Every basketball nut knows that the best time to evaluate an NBA team is 5/82ds of the way through a new season. That extremely obvious truth in mind – what, you’ve never heard that? – here are five thoughts on the Celtics with 6.097 percent of the season complete …
1. For a player who spent the first eight seasons of his career in Charlotte – aka Michael Jordan’s basketball purgatory – Celtics newcomer Kemba Walker is already quite familiar around here. He played at UConn, of course, leading the Huskies to a magical five-wins-in-five-days championship run in the 2011 Big East tournament that carried over to an even more magical run to the NCAA title. He’s from New York City, but the bond we always thought he had to New England was confirmed when he joined the Celtics. But I have to admit, there have been revelations while watching him begin his Celtics career. Offensively, he’s as expected, a smooth shooter with a crazy first step and all sorts of tricks that help him finish in the presence of taller players. We knew he had a well-earned reputation as a genuine teammate, and man, is that fun to watch after last year. But I had no idea he was such a willing and feisty defender – he’s been taking charges like he’s in a high-stakes competition with Marcus Smart – rather than someone you have to hide on defense like Isaiah Thomas or a disengaged Kyrie Irving. He’s also willing to mix it up on the boards (5.2 per game). He pulled down a couple of big ones in traffic late in the win over the Knicks. It’s nice to find out new things about a player you thought you knew, and they’re all good.
2. Marcus Smart leads the Celtics in assists per game (4.8), which isn’t exactly a Cooz-in-his-heyday number. But make no mistake, as a whole, this is a much better passing team than it was a season ago. Part of it because players know that they’re going to get it back if they’re open, which wasn’t always the case last year. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown both look improved in this regard – that Showtime-style 30-foot bounce pass Brown made in the home opener against the Raptors was easily the best pass of his career. I can’t think of anything close, actually, which shouldn’t be a surprise given that he had more turnovers than assists in his first three seasons. It’s also worth noting that Hayward (3.6 assists per game) has really picked up the slack as an initiator, a role that was filled in a different style by Al Horford the past couple of seasons. As those of us that grew up in the Bird Era like to tell you, there’s not much better about basketball than watching a team move the ball willingly and well.
3. Grant Williams’s is no center, but he’s willing to rumble like one, and he’s picked up some of the All The Small Things slack with Horford having taken his high basketball IQ to Philadelphia. He needs to start knocking down perimeter shots sooner rather than later because opposing defenses are all but pointing at the hoop and saying, “Go ahead, shoot it. You’ll definitely make this one. You know you want to. C’mpn Shooooooot,’’ but he strikes me as someone who works to repair his flaws until we forget there was ever a problem. I’m really glad the Celtics have this guy, and any laments that the Celtics ended up with Williams and Carsen Edwards (the shots will fall soon, kid) rather than defensive whiz Matisse Thybulle is a lame second-guess of what would have been a win either way.
4. In a similar regard, give Romeo Langford a chance. He was the consensus No. 5 recruit in the country last year when he went to Indiana, behind the Duke Three (R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish) and North Carolina’s Nassir Little. He played through a hand injury that further messed up a shot that already needed work, yet still had a decent freshman season, averaging 16.5 points per game. He’s worked hard to improve his shot – remember the ping-pong paddle he had attached to his hand during his first workout, ostensibly to improve his form – and he’s a smooth, quick athlete who should grow into being a very good all-around offensive player. Give the kid a chance, and when you can, go watch him tear it up in Portland while everyone else is watching Tacko Fall.
5. I’m not interested in hearing any narratives about how this is Brad Stevens’s kind of team, at least when it’s meant to suggest he’s not capable of coaching superstars and only thrives with overachievers. The fundamental problem with the Celtics last year was that their best player was a selectively engaged teammate who made everyone else miserable, then quit before the season’s final buzzer. Red Auerbach in his heyday couldn’t make that work. In poor, doomed Brooklyn, Kenny Atkinson is finding out early – Kyrie Irving is uncoachable. If anything, it’s a tribute to Stevens that the Irving years actually were pretty fun for a while. He’s a wonderful individual player, and absolute poison to camaraderie.