INDIANAPOLIS — Two 20-plus-point blowouts to the Nets — likely the best team in the Eastern Conference — could do wonders for the Celtics in coming months. The shellacking they received in the final 18 minutes of Friday’s 123-95 loss shows how far they truly are right now from competing with the league’s elite.
This should come as no surprise. Boston remains without its All-Star guard Kemba Walker, who is weeks away from returning from a knee procedure, while newly acquired Tristan Thompson is on a minutes’ restriction. Meanwhile, coach Brad Stevens is scrambling to find comfortable rotations and is throwing nearly every player into the game for meaningful minutes.
On Friday, Stevens inserted rookie Aaron Nesmith, in his NBA debut, for a spark. Fellow rookie Payton Pritchard has already earned rotation minutes while second-year swingman Javonte Green also received playing time.
What this shows is how truly thin and uncertain the Celtics’ bench is. The Celtics are a formidable opponent when Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are on the floor, but what about when they need a break? Can a lineup that includes Grant Williams, Robert Williams, Daniel Theis and Jeff Teague score enough to keep the Celtics in games.
Teague has a scoring knack, but he followed his 19-point debut against the Bucks Wednesday with a scoreless game against the Nets Friday. Teague is the best scoring option on the second unit. The Celtics either have to 1) hope that another player develops into a reliable scorer or 2) acquire such a scorer to give the bench a chance to compete against the league’s better teams.
With no Walker, the Celtics could become too reliant on Tatum and Brown. Brown and Tatum combined for 47 points on Friday and the team’s next-highest scorer was Marcus Smart with 13 points on 12 shots.
“We know we have a lot of work to do, that’s very clear,” Stevens said. “And we know what to shoot for. I think we have to have everybody be a little bit better and I think we will.”
The Celtics have shown they can compete with the better teams in the East so far. They beat the Bucks on a last-second 3-pointer by Tatum after leading by 17 to start the fourth quarter before a Giannis Antetokounmpo run gave Milwaukee the lead briefly. They pushed the Nets before Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving combined for 40 points on 15-for-21 shooting in the second half.
But the Celtics need more than they have now to compete for a championship. Walker will eventually return and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge will use that $28.5 million trade exception on an impactful player, but that may not happen until the March 25 trade deadline.
The quandary for the Celtics is their roster is full at 17. To add another player, they would have to remove a current player. The question Ainge has to ask himself is whether adding a free agent now would make a significant impact or is it best to allow Stevens to figure out rotations and roles over the next few weeks.
There is one particular proven scorer on the market and looking for work and his name is Isaiah Thomas. If offense is the bench’s weakness, it would seem sensible to sign a player who can score. Thomas is unsigned because of years of hip issues that he maintains are finally over after a corrective surgery earlier this year.
Thomas has worked out with NBA players and is waiting for a call. At this point, any available NBA player has a considerable weakness. Would you rather the Celtics take a chance on Dion Waiters or J.R. Smith? The available wings on the market aren’t enticing enough to make a roster move. And if you think about it, the Celtics already have defensive-minded, offensively challenged wings coming off the bench — both Williamses and Semi Ojeleye.
And while Pritchard has shown potential and Nesmith is considered an elite shooter, it may be too much to ask either to contribute consistently this season, especially in the early going.
The Celtics don’t have to make any moves now but it’s obvious they are far from the best team in the Eastern Conference, and this early sample size has revealed that their bench scoring hasn’t dramatically improved, especially against above average benches such as the Nets.
With the next five games against Indiana (two), Memphis, and Detroit (two), the Celtics will have an opportunity to gain momentum and learn more about this current roster. But what we do know already is that it needs bolstering. Thomas had a sparkling first stint in Boston and it’s not a stretch to say they could use his scoring off the bench.
The Celtics have to ask themselves a question: Does every player on the roster have a purpose? In this COVID-19-caused breakneck turnaround season, Stevens is already beginning to preserve his frontline players and avoid heavy minutes.
That places even more emphasis on the bench and necessitates Ainge at least pondering a move soon.