Another day, another blown lead. This has been the theme of the 2021-22 Boston Celtics. Fans have been calling for it since the bubble, and perhaps we could see a Celtics rebuild sooner than later. But is a full restart really what this team needs, or what they can afford to have happen? New England fans, myself included, are an impatient bunch, admittedly, as we expect continued success from all four major sports, but for the Celtics, maybe we should pump the brakes for a second and assess.
Is A Boston Celtics Rebuild Necessary?
Do NOT Break Up The Jays
In those games JT averages 25/7/4 on 44/37/85 and JB averages 22/6/3 on 48/39/75. It’s not “can they coexist?” it’s “can the org build a competent roster around them?”
— Max (@lissmx14) January 9, 2022
To get this out of the way, the last thing the Boston Celtics should be thinking of doing is to trade one, or both, of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They have been the building blocks of this franchise since they were drafted in 2016 and 2017. Aged 23 and 25, Tatum and Brown have seen their teams go as far as the Eastern Conference Finals, and be within a few points shy of the NBA Finals, and that kind of experience that young is something that very few in NBA history have attained.
Questions have been raised about the twos ability to play side by side, and while it can be fair at times, the narrative can be rightfully twisted to say that it has been a product of an imperfect system. What this team, and this duo specifically, needs is a steady, facilitating point guard to operate the offense and create looks for these two, aside from the tired isolation we see too often. Marcus Smart has shown flashes of being this type of point guard, and the team has flourished when he sticks to his roll. When he tries to expand upon his role, is when the team tends to get into trouble.
If the goal is to reinvent the team’s system, then a full Celtics rebuild is not the answer. With Tatum and Brown so young, it does not make sense to give up on this experiment when in some cases, it barely has any legs thus far. While there is plenty to touch on for the Celtics early inconsistencies, the front office cannot make the mistake to think that Tatum and Brown are the sole issues.
The Head Coach
When Brad Stevens assumed the role of President of Basketball Operations, one of his first duties was to fill the seat he left empty as the team’s head coach. Hiring Ime Udoka, a former San Antonio Spurs and Brooklyn Nets assistant, Stevens took a chance and hired a rookie head coach to lead a non-rebuilding team. Udoka was someone who Tatum, Brown, and Smart had previous experience with on Team USA, and was a big part of the reason for Udoka’s hiring.
That being said, all things considered, Udoka is still a first-year head coach, for one of the most illustrious franchises in NBA history. He was not hired to lead a Celtics rebuild from the ground up, but rather build upon a roster that Stevens handed to him. Udoka emphasized ball movement and defense from the onset, and while the team exemplified both early on, they have both often grown stagnant, and even worse, inconsistent. Or unfortunately for Boston, consistently inconsistent.
To say the Udoka hiring was a mistake is premature. He is imperfect, like the team. He is learning, like most of the team, with his young rotational players like Grant Williams, Payton Pritchard, Romeo Langford, and Aaron Nesmith, among others. His rotations have been questionable, such as continuing to start two big men, which often leads to bench minutes for Enes Freedom, who has been a detriment to the team more often than not.
Another rotational flaw that Udoka has been critiqued for, with good reason, has been playing Marcus Smart alongside Dennis Schroder. The days of Smart has an off-guard are behind him. He is best when he initiates the offense, as putting him off-guard leaves him susceptible to more catch-and-shoot opportunities for him and less touches for Tatum and Brown.
Specifics – What Has Been Going Wrong?
Multiple Blown Leads
The Boston Celtics have blown four 19+ point leads this year, the most recent being Thursday night in a primetime matchup against division rival New York Knicks. This recurring theme is a result of a lack of mental toughness and poor rotations, and overall just bad team basketball. When this happens, the team gets away from what they are best at and move to isolation hero ball, which is the farthest thing from the answer.
What is most frustrating about this Celtics team is that they are much better than their record indicates. Tatum and Brown are two franchise caliber stars, despite being so young, Robert Williams III is a young, athletic big with sky high potential who can play from rim to rim, Smart is one of, if not the best, perimeter defender in the league, and Al Horford is as steady a contributor as it gets. Their second unit scoring duo of Dennis Schroder and Josh Richardson can serve as x-factors in any matchup, and the team has grown to count on Grant Williams, Payton Pritchard, and Romeo Langford to provide meaningful minutes in spurts.
Putting it all together in a system that works has been the challenge. Saturday night in a rematch against the Knicks, after Thursday’s heartbreaker courtesy of a last second RJ Barrett three-pointer, the Celtics played perhaps the best basketball of the season, as each player kept to their strengths, and did their job.
What If They Just Played Team Basketball?
On Saturday night, the Celtics bounced back as strong as they possibly could have. Jaylen Brown logged his first career triple-double with 22-11-11 on 60% from the field, Jayson Tatum took a backseat to Brown’s career night, providing 19 points. Josh Richardson continued one of his better seasons of late with a 17 point output on the bench, and perhaps the most impactful performance of the day came from Marcus Smart.
Marcus Smart with the half-court lob 💥 pic.twitter.com/EPLKDeqMfn
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) January 9, 2022
Smart kept to his strengths Saturday night. He played like a true point guard, initiating the offense for Brown and Tatum, while creating looks at the rim for Williams III. He also was his vintage self on the defensive end, with four steals to show. This was also due to the fact that Udoka never played both Smart and Schroder together for a single second that game, which allowed Smart to not be forced to play off-ball.
Saturday night was a reminder of what the Celtics play like when they play together, and the eye test made that crystal clear. Bodies were flying, the ball was moving, shots were falling, and the team was playing with heart. This makes a Celtics rebuild look like a mistake as it ropes us fans back into believing in them, which in turn could set us up for disappointment once more.
Fans Should Not Panic, But Lower Their Expectations
“[Celtics] Don’t panic! You don’t break up Tatum and Brown. … You be patient and you find a way to build around those guys”
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) January 8, 2022
The NBA will forever be a hierarchy of player talent. Over and over again, we see teams that have that one, sometimes two, particular superstar that is capable of being the face of a championship team. This is the league’s most elite class, with names like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Kawhi Leonard. That is arguably where the list ends. There is another tier beneath them of talent where these names can possibly be the best player, but maybe not yet, or it simply has not happened yet. Jayson Tatum may be on that tier, depending on who ask.
Whether it is now, or in the near future, Jayson Tatum is a “one” on a team. He’s shown that. Brown looks like he can be a “two”. In the last three years, the duo has a record of 75-51 in 126 games played together. What the organization must do next is construct a roster capable of playing around them, and playing for them. That remains to be seen, but the last thing both fans and the team should do is panic.
More likely than not, the team will not be hoisting a Larry O’Brien this year. This should not spell the beginning of a Celtics rebuild. Yes, the roster is imperfect. It may need a retool and some turnover. However, Tatum and Brown are young enough, and talented enough to keep their team in a competitive state until the front office creates an actual system to bring the Boston Celtics championship number 18.
The most recent NBA champs, the Milwaukee Bucks, endured similar growing pains before finding the right system and hitting their stride. Who’s to say the Celtics will not do the say eventually? In order to do the, there cannot be a full Celtics rebuild.
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