At the start of this season, few questioned whether the Celtics would have more than one All-Star. The main debate centered on how many more they would have. Two? Three? Maybe even four?
After all, the Celtics entered the year as the favorites to win the Eastern Conference. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford were All-Stars last season, Gordon Hayward was an All-Star in the mighty Western Conference the last time he was healthy, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are rising talents. And if the Celtics surged to the top of the conference, as expected, their coaching staff would join the players in Charlotte for the league’s signature weekend.
In the midst of their 60-win season in 2014-15, the Hawks placed four players and their coaching staff on the All-Star team despite having no real transcendent talents. The Celtics, it was assumed, could do something similar, or even something more.
But this season hasn’t exactly gone as planned. Boston is stuck in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, and it can be argued that Irving and forward Marcus Morris are the only players who have exceeded expectations.
That is a feat for Irving, because so much is expected of him already. But he is having perhaps his finest pro season, shooting 50.1 percent from the field while averaging 23.5 points, 6.9 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.7 steals. Except for points, all of those numbers would be career highs. If the Celtics were in first place in the East, Irving would be at the center of the MVP conversation.
As it stands, he is a lock to be named an All-Star starter when those groups are announced Thursday night. And that certainly isn’t an awful consolation prize. After that, however, Boston’s hopes become dim, even in a watered-down Eastern Conference where reserve bids will fall to some players who are having lukewarm seasons.
At the start of the year, Tatum probably was the one seen as most likely to join Irving as an All-Star. Unlike Horford and Hayward, his potential seemed limitless, and it still could be. But the hysteria surrounding him has been tempered.
Although Tatum is having a fine season, he has not taken a sizable leap. He is averaging 16.4 points per game (19th in the East) along with 6.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists. He has not been as efficient as he was last season, with his overall shooting percentage dipping from 47.5 to 45.0, and his 3-point percentage falling from 43.4 to a more pedestrian 37.8. Furthermore, the Celtics’ defensive rating is exactly the same — 102.8 points per 100 possessions — whether Tatum is on the court or off.
Remember, the All-Star reserves are selected by the conference’s coaches, and Horford is certainly one of the most well-liked and well-respected players in the league. And the fact that he has already made five All-Star teams could work in his favor. But he seems like a long shot.
Horford’s numbers last season were impressively balanced but not startling, and this season they have dipped across the board. He is averaging 12.2 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 3.6 assists, and he missed seven games in December with knee pain.
Part of Horford’s statistical downturn can be attributed to the minutes restriction he faced after returning from his knee injury, but coaches are unlikely to factor that into their calculations.
The advanced numbers work against Horford, too. The Celtics have a better net rating when Horford is off the court (7.0) than when he is on it (6.7). This difference is due largely to the fact that the defense has been 3.6 points per 100 possessions better without Horford, a surprising number for a traditionally elite defender. That gap is perhaps best explained by Horford’s knee troubles, which seem to have dissipated for now.
Morris’s scorching 3-point shooting earlier this year created some local All-Star buzz, but he has cooled recently, going just 6 for 24 over his last five games. He is still shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc, 11th best in the league. But his averages of 14.8 points and 6.0 rebounds are modest. And his 8.3 net rating is just seventh-best among Celtics who have played at least 350 minutes.
Meanwhile, Hayward and Brown, who are now both coming off the bench, will not even receive consideration. Hayward has had flashes of brilliance, like his 35-point masterpiece against the Timberwolves that was followed up by his 16-point, 11-rebound, 8-assist game against the Mavericks.
But the majority of his year has been significantly quieter, and it is clear he is not close to returning to the form he flashed before suffering a devastating ankle injury in the season opener last year.
The Celtics have an 11.4 net rating with Hayward off the court, and just a 1.8 mark with him on it. Hayward’s scoring average of 10.9 points per game is his lowest since his rookie season in Utah.
Brown has shown signs of snapping out of his early-season funk. He has topped the 20-point mark in three of his last 10 games after doing it just once in his first 32. But his field goal/3-point/free throw shooting splits of 43.9, 31.3, and 66.4 percent remain disappointing.
It is unlikely that Irving will be totally alone at All-Star weekend, however. Tatum almost certainly will be selected for the Rising Stars game, which includes the top rookies and second-year players. He said that if he is chosen, he will play. He said he would love to take part in one of the Saturday night skills contests, too.
“Except for the dunk contest,” Tatum said, smiling. “That’s not for me.”
The All-Star reserves will be announced Jan. 31.