphia and Chicago might offer better clues about this team if they surge at the start of the calendar year.
Despite the occasional signs of hope, the Celtics are really going to have to dominate this stretch and avoid the sort of inconsistencies that have become their calling card to encourage Stevens to invest in them. Even then, there will be priorities like dipping below the tax that run a bit counter to contending.
The bottom line is the Celtics have to pick a path. They can’t get stuck in the middle. It’s understandable if they don’t want to lean in one direction or another coming out of December.
But decision day is coming sooner than later.