After losing two straight games to the Eastern Conference’s bottom two teams, the Celtics were able to get off the schneid Tuesday night, defeating the Nuggets 112-99. However, they’ve still lost more than they’ve won over the last month.
Boston is 6-10 over its last 16 games, giving the Celtics a 14-13 record on the season. The Celtics’ struggles have been one of the top storylines in the NBA considering the hopes they had entering the season plus last season’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
NBA reporters and analysts have observed and assessed the issues with the Celtics lately, which started around the time Jayson Tatum missed five games due to COVID-19.
“I know that Brad Stevens acknowledges that Jayson Tatum’s struggling, but he’s actually played him more minutes since he came back from being out from COVID,” Windhorst said. “That’s because they don’t have any depth. Marcus Smart is out. They didn’t find any way to replace Gordon Hayward. They’ve had some other injuries. Kemba Walker doesn’t play back-to-backs because of injuries. Walker’s backup, Jeff Teague, has shot the ball so poorly he’s been taken out of the rotation.”
The Athletic’s John Hollinger came to a similar assessment as Windhorst. In looking at the numbers, Hollinger noted that the Celtics are outscoring their opponents by 8.9 points per 100 possessions in which Tatum and Jaylen Brown are on the court together.
There’s a noticeable difference when just one of Brown or Tatum is off the court. The Celtics are outscored by one point per every 100 possessions when Brown is off the court. It’s even worse for the Celtics without Tatum. They’re outscored by 5.3 points per 100 possessions when Tatum’s not on the floor. Boston’s offensive rating also drops from 114.9 points per 100 possessions with Tatum on the court to 107.3 points per 100 possessions with Tatum off the court.
“Zooming back out to the big picture,” Hollinger wrote. “Boston’s supporting cast issue basically boils down to two things, both of which are possibly fixable: Kemba Walker isn’t Kemba Walker, at least yet. The bench is bad.”
Hollinger questioned some of the Celtics’ past decisions that led to this point, such as signing Tristan Thompson to a two-year, $19 million contract and reportedly hard balling the Pacers in a sign-and-trade for Gordon Hayward.
“What’s left now is ghastly badness,” Hollinger wrote of the Celtics’ bench. “Boston’s two veteran free agents, Tristan Thompson and Jeff Teague, have both been crushing disappointments. Backup forwards Grant Williams and Semi Ojeleye are birds of a feather as strong, useful defenders in small doses whose severe offensive limitations become exposed rather quickly in more prominent roles. Lottery pick Aaron Nesmith was supposed to provide a grip-it-and-rip-it 3-point weapon but has proved unready to say the least. Late first-rounder Payton Pritchard has been the only reserve to deliver satisfactory rotation-caliber play.”
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix pointed blame at Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge for the current state of the roster.
“‘Trader Danny'” has made some big deals in his nearly two decades with Boston, perhaps none bigger than the 2013 heist of Brooklyn that brought back the draft capital that eventually landed Brown and Tatum,” Mannix wrote. “But in recent years Ainge has talked about more trades than he has executed. The Celtics kicked the tires on Kawhi Leonard. They were heavily involved in talks with New Orleans for Anthony Davis. Armed with young players and Brooklyn’s picks, Boston seemed to be in the mix for everyone.
“But they never pulled the trigger.”
All three came to the same conclusion as to what the Celtics need to do: make a move for someone, anyone.
“The Celtics really need bodies,” Windhorst said. “Not only do they need their stars to play better, they need some depth. It almost calls to question whether this team, which almost never looks to make midseason moves, will make a midseason trade to bolster that depth and try to get Jayson Tatum some rest.”
Luckily for Boston, it has some things in the asset cupboard if it desires to make a trade. The Celtics have five players who have all been selected in the first round over the last three NBA Drafts. While they don’t hold anyone else’s first-round picks anymore, they still have all of theirs for the foreseeable future. The Celtics also have tradeable contracts in Thompson and Daniel Theis to help facilitate a move.
Arguably their biggest asset though is the $28.5 million trade exception they acquired from the Hornets for Hayward. The exception allows the Celtics to essentially acquire anyone making $28.5 million or less this season, which is all but 31 players in the league. Their only issue is that they’re roughly $19.5 million under the tax apron, which they can’t go over.
Hollinger threw out some potential names for the Celtics to trade for. He thinks Thunder guard George Hill, Kings center Nemanja Bjelica, Bulls forward Thaddeus Young, or even former Celtic Al Horford would all be good adds for Boston.
“They have to do something,” Hollinger wrote. “For some teams, midseason trades are optional; on this Boston squad, it seems mandatory. The supporting cast just isn’t good enough, and “playing harder” likely is a relatively minor part of the solution.”
NBC Sports Boston’s Chris Forsberg threw some more names out there that the Celtics could acquire with the trade exception. Forsberg looked at bigger names such as Kings forward Harrison Barnes, Magic center Nikola Vucevic, Magic forward Aaron Gordon, and Pistons forward Jerami Grant for the top players the Celtics should target with the exception.
“Barnes checks all the boxes for Boston,” Forsberg wrote of Barnes, who he says should be the No. 1 target for the Celtics. “He’s got size (6-8), he’s got shooting (38.8 percent on 3s this season), he’s got defensive versatility, and he knows what it’s like to be a third or fourth option on a championship team.”
If the Celtics want to make a trade, they have just a little more than a month to do so. The NBA’s Trade Deadline is on March 25. They also still await the return of Marcus Smart, who’s been out since Jan. 30 due to a calf strain.
Luckily for Boston, its top Eastern Conference rivals haven’t done much to get further ahead in the standings. As of Wednesday afternoon, the Celtics hold the fourth seed in the conference and are just 3.5 games out of first place.
Get Boston.com's browser alerts:
Enable breaking news notifications straight to your internet browser.