Top 5 Boston Celtic Nightmares
As we saw Cleveland even the Eastern Conference Finals with Boston, the question is not whether Boston will lose this series — I still believe they will win game 7 off an Aaron Baynes 3-pointer set up by an illegal screen:
No, the real question is what is Boston’s future ceiling? While the denizens of TD Garden fantasize about the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, here are five nightmare scenarios that may mark this postseason as Boston’s best and only opportunity to reach an NBA Final over the next ten years.
Nightmare on Legends Way #1: the glass is already full
Kyrie Irving is a transcendent offensive talent and a guy who can score on anyone. He was having a terrific year for the Celtics, almost matching his last year with the Cavs.
But here’s the crazy thing. What started out as a joke (to me) that the team might be better with Terry Rozier demands a closer look. If we look at their record after that crazy 16-game win streak (where Boston came back from double digit deficits to squeak out close wins against Atlanta, Charlotte, Toronto, Golden State and Dallas), Boston was 26–17 (60.4%)
The team’s win-loss record without Irving this year was 13–8 (61.9%).
On offense, Irving averaged 24.4 pts, 3.7 reb, 5.7 ast, and 2.3 to, while shooting 40.8% beyond the arc.
In the playoffs, Terry Rozier is averaging 17.7 pts, 5.4 reb, 5.4 ast, and 1.3 to (wow!), while shooting 36.9% on 3-pointers. But he’s only attempting 13.7 shots per game, while Irving averaged 18.1 shots per game.
Those 4.4 shots ended up going to Jaylen Brown, (averaging 2.2 more shots per game and 3.4 more points in the playoffs than he did during the regular season, while shooting 43.2% on 3-pointers), and to Jayson Tatum, (averaging 3.1 more shots and 4.2 more points per game than he did during the regular season, while shooting only 31.5% on 3-pointers).
Next, we have to look at Gordon Hayward’s offensive prowess. He’s a very solid and smart all-around player. Let’s play the Bill Simmons guess-the-stats game. Here are three sets of stats:
15.6 pts, 4.2 reb, 3.4 ast, 2.0 to, .368 3P%, .820 FT%
17.3 pts, 4.9 reb, 1.4 ast, 1.4 to, .432 3P%, .576 FT%
18.1 pts, 4.3 reb, 2.9 ast, 2.1 to, .315 3P%, .831 FT%
Which one of these players is going to lead Boston to the promised land?
If you can’t decide, it just shows how little Hayward is going to add as a starter (BTW, his career averages are listed first, followed by Brown’s and Tatum’s playoff averages in that order).
We also have to consider defense.
Boston had the #1 defense in the NBA with a 101.5 rating. In spite of Kyrie Irving’s defensive improvement in Brad Stevens’ system, his defensive player rating this season was 103.4. In other words, he was a downward drag of +2.9 on the overall team defense. Rozier’s defensive rating was 101.0, so he helped improve the team’s defensive rating (-0.5).
During Gordon Hayward’s last season with Utah, he had a defensive rating of 102.4, which was -0.3 compared to the team defensive rating of 102.7.
When he comes on the court, whose minutes does he take? Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown both had a 100.3 defensive rating, so each player improved the team’s defensive rating a lot more than Hayward did (-1.2). And from an eye test, the young guys are faster and more athletic than their 28-year-old counterpart who will be recovering from that gruesome injury next year.
Do either of these veterans actually raise the team’s ceiling?
For this year, the only real difference I see is that the youngsters are taking their lumps in their playoff road games, while I believe Irving’s offense would not be affected the same way. But after gaining the experience from between 18 and 26 playoff games this postseason, it’s not hard to imagine the young guys will be even better, especially Tatum (age 20) and Brown (age 21).
Going forward, I see Tatum and Brown as the best players on the Celtics, working on rookie contracts ($4–5 million), while Irving, Hayward and Horford will make a combined $76.2 million dollars next year.
No matter how good a coach Brad Stevens is, and how nice Brown and Tatum are as people, there’s no way that the current and future stars of the team will be happy to lose playing minutes and watch overpaid veterans provide no noticeable upside to the team.
I don’t believe that the extra depth Irving and Hayward provide will be enough to beat an elite Western team, but here’s the worst thing. That superior depth may not be enough to beat an elite Eastern team, which leads to the next nightmare.
Nightmare on Legends Way #2: the two-headed beasts in the East
If I were a Celtics’ fan, nothing scares me more than the thought of Joel Embiid actually starting next season in shape, along with Ben Simmons being able to hit a jump shot from the free throw line. Philadelphia played some horrific basketball in their series against Boston, losing three games they could have just as easily won. If Brad Stevens were coaching the 76ers, they would have won the series by the same margin.
As Philadelphia’s two young stars continue to improve, they will be the two best players on the court, but without the inexperience and fatal flaws in their game that Brad Stevens was able to exploit. The Celtics just don’t have a fifth gear to compete with these two beasts.
As a Celtics’ fan there is another two-headed beast to fear, and it resides in Milwaukee (which took Boston to 7 games in spite of having a coach in training wheels). Now imagine Giannis and Middleton and all those tall defenders being coached by Popovich-lite, Mike Budenholzer. He’s the guy who took Al Horford, and a bunch of non-superstars to a 60–22 record and the Eastern Conference Finals. Suddenly, the East is looking a lot more scary.
