The Celtics at Midseason: an Underperforming Team Looking Towards Playoffs

Alex Bingham, Contributing Writer

The NBA all-star break and trade deadline have come and gone, and the Celtics have found themselves in an unfamiliar position with a winning percentage hovering around .500. A string of injuries and COVID-19 cases among many of Boston’s stars certainly haven’t helped but several prominent storylines have emerged part way through the season. 

 

Issues with the bigs improve, but still linger:

Since Al Horford left Boston several free agencies ago, the Celtics have struggled to replicate his production and defensive value in the lineup. Coming into the year, Boston was rolling with the duo of Tristan Thompson and Daniel Theis in the starting lineup. As the season went on, third year pro Robert Williams III made his presence on the team, earning himself a starting spot in recent weeks. The long and athletic Williams was originally known as an occasional lob finisher and shot blocker, who struggled to add more to his game. However, throughout the season, Williams has shown noticeable increases in defensive IQ and footwork which allowed him to better use his natural talent and length, in order to be a disruptive presence at the rim. Williams has also added to his offensive game by improving his passing ability, which has created numerous opportunities for Boston’s stars through kick out opportunities and facilitating from the pick and roll. Arguably his best trait is his ability as a lob finisher and rim runner. While he may not be a great shooter, his ability to throw down a lob at any given moment lends Boston’s offense a great element of vertical spacing. His development has made Daniel Theis expendable, to save room under the luxury tax threshold. Despite the improvement of Williams, Boston still lacks someone who can reliably guard elite opposing bigs. This becomes a major issue against teams like the 76ers with Joel Embiid, which could be a possible reason why the Celtics bow out in the postseason. 

 

Evan Fournier looks to plug a hole:

Most people, myself included, underestimated the struggles the Celtics would face finding scoring off the bench after Gordon Hayward left in free agency. While the trio of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker can certainly carry the offense as they have done at times this year, once one or two of them started to struggle, the Celtics didn’t have many other options to provide a scoring boost. At the deadline, General Manager Danny Ainge used part of the trade exception from Gordon Hayward for his replacement, Evan Fournier. Fournier averages around 20 points per game, while shooting about 40% from deep. While it is too soon to judge Fournier from his action on the Celtics thus far, he seems to be the perfect man to fix the lack of scoring output on the bench that has plagued the Celtics since last year’s playoff loss to the Miami Heat. Additionally, there is a chance that second year pro Romeo Langford can provide some added depth at wing, now that he has returned from a lengthy rehab for a hamstring injury. 

 

Jeff Teague flames out, but Payton Pritchard plays well:

After exchanging Brad Wanamaker for Jeff Teague, Teague was expected to contribute well as the backup point guard in Boston, especially with Kemba Walker suffering a knee injury that sidelined him for the first several weeks of the season. However, Teague failed to make the most of his opportunity, eventually leading to his release. Instead 26th overall selection, Payton Pritchard burst onto the scene, showcasing his shooting ability and grit that has been a pleasant surprise for the many Celtics fans that preferred other options such as Desmond Bane or Tyrell Terry over Pritchard. 

 

Jaylen Brown continues his impressive development:

As the third overall pick in the 2016 draft class, Brown was mostly known for his tough defense and hard nosed drives to the basket. As his career advanced, so did his outside game. He first began to emerge as a star in the 2019-2020 season, when his improved jump shot and scoring moves led him to 20+ points per game and a near all-star game appearance. This year, Brown was hot right out of the gate, showcasing incredible confidence in his pull-up three pointer and myriad scoring moves which fuse nicely with his athletic ability to give him 24.1 points per game and an all-star appearance thus far in the season. Brown’s emergence gives Boston two future superstar players with him and Jayson Tatum.