BOSTON — On Sunday, fresh off a laugher of a loss to the cellar-dwelling Wizards, Kemba Walker acknowledged the obvious: The Celtics had hit rock bottom.
“It's not a great feeling, the way we're playing,” Walker deadpanned. “It can't get no worse than this. So, we're going to fix it for sure.”
Boston bounced back on Tuesday, surviving a 43-point outburst from Nikola Jokić to outlast the Nuggets. It ended, temporarily, a stretch that saw the Celtics lose seven of their last 10, and 10 of their last 15, and sink to .500 for the first time since the opening week of the season.
Diagnosing Boston’s problems doesn’t require a basketball doctorate. Injuries have hurt. The Celtics core four—Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart—have played just 28 minutes together. Tatum was sidelined for a couple of weeks with COVID-19—the remnants of which, he admitted on Tuesday, he is still dealing with. Walker missed the first month of the season and has struggled to find consistency—as well as chemistry with his teammates.
But the issues run deeper. The Celtics are top heavy. Tatum is a budding superstar. Brown is a notch below—and closing. Both should be All-Stars next month. I voted Brown in as a starter. Walker has struggled—that 36.3% shooting percentage is particularly gruesome—but as long as the knee holds up, he should figure it out.
The problems are everywhere else. Daniel Theis has been fine. Payton Pritchard has been a revelation. But Jeff Teague has been awful (32% from the floor) and Tristan Thompson has not provided the interior oomph we saw in Cleveland. Grant Williams is unreliable. Aaron Nesmith isn’t ready. Romeo Langford has been MIA. Gordon Hayward was uneven during his three years in Boston but the Celtics clearly miss him.
The roster falls on Danny Ainge, the Celtics president, who took responsibility for its flaws in an interview with the Boston Globe this week. Ainge said the team needed to play with more urgency, that sometimes players “don’t realize how hard winning is every night.”
“Just changing faces doesn’t always change things,” Ainge said, “but it may have to come to that.”
Indeed. “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. 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. Last fall, with Hayward eyeing an exit, the Celtics discussed a sign-and-trade with Indiana. The Pacers were reportedly willing to part with Myles Turner and Doug McDermott. The Celtics wanted T.J. Warren or Victor Oladipo. Ultimately, Hayward took a four-year, $120 million offer from Charlotte. “We pursued as hard as we possibly could,” Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard told reporters in November. “It can't come at a cost so debilitating that it doesn't make sense.”
Did Boston overplay its hand? Sure looks like it now. While Thompson and Teague have struggled, Turner is having another steady season. He leads the league in blocked shots, anchoring Indiana’s top-10 defense. McDermott, meanwhile, is averaging 13.3 points and shooting 36% from three.
Think this Boston team couldn’t use players like that?
Ainge is still armed with assets: Boston picked up a $28.5 million trade exception from Charlotte in the Hayward sign-and-trade, and while the Nets' picks are long gone, the Celtics still have all of their own. Ainge said Boston is looking for “shooting with size” on the trade market—basically what every team is looking for—and he will have the pieces to make a play for it.
Does that mean J.J. Redick? The Pelicans guard is available, and after erratic shooting start Redick has canned 51% of his three’s in February. Does that mean Andre Drummond? There’s been different levels of interest in Drummond from Boston’s front office in recent years. Drummond doesn’t solve any shooting woes, but he’s a rounding machine. Al Horford, the ex-Celtic who is having a strong bounce-back season in Oklahoma City, is an intriguing fit.
Bottom line—it has to be somebody. Ainge can’t afford to let the exception expire next fall. It has value next summer, in free agency, and the Celtics could even attempt to split it between now and then. But it’s too valuable not to use now. The conference is wide open. Anthony Davis’s injury issues have made some around the league believe the title chase has opened up. As ugly as the last few weeks have been, Boston could be a player away from joining it.
Until then, the Celtics will attempt to build on the win over Denver. After totaling 29 assists in the previous two games, Boston handed out 26 against the Nuggets. Brad Stevens has harped on ball movement lately—and this is where we note that any discussion of scapegoating Stevens, who has steered the Celtics to three conference finals in the last four years, midway through an injury riddled bizarro season is a waste of digital ink—and the Celtics will need to engineer more playmaking with Hayward gone and Walker still working his way back. Nesmith (team-high plus-20) gave Boston a spark while Robert Williams (eight points, eight rebounds, five steals) stuffed the stat sheet off the bench.
After the game, the disgust at the team’s recent play was palpable. “I just feel like we got sick of it,” Williams said. It was a good sign. Perhaps Boston has turned a corner. But if anything has been learned in the early months of the season, to win a championship, these Celtics need more.