ORLANDO — The Celtics started this season embracing the lofty expectations that had been heaped upon them. They openly spoke about reaching the NBA Finals and perhaps even winning a title when they got there.
There were some early injuries and early stumbles, but they were mostly chalked up to reintegrating previously injured stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward into the lineup. It was not great, but the general sense was that it was also no reason for substantial concern.
But now the season has zipped past the midway point, and the Celtics are stuck in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, six games behind the first-place Raptors and on pace to win 48 games. That would be their lowest total since the 2015-16 team won 48, and it would mark the first time during coach Brad Stevens’s tenure that Boston’s win total decreased from the previous year.
When there are times of tumult, as mild as they might be, the general belief is that perhaps it is time for a roster shakeup. But therein lies the conundrum, because unlike in past seasons, when there were obvious areas of weakness, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge mostly likes the makeup of this team. And with the Feb. 7 trade deadline fast approaching, he will have to weigh his trust in these players with the quest to turn this season into something big.
“It just depends,” Ainge said this weekend, before his team lost Saturday to the Magic, 105-103. “I don’t feel a need to have to do something. I like every guy on our team. I like our roster. There will be [trade] conversations, obviously. Every year it happens with every team. But we’ll only do something that makes sense.”
There have been moments when the Celtics have looked like the Eastern Conference contender many expected them to be. They crafted an eight-game winning streak in December and then a four-game winning streak that preceded this road trip, including a dominant win over the third-place Pacers. And then there were moments like Saturday’s, when they fell to the sub-.500 Magic.
Ainge is certainly aware of the recent stumbles, but he generally does not let them guide him when deciding what to do next.
“I try not to get too emotional with a hot streak or a cold streak, and just look at what our team is,” he said. “How our team has played this year, I really haven’t been too surprised with anything, the good and the bad. You could anticipate both of those things happening. So, I’m not surprised. I feel like our team is in a good place and playing well. But I like the path they’re headed in.”
The Celtics could have as many as four first-round draft picks this June, so Ainge has plenty of assets to comb through if he decides an upgrade is needed now.
Multiple league sources have said Boston’s gaze remains focused squarely on Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis — but the Celtics cannot trade for Davis this year, because teams cannot acquire two players via trade who have signed designated player rookie extensions. (Kyrie Irving already became the first.)
After Irving opts out of the final year of his deal this summer, that stipulation will no longer affect the Celtics, so Boston could be reluctant to surrender draft picks now when it would rather use them later to chase Davis.
“When I look at the team right now I feel really good about their character, really good about their skill, really good about the upside over the next five to six years, with young players and the draft,” Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck said earlier this month.
“I feel overall confident and excited we can make some noise over the next five to six years with this core group, adding on when we can. But this season still does feel like a work in progress.”
The Celtics could explore the buyout market after the trade deadline passes, allowing them to add a player without giving up anything in return. But they currently do not have an open roster spot.
There is still no sign of imminent resolution in the case of Jabari Bird, who was arrested on domestic violence charges last summer. The Celtics have declined to speak publicly about Bird’s situation, but one league source said that the NBA is continuing its own investigation of the matter and that the Celtics are unlikely to make any move until the legal process plays out further.
Of course, adding a 15th man via the buyout market is unlikely to have a sizable impact on this roster. The Celtics’ preference would be for their current group, which is undeniably stocked with talent, to find a consistent rhythm before it is too late.
“What we’re facing now is nothing compared to being on that [Finals] stage trying to get a gold trophy,” Irving said after Saturday’s loss.
“It’s hard now, what do you think it’s going to be when we get to the Finals? Let alone, we’re trying to get a great seed. That should be our No. 1 goal, and that right there is a realization for me, that even when I’m thinking about the future I’ve got to think about, how do we get there? What steps do we need to hit? That’s a goal first, just getting a seed. We can’t be comfortable being in fifth.”