The Celtics – losers of four of their last five games and 10 of 15 – have been playing an annoying brand of basketball lately, the kind that makes a fan want to sucker-punch the panic button and trade everyone whose first name doesn’t begin with J for Andre Drummond.
Go ahead, be annoyed. They’ve earned that, with play that is too often disjointed when it isn’t downright lethargic. But don’t root for a transaction for the sake of a transaction. Even with a 13-13 record, which should embarrass them, they’re still just a half-game out of the No. 4 seed and 4.5 games out of the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
This is repairable, and despite what we saw over the lost weekend, I trust it will be repaired. Here’s what needs to happen …
Jayson Tatum needs to be their best offensive player, not just the best scorer.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue to say it: Of every move Danny Ainge has made since breaking up the New Big Three, the two moves that have worked out the best have been the two most important: Getting it right with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum with the No. 3 pick in consecutive drafts. If some of you had your way, the Celtics would have had a Kris Dunn/Markelle Fultz backcourt, and you know who you are.
There’s so much to like about Tatum. He’s an elite scorer, a hard worker, a conscientious defensive player on most nights. He prioritizes winning, even if he has that young Paul Pierce belief that the best route to victory is when he looks for his own shot at the expense of everything else. The offense can go stagnant when he gets into that exasperating mode where he uses his more elaborate moves to try to get his own game going, at the expense of ball movement. Too often, Jaylen Brown, their best player, is relegated to bystander status when Tatum and Kemba Walker (who must, and I believe does, realize he’s option No. 3 in the pecking order now) are all sharing the court.
We’ll give Tatum a mulligan for moping and failing to get back on defense against the Wizards – he let the frustration of buddy Bradley Beal getting the best of him affect his attitude — but that can’t become a habit. And he might find that he’ll get a few more breaks from the officials if he would just stop grousing every … single … time. He’s about to blow past Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge on the Celtics’ all-time leaderboard in complaining about calls.
They need the full roster healthy for once.
There are no excuses for some of what has ailed the Celtics, such as when a lack of defensive commitment leads to lazy fouls. But there are other times when legitimate reasons for their struggles are shrugged off as excuses, and that’s not right.
Do you know how many possessions, per the NBA analytics site cleaningtheglass.com, the Celtics’ best five players (Tatum, Brown, Walker, Marcus Smart, Daniel Theis) have played together this season? Forty-four. They’ve been on the court together for 44 possessions. That’s it. Sub Tristan Thompson into that lineup for Smart, and that group has played 59 possessions together, or roughly a half-game’s worth. That is no way to build continuity or consistency.
The Celtics can’t afford to rush Smart back from his calf injury – the last thing they need is him reinjuring it later in the season – but he has been missed in a bunch of different ways, especially with Walker still finding his sea legs.
Smart is their conscience when it comes to effort, and we too often dwell on his erratic shooting while ignoring that he’s their craftiest playmaker. Admit it: You miss him. The Celtics sure do.
Play the young players with upside and endure the mistakes.
I get why Brad Stevens has been using so many players and combinations. It’s obvious: He’s looking to catch lightning in a bottle from his flawed bench on a given night.
Sometimes he has, such as when Carsen Edwards scored 16 points in the win over the Clippers on Feb. 5, or when Semi Ojeleye dropped 24 in a win over the Raptors six days later. But he can’t keep searching for the quasi-hot hand at the expense of giving the Celtics’ most promising young players consistent time. (I’m excluding Payton Pritchard, who already sits at the varsity table.)
I would much rather watch Robert Williams, who changes shots on one end and gets easy buckets on the other, make a few silly mistakes for 25 minutes a night then watch those minutes go to Tristan Thompson, who knows what to do but can’t always get there to do it anymore. Aaron Nesmith’s confidence, and then his shot, would benefit from consistent usage, even if it’s for only 10-12 minutes a game. He played 16 total minutes over the previous eight games before playing 29 against the Wizards.
Williams and Nesmith are raw, but they have the most pure talent of the Celtics’ bench brigade beyond Pritchard. The Celtics would benefit in the long run by playing them now over more consistent mediocrities. I’d include Romeo Langford here too, if he ever gets back on the court.
Get the right player (or players) with the trade exception.
You know who would be a perfect fit for what they need, don’t you? Gordon Hayward. Can’t blame him for leaving – his stellar play with the Hornets supports his belief that he was worthy of higher usage than he got with the Celtics after Tatum and Brown emerged. But he’s missed, especially his crafty, never-hurried playmaking.
They miss Hayward’s size, too – because of his finesse game, it was easy to forget that he is 6-foot-8 and strong. Hayward may not have enjoyed his role, but he was excellent at it, at least when he was healthy.
Oh well, at least they have the $28 million trade exception the Hornets sent the Celtics way to try to replace him.
Who should Danny Ainge pursue?
I’m partial to the Harrison Barnes idea – he’s a skilled, well-rounded player and respected locker-room presence who won’t be bothered by Tatum and Brown getting more shots. The Kings’ 12-14 record is just a game worse than the Celtics’, but they’re in 11th place in the Western Conference, so perhaps they’d be inspired to move him if their fortunes don’t improve.
Barnes would draw unwelcome comparisons to Jeff Green on his bad nights, but he would provide some of what the Celtics need. But what they mostly need is the players they already have to shake out of their lethargy.
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