Nightmare on Legends Way #3: Marcus Smart gets tempted
Marcus Smart is not the best player on the Celtics. He is such a bad shooter, he makes Lonzo Ball look like he knows what he’s doing. (Actually there were seven players how failed to shoot above 30% on 3-pointers this season, including Westbrook. Smart and Draymond Green shot .301, while Ball was a mighty .305).
But for some reason, this guy is the heart and soul of these Celtics. He’s the best defender, the toughest guy, and he has the irrational confidence to make the biggest play in the game, whether it’s as a defender, passer, or shooter.
If he ever learns to shoot below league average (33–34%) from beyond the arc, he is basically this generation’s Metta World Peace-lite (Smart is 3 inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter).
And I mean that as a compliment. You Celtic fans may remember who really won game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals:
“And he passed me the ball.. and he never passes me the ball… Kobe passed me the ball! and Phil didn’t want me to shoot the three. I heard him, cuz he’s the Zen Master so he can speak to you, without… he can speak to you without a microphone and you can hear him in your head, ‘Ron, don’t shoot, don’t shoot…’ I said ‘whatever… [shoots] three!’”
But what happens if the Celtics’ Mr Irrational decides he should really be a starter? And what if some team comes with some buckets of money (even if it’s only to screw with Boston’s cap space)?
Smart is the one guy who makes the Celtics over achieve. When he didn’t play, the Celtics were 15–11 (57.6%). I wasn’t surprised when losing players like Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Isaish Thomas didn’t hurt the Celtics this year. I don’t think the same can will be said if Smart doesn’t stay with the Celtics.
Nightmare on Legends Way #4: Danny Ainge swings and misses
Up to now Danny Ainge has been a master in fleecing other franchises for key assets. While it didn’t hurt to have his former teammate and buddy Kevin McHale destroy Minnesota for a decade by giving away Kevin Garnett, the Celtics were set up for a decade with the Brooklyn heists that sent the corpses of Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn for a billion draft picks. And the swap with Philly will go down as another all-time swindle, unless Markell Fultz becomes a better player than Jayson Tatum. And even then, the cost might still not be worth the extra first round draft pick the Celtics picked up.
But all those assets have to turn into something. And so far, the results are mixed, at best. Ainge picked up two All-Star level players in Irving and Hayward, but neither one fills the role of being the best guy on a championship team. Irving proved he could be the second option when he and Lebron won in 2016, but I don’t see him being the guy (as described above). The other thing is, if you can be the transcendent star who can be the best player on the floor, can you at least be the guy who can slow down or stop the best guy on the floor?
Until we find out otherwise, all roads still lead through Lebron James. Over the last seven years, only a few teams have had a guy who could counter balance the greatest player in the game: Nowitzki, Leonard, Curry, and Durant (with Paul George coming very close). Boston could have gotten Paul George last year, but didn’t. If they lose again this year, people may look back and say that Paul George was the missing piece in 2017 that could have made the difference.
Instead, Celtics fans get to watch in horror as Lebron harasser Marcus Morris gives up layup after layup.
Moving forward, the only way up involves getting a two-way superstar (sorry Kyrie). Given the time it takes to develop young players, and the salary cap, I don’t think the Celtics can afford to wait until Brown and Tatum become max players in 3–4 years. There’s a short list of free agents over the next two years that could push the Celtics past Lebron going forward, and also keep pace with the Bucks and the 76ers: Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Klay Thompson. If Ainge can’t get one of these special players, Boston will never break through over the next three years, after which they will be locked in to too many big contracts to add major pieces.
Nightmare on Legends Way #5: Illegal screens finally become illegal
This is the least likely scenario to happen in the future, but it must send chills down Celtics fans. The last few years have seen the Celtics carry on in Kevin Garnett’s finest fashion: manuevering, guiding, colliding, tripping, hip checking and doing pretty much anything to any opposing defender to get someone an open 3-pointer. Here’s my favorite play of the year at 1:41, featuring Daniel Theis as a pulling guard getting out in front of a sweep, or perhaps an Austrailian collie sherperding a sheep.
The screen actually starts above the top of the key at the 3-point line and ends with a befuddled Laker turning around at the free throw line to see a wide open Terry Rozier shoot a 3-pointer some ten feet away. The only explanation is that the referee actually thought the Laker guard decided it’s a better idea to guard the guy who doesn’t have the ball.
If there is one thing the basketball talking heads never mention in these series is the effect of certain players and home courts on the referees. We all know that superstars get the calls.
But when a team’s number one strength is its defense and physicality like the Celtics, the difference in the calls is a big reason why Cleveland is back in the series. In the two games at the Q, when Boston’s Baynes pushed Tristan Thompson in the back under the boards, he got called for fouls, instead of second chance points. This helped Cleveland out rebound Boston by 12 in game 3 (38–34 advantage in points in the paint) and 10 in game 4, (50–38 advantage in points in the paint).
Those numbers were reversed in Boston, with Boston outrebounding Cleveland by 7 in game 1, (60–38 advantage in points in the paint), and getting 11 offensive rebounds in game 2 (Cleveland did have 3 more total rebounds), with a 50–42 advantage in points in the paint.
Going forward, Boston better come up with the goods in the next two games, because it’s scary to consider the refs denying Lebron as he bullies his way to the rim in a game 7.
Bonus Nightmare: Destination, Hollywood!
In 2020, Anthony Davis will join Paul George, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle, and Josh Hart to challenge the now aging Warriors, and continue to torture Celtics fans.