The Celtics’ 112-111 home loss to the Pistons on Wednesday night let some air out of their balloon as they headed into the All-Star break. Nevertheless, their nine-game winning streak that preceded that blip vaulted them into sixth-place in the Eastern Conference and reset what might be possible for the rest of the season.
It hasn’t been perfect, but it hasn’t been all that bad, either. The team seems to have found a rhythm and a defense-first identity under first-year coach Ime Udoka. Individually, there have been standout performers as well as disappointing ones. Here is a look at the lower half of the roster, including players who were recently traded away.
Nesmith and Payton Pritchard have both taken steps back in their second seasons. It’s just difficult to tell whether it’s due to regression or struggles with Udoka’s scheme, or whether it’s simply been hard to develop a rhythm with such limited workloads. After a rocky start to his rookie season, Nesmith became an important piece by year’s end and then built on it with a strong showing at the Las Vegas summer league. But his playing time this year has been spotty, and his 3-point shooting has cratered to 23.6 percent, a discouraging figure for a player who was drafted in large part because of that skill-set. But he should be in line for more playing time after last week’s trades, and in Wednesday’s loss to the Pistons he showed bursts of the hustle and athleticism that made him valuable last year. Nesmith could be positioned for a post-break bounce back.
Pritchard was a revelation filling in for the injured Kemba Walker at the start of last season. He is a pesky defender, but Udoka generally prefers size and length that allow his players to constantly switch on screens. His shooting numbers have dipped across the board, and his minus-3.9 net rating is the only negative one among regular rotation players. Still, Pritchard is already seeing an uptick in playing time since the trade and will have a chance to get real backup point guard minutes moving forward. He’s played 10 minutes or more in each of Boston’s last five games after failing to reach that mark in the previous eight.
The Celtics had such high hopes for Langford when they drafted him 14th overall in 2019. But he was slowed by one nagging injury after another. When healthy, he rarely made noticeable errors, but several minutes could pass without even realizing Langford was on the court. His play and his voice tended to be quiet. He did show value as a wing defender, and his 3-point shooting improved each year. But the Celtics could wait only so long. Langford was sent to the Spurs in the Derrick White deal.
Schröder, who was traded to Houston last Thursday, was a bit of an enigma during his brief stay in Boston. His $5.9 million contract was one of the best bargains in the league and there were nights when he carried the offense, especially when he stepped in as the starting point guard due to injuries. But he was considerably less effective coming off the bench, and Boston’s brass realized that he just didn’t complement Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The offense is predicated on quick, precise decisions, but Schröder tended to be a ball-stopper.
Freedom was never a good fit for Udoka’s defensive scheme. This is nothing new, of course, but he has generally been able to offset his obvious limitations by being a dominant rebounder and strong finisher. But even his strengths were a struggle. He was averaging career-lows of 3.7 points and 11.7 minutes per game before he was traded last week to the Rockets, who subsequently waived him. He has yet to be signed by a new team.
Richardson, who was also traded to the Spurs, was a bright spot on an uninspiring Boston bench. His plus-3.6 net rating was tops among the regular reserves, and he connected on 39.7 percent of his 3-pointers, second on the team. Richardson was a reliable defender, too. Interestingly, he and Freedom made a decent pairing. The duo outscored opponents by 15 points per 100 possessions, the team’s top two-man net rating with a minimum of 200 minutes played. Nevertheless, White is an upgrade because of his superior defense and passing.
Fernando had a few highlight-reel blocked shots and dunks, and despite playing a total of just 58 minutes this year before being traded to Houston, he certainly never showed any frustration about his lack of playing time. He was Boston’s biggest cheerleader on the bench. He was constantly engaged in the action and always there to pump up or lift up a teammate.
THE NEW ARRIVAL
Kornet played in 18 games with the Celtics last season and made an impression on coach Brad Stevens then. He started this year with the Maine Celtics and received 10-day contracts with the Bucks and Bulls when their rosters were ravaged by COVID-19 cases. And when Boston created five new roster spots with its deadline deals, Kornet was signed for the rest of the season. Kornet, who averaged 15.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.7 assists in Maine, will be a break-glass-in-case of emergency option, especially now that Daniel Theis has been added as a third big man. But he’s a fifth-year veteran, and there are worse No. 4 center options around the league.
THE TWO-WAY CONTRACTS
Hauser may have been the biggest beneficiary of all the roster reshuffling. With five empty roster spots, the rookie from Virginia parlayed his strong showing with the Maine Celtics into a guaranteed deal with the Boston Celtics for the rest of the season. In 10 games in Maine, the forward averaged 21.1 points and 6.5 rebounds while shooting 41.7 percent from beyond the 3-point line. Long-range shooting remains this team’s biggest weakness, and Boston’s brass remains hopeful that Hauser will eventually become a reliable 3-point marksman at this level. During his brief stints in Boston, his defense has held up adequately.
Thomas’s stint in Maine has been bumpier. He’s averaging 4 assists and 3.3 turnovers per game while shooting just 37.5 percent from the field. He doesn’t fill an obvious need with the Celtics at the moment but could get an opportunity if injuries pile up as long as the team still has open roster spots.
Coming tomorrow: starters and key reserves.