As the first month of 2023 concludes and the calendar flips to February, the Celtics still sit atop the NBA table with the league’s best record (36-15). But in this banner-or-bust season, the only month when occupying pole position matters for the Progeny of the Parquet is June. That’s where these Celtics will be measured. That’s how they’ll be remembered.
No one has a basketball crystal ball, however, and a lot can happen between now and then. So, with an eye toward the future and an acknowledgment of what former Celtics coach Rick Pitino calls the precious present, here’s a starting five of thoughts on the state of the Celtics:
1. Winning a championship is about the Tandem over Tatum. There has been a rush this season to anoint Celtics star Jayson Tatum as The One in the NBA. Tatum is a spectacular talent, as prolific a scorer as has ever donned a Celtics uniform, and a legitimate MVP candidate. He’s on pace to become the first Celtic ever to average 30 points per game for a season.
However, the Celtics’ killer app is having the league’s best tandem in Tatum and Jaylen Brown. It’s not having one transcendent leading man and a bunch of basketball background singers.
On Saturday night against the Lakers, Brown carried the Celtics across the finish line, scoring or assisting on 25 of the team’s final 44 points on his way to a 37-point performance, with 20 points coming in the fourth quarter and overtime. Tatum shot 8 of 25, including 1 for 7 in the fourth quarter, but still found a way to contribute 30 points.
The duo can pass the basketball baton back and forth, a luxury a lot of other contenders don’t have.
It marked the 20th time that the Jays poured in 30 or more points each in the same regular-season game. That’s already the third-most for a duo in NBA history, trailing only Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (34) and Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant (33). Fourth is Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, which shows you the Tatum-Brown union is not a Jordan and the Jordanaires one. Sorry. The Celtics are 19-1 when JT and JB score 30 or more points.
Tatum is the best player on the team. But these Celtics are much closer to the 2008 team that had Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce as co-No. 1s than they are to the Celtics teams of the 1980s with Kevin McHale riding sidecar to the incomparable Larry Bird.
2. The trade deadline (Feb. 9) is creeping up, and Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck has given president of basketball operations Brad Stevens the green light to go for it.
The focus for the Celtics seems to be adding a big man as insurance for rickety Rob Williams and elder statesman Al Horford. However, the front office’s focus should be adding a wing behind Tatum and Brown. Both are logging career-high minutes. Tatum ranks second in the league at 37.5. Clearly, coach Joe Mazzulla is afraid to put Sam Hauser on the court against certain teams.
You’re not going to find a big man who provides what Williams does defensively, which is why he labored through the playoffs last year. Also, in the postseason, backup-caliber big men tend to get exposed and their minutes drop.
That’s why Stevens should go good wing hunting. How about giving the Hornets a call and seeing if they’ll part with P.J. Washington, Kelly Oubre, or Jalen McDaniels to enhance the number of ping-pong balls they’ll have to land French sensation Victor Wembanyama?
The Celtics are the NBA version of last year’s Los Angeles Rams; it’s time to, uh, forget those draft picks. That’s the sanitized version.
3. It’s clear the Celtics miss Marcus Smart. He’s a basketball ballast, but the upside to his absence has been Malcolm Brogdon getting in a groove. Brogdon is key to the Celtics hoisting a banner. He provides the legitimate third offensive option they lacked last year against the Warriors. Stevens said after the NBA Finals defeat they needed more playmaking.
Mazzulla must find a way to keep Brogdon performing at this level when Smart returns from his ankle injury. What’s promising is that Brogdon’s renaissance predates Smart’s injury on Jan. 21. Brogdon has scored in double figures in 12 straight games, dating back to Jan. 3. During that span, he has averaged 18.4 points while shooting 48.4 percent from the field and 49.3 percent from 3-point range.
4. Stevens joined “The Sports Hub Celtics Show” Saturday and acknowledged that reintegrating Williams into the rotation has been bumpy. (Full disclosure: Yours truly cohosts that program with Jim Murray and Brian Robb of MassLive.) But Stevens was adamant that the best version of the Celtics features the double-big starting lineup with Williams at center.
“You look at us in the first 26 games, and we were 21-5,” said Stevens. “Rob didn’t play, and we were small and we were shooting the hell out of the ball. Sometimes there is some variance in that.
“I didn’t think at the time that we were 21-5, that we were a 21-5 team without Rob. We’re probably not quite that good.
“I think it hasn’t been seamless reintroducing him to the lineup, but I don’t think any of us would argue that our chances aren’t a whole heck of a lot better with Rob Williams.”
5. No one advocated for Mazzulla to shepherd this team harder than Stevens. He looks like a seer so far. That includes Mazzulla being named a coach for the NBA All-Star Game.
How many interim coaches have been an All-Star coach? This isn’t a comprehensive record, but two examples come to mind.
In 2016, Ty Lue was named coach of the Eastern Conference after the Cavaliers dispatched Framingham’s David Blatt. Lue coached just three games for the Cavs before getting the nod by virtue of Cleveland securing the East’s best record at the All-Star break.
Before he became a slick-coiffed coaching legend, Pat Riley inherited the Lakers as interim coach on Nov. 19, 1981, following a falling-out between Magic Johnson and Paul Westhead. Riley was tapped as the Western Conference coach for the 1982 game. The MVP of that game was Bird.
Mazzulla seems comically nonplussed about the nod, telling the media Tuesday it means “nothing.”