The Boston Celtics are still working it out

Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images /

Coming into last season, the Boston Celtics were one of the more intriguingly divisive teams in recent memory. Statistical projection systems loved the 2015-16 Celtics, way more than the public at large did. FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO system pegged Boston for 48 wins, while Nylon Calculus’ Highly Plausible Win Projections had them at 49. Meanwhile, the Westgate Superbook set Boston’s initial season over/under at 42.5 wins and ESPN’s Summer Forecast predicted a record of 40-42.

It took a while (Boston started the season 19-19), but eventually the projection systems hit the nail on the head: the Celtics finished with a 48-34 record, in a four-way tie for the third-best mark in the Eastern Conference. Tiebreakers dropped Boston to the No. 5 seed, which meant a matchup with the Atlanta Hawks that looked like it would be one of the most competitive of the first round. Instead, Avery Bradley got injured in Game 1 and the Celtics — after putting up a good fight without their best perimeter defender — bowed out in six games, three of which were blowout losses.

Fast forward a little more than two months, and although it missed out on the big prize (Kevin Durant), the team that had spent the entire post-Pierce era searching for a star on which to hang Brad Stevens’ system finally got its man in the Hawks’ own Al Horford.

Read More: Even John Wall can’t save Washington from itself

Entering the 2016-17 season, the projection systems were more closely aligned with public opinion about the Celtics than they were a year ago, but they actually lagged a little bit behind this time. CARMELO pegged Boston for 47 wins. Highly Plausible Win Projections put them at 48. Meanwhile, the C’s had their initial Westgate Superbook over/under set at 51.5 wins and ESPN’s Summer Forecast predicted a record of 51-31. They were, in many circles, considered more likely to be the primary challenger to the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers’ Eastern Conference Supremacy than the Toronto Raptors, who actually met Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals last May.

A quarter of the way through the season, it’s fair to say the Celtics aren’t quite where we thought they’d be, at least not yet. They’re just a few games over .500 right now, and their point differential says that’s exactly where they should be. They’re scoring at a better clip than at any other point during the Stevens Era (ninth in the NBA in offensive efficiency heading into Wednesday’s game against the Orlando Magic), but their defense has slipped to the bottom half of the league (17th) and they’ve inherited the Hawks’ defensive rebounding issues (28th in defensive rebounding percentage). They’re also on track to repeat last year’s splits of being dynamite against opponents with below .500 records (25-9 a year ago, 8-3 so far this season) and barely average against opponents that are .500 or better (23-25, 4-6).

They look a lot like the team from the early part of last season, just with the offensive and defensive numbers flipped. And you know what: that’s perfectly OK. There are explanations aplenty for the tepid start (see below), and anyway, the NBA season gives time to teams that need it to round themselves into proper playoff contender shape, which is usually the case for any team incorporating a new foundational piece like the Celtics are with Horford.

About those explanations: let’s start with injuries, if only because we don’t actually need to go much further than that.

Boston has been without several key contributors for multiple games at a time: Horford missed three weeks dealing with the lingering effects of a concussion; Jae Crowder, the team’s most versatile wing, sat eight games with an ankle injury; whirling ball of fire Marcus Smart missed the first three games of the year with an ankle issue of his own and has played hobbled in several others; sweet-shooting, surprisingly light-footed forward/center Kelly Olynyk missed the first six recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Add it all up and the Celtics have already used five different starting lineups (and it’ll be six by the time somebody starts in Isaiah Thomas’ place against the Magic on Wednesday), none of them for more than five consecutive games — and that one didn’t include Horford or Crowder.

Their preferred starting five of Isaiah Thomas, Bradley, Crowder, Amir Johnson, and Horford has been on the court together for only 113 minutes across 10 games. And guess what? The Celtics have blasted opponents by 11.3 points per 100 possessions when that group has shared the floor. They’ve scored and defended at a top-five level and they’ve even cleaned the defensive glass at a reasonable rate. The bones of the team many envisioned the Celtics becoming are in place right there. The small-ball group where Smart replaces Johnson in the lineup (and gives Boston the ability to switch across the middle three positions) hasn’t fared well at all — it’s been outscored by a preposterous 31.3 points per 100 in 42 minutes — but they’ve got the rest of the season to get everyone healthy and work out the kinks.

This year’s Celtics squad is different from the last few in more ways than one, but the most notable difference is in the expectations department. Whereas over the last few years, they were expected by many to scratch and claw for a spot in the playoffs, there is a widely-held belief that this year’s version will not just get in, but nab a high seed and be competitive throughout the postseason tournament.

When expectations diverge from reality, pressure often starts to mount — especially in cities like Boston, where fans and media alike are used to the hometown team meeting high expectations and more. It can be tempting, even early, to sniff out the disappointment. But the thing about increased expectations is that there’s usually an impetus for them. Boston really does have more talent than at any point in the Stevens Era, and if and when it that talent coalesces together, the expectation should be that the team can give anyone a tough playoff series.

If it takes time for this group to reach that point, it’s totally fine. The “it’ll take them a while to mesh” conversation is typically reserved for super-teams so nobody gets ahead of themselves and expects a run at 70-plus wins, but it applies to pseudo-contenders like Boston, too. For now, time is still on the Celtics’ side.