A Breakdown of the Celtics Struggles this Season

The Boston Celtics, as of the writing of this article, currently sit with a record of 46-32 (on pace for a 48-win season) and as fourth or fifth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff run. The Celtics currently tote a record worse than the Clippers, a team who sport a Danilo Gallinari-Lou Williams tandem as their best players. Coming into this season many fans, NBA experts, and news outlets predicted the Celtics to sport the best record in the Eastern Conference, make the Finals, and give the Golden State Warriors a reasonable challenge.

Unfortunately for Boston fans or anyone else believing in their squad, the Celtics have been a lackluster version of what was expected. Kyrie Irving, while having a good season, looks disinterested and unmotivated, Gordon Hayward looks like a shell of the up-and-coming all-star he was two years ago, and promising young players such as Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier have all either plateaued from last year or regressed to an extent. Today I intend to explain how this team went from Kyrie proudly proclaiming to NBA TV in September, “Boston is the place for me”, to deflecting questions on free agency, giving ever-vague and cryptic quotes, and this team possibly attaining a 2nd round exit at best.

Before getting into all the negatives surrounding Boston, it would only be fair to discuss some of the positives they’ve had this season. As a whole the team has excelled in a few areas. The Celtics have the 5th best 3-point percentage of anyone in the league, they are 4th highest in steals per game, and 6th in assists per game. These are the high points for this team this season, nothing spectacular, but they have notable strengths at shooting and defense specifically. They sport the 9th best offense in the league, the 7th best defense, and on paper have arguably more talent than any other team besides the Warriors, so what’s the problem? It seems to all boil down to chemistry for this team, specifically on offense. While defense takes immense coordination as well, offense arguably takes more, relying on players to be able to go with the flow of the game plan and play well off of each other. This is what the Celtics lack, the ability to play well with one another.

Below I’ve put some basic individual stats for the Celtics during last year’s playoff run and the current 2018-19 season. Not all 15 players from each time are listed, I only included players seeing significant rotation minutes. I also used the 2018 playoff roster because the playoffs are the most significant sample of any stretch last season. (Note: All statistics were retrieved via Basketball Reference’s website)

2017-18 Playoffs Individual Player Statistics:

2018-19 Season Individual Player Statistics:

There are a few things that immediately stick out while observing these statistics, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart have all seen significant decreases in their shots per game. Terry has gone from 14 down to about nine, with Brown going from 15 to 11, and Smart going from almost 10 to seven. This has directly correlated with the usage rate decreasing for each player. In case anyone is unfamiliar with usage rate, it’s essentially a measure of how much a team’s offense is run through an individual player. While this decrease has negatively impacted both Rozier and Brown’s shooting percentage and Brown’s 3-point percentage, (going from 39% to 34%), Marcus Smart is actually setting career bests in shooting this season. The explanation for the poor shooting is that certain players on this Celtics team, specifically Rozier, Brown, Tatum, Hayward, and Irving, are what could be called “shot creators”. They thrive on offense when they are given the ball and told to create a play, shot for themselves, or shot opportunity for someone else. Either way, they get the ball in their hands and get to control the offense.

Last year in the playoffs Rozier, Brown, and Tatum all got the opportunity to run the show with Kyrie out. All three seemed to thrive with more chances to handle the ball. Kyrie has always been a shot creator, and Hayward was as well when in Utah. One of the biggest reasons the Celtics have struggled this season is because everyone of these “shot creators” (besides Kyrie) has had to learn how to play differently. Because each player plays best on-ball, as opposed to off-ball, Kyrie returning has led to the three youngsters (Tatum, Rozier, and Brown) all having to adjust their games to be cohesive. Because of injuries last year and the emergence of these young players, the Celtics lacked a pecking order going into the season. Clearly it’s Kyrie at the top, but then who? Going into the season Brown, Tatum, and Hayward all had a legitimate case to be second.

Focusing in on Hayward, he has been a significant cause for the dysfunction of the Boston offense this season. Going into the season, everyone hoped for the best and that Hayward would return to all-star form after his gruesome injury. He hasn’t come close, and Boston has learned the hard way. The Celtics initially started Hayward, but he began to struggle because he was forced to play off-ball for really the first time in his career. The Celtics transitioned him to the bench once it was clear he wasn’t at his former star player level, hoping leading the second unit would allow him to be more ball dominant and comfortable.

Having been relegated to a sixth/seventh man role he’s never known, Hayward is still struggling. The Celtics seem to be trying to make him a sort of Kyle Korver sharp shooter now. 37% of Hayward’s shots are 3-point attempts, that’s the highest of his career. He’s also shooting 33% from three, his second worst 3-point percentage of his career. It’s clear the Celtics haven’t really known what to do with Hayward this season, at times urging him to be more ball dominant, only to tell him later to become a catch-and-shoot player. These confusing mixed messages haven’t helped him regain his form and sadly he isn’t the player he used to be.

As I mentioned previously with Marcus Smart, there are some players on Boston who have met or exceeded expectations this year. Aron Baynes and Al Horford have achieved what was expected of them this year, while Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris have exceeded their expectations. Smart is setting career highs in field goal percentage (42%) and 3-point percentage (36%). Marcus Morris is having a career season, setting career highs in points per game (14.8), field goal percentage (46%), free throw percentage (83%), rebounds (6.2), and his second highest 3-point percentage (38%). Why have players such as Baynes, Horford, Smart, and Morris been able to play well this year? None of them is ball dominant or needs to initiate the offense to be most effective. Baynes isn’t on the court to score, but if he does it’s primarily through put-backs or the occasional pick and roll. Horford gets points or helps facilitate in any way he’s needed, Marcus Smart has bought into being a spot-up shooter (61% of his shots have been three’s this season), and Marcus Morris has been ignoring distractions and playing more focused than he has in the past.

Going into the season, a starting lineup that featured three all-stars in Hayward, Irving, and Horford, along with two potential future all-stars in the promising Brown and Tatum seemed like a guaranteed recipe for success. As it stands though, the Boston Celtics are a dysfunctional, unhappy team this year. They’re falling short of expectations thus far and are disappointing fans and sports pundits alike. Despite this, if they do miraculously pull things together and somehow make it to the Eastern Conference Finals or NBA finals, I, for one, will be impressed. Tell me if you’ve heard this before: a hyper-talented Eastern Conference team that isn’t taking the regular season seriously, thinks they can flip the switch, and will be facing talented, yet unproven, teams in the playoffs. They feature a moody star who is prone to fits and cryptic quotes… That’s right people, if you thought you were going to miss the LeBron drama in the playoffs this year, fear not, we’ve got the Celtics.

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