Where are the Celtics headed on the road to Banner No. 18? Nowhere fast. They’re the proverbial hoops hamster on the wheel of NBA contention. Round and round they go, staying in the same place.
Following Wednesday night’s rock fight of a win over the 76ers, the Celtics stand at 50-50 in their last 100 games — including the play-in and the playoffs last season. Perfectly average.
That seems like a fitting numerical marker of the big picture of Boston basketball. The Celtics are in parquet purgatory, too good to be bad enough to add a true third star through the draft and not good enough to be an Eastern Conference contender, stacking up with the likes of the Nets and a healthy Bucks club. There is no obvious path or solution to ascending into contention with the current roster configuration.
The time is nearing for Change, Big C, instead of the tinkering the Celtics have engaged in the last few seasons. The reality is that the core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart looks maxed out. The Celtics have to break it up and break the cycle.
Of course, with the NBA’s byzantine trade rules, that’s easier said than done. Smart was signed to a four-year, $77 million extension this offseason. Thus, he’s not eligible to be traded until approximately Jan. 17. The Celtics owe it to themselves to find out how compatible All-Stars Tatum and Brown are in the long term — the single biggest question hovering over the team’s future. To ascertain an answer, a certain polarizing point guard must be subtracted from an already complicated chemistry formula.
Smart is not the reason the Celtics are mired in mediocrity. He just has the misfortune of being the most talented, expendable piece. His heart and hustle are undeniable, but so are his shaky outside shooting (28.8 percent from three this season), inflated ego, and volatile mien. He yearns to turn a Big Two into a Big Three.
It’s great when Smart is whipping alley-oops to Robert Williams and hounding opponents as he was in the first half Wednesday night. It’s not so great when he’s barking at officials after getting his shot cleanly blocked, tossing no-hope alley-oops into crowds like a bride flinging her garter, and calling out Tatum and Brown publicly for not passing enough.
Suited to accept being a role player, Smart is not. He was the No. 6 pick in the draft and is the longest-tenured Celtic. He’s not going to take a back seat without being a back-seat driver.
In the offseason, the Celtics said every move the team made would be geared toward getting the best out of Tatum and Brown, putting them in a position to flourish. What’s best for them is to really hand them the reins and let them work it out without Smart’s sizable personality muddying the mix.
Then you’ll find out whether Tatum and Brown are a banner-worthy basketball marriage or a dysfunctional and redundant duo.
Brown shouldn’t be dealt with his Costco contract. He’s on a four-year, $107 million contract that is the Holy Grail bargain that Celtics fans billed the Jae Crowder contract as.
These Celtics are somewhat analogous to the Red Sox following their 2011 collapse. That team was wedded to its talent, despite considerable evidence that the chemistry was fundamentally flawed with Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford. Instead of breaking up the players, the Sox changed the jockey, swapping Terry Francona for Bobby Valentine.
It was a massive failure, and, eventually, the Sox were forced to acknowledge the roster composition just didn’t work.
The Celtics changed messengers this season, kicking Brad Stevens upstairs to president of basketball operations and bringing in rookie head coach Ime Udoka. But more than a quarter of the way through the NBA season at 12-10, some of Udoka’s complaints and laments on a nightly basis sound identical to the ones Stevens vocalized. Not a good sign.
Veterans Al Horford, Dennis Schröder, and Josh Richardson are stopgap measures, parquet placeholders. The Celtics have two former lottery picks, Aaron Nesmith and Romeo Langford, languishing on the bench most nights. Point guard Payton Pritchard has been exiled to the Land of the DNP-Coach’s Decision.
Where’s the path to contention?
Sure, Rob Williams is great, but he’s brittle and not a talented enough center to rise to the level of bona fide third star.
The Celtics either need better shooting around Tatum and Brown or a true pass-first point guard who can take some of the playmaking burden and shot-creation for others off their plates.
A top-five defensive team, the Celtics bog down offensively. They shot 38.5 percent with 8 assists and 7 turnovers in the second half against the Sixers. We are a long way from the days of Bill Walton and Larry Bird running pick-and-rolls that belonged in the Louvre.
“Not the prettiest, but it feels good when you find a way to win games like this,” said Tatum.
Except you’re not going to win a lot of games in today’s NBA with this offense.
The Green are 23rd in the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio at 16.4, 24th in offensive rating (105.6), and 23rd in 3-point field goal percentage (32.8). Some of that is hopefully attributable to not having a full complement of healthy players until Wednesday.
But, ultimately, the Celtics as constituted have too little margin for error. Their December schedule is brutal with a five-game Western swing starting Friday in Utah followed by home games against last year’s NBA Finalists (Bucks and Suns) and the Warriors between now and Dec. 17.
Every team they’ll face this month was above .500 as of Thursday’s standings.
It’s unclear whether the equanimous Indianan Stevens possesses the temerity to break up this roster when the time comes. So, these Celtics have time to prove me wrong and prove to their boss they belong together.
But the theme song for the Celtics comes courtesy of Sam Cooke: “A Change is Gonna Come.”
Staying this course is being championship-driven to a dead end.