Photo credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Though there is a crowd that enjoys the budding rivalry between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors, many would like to see a new contender emerge. Peripherally, the Boston Celtics appear to be that team. After dropping their first two games of the season, they have only lost once since, rattling off 16 in a row in the process. There is a lot to like in this team: they’re young, hungry, and currently boast the best defense in the league. However, some underlying factors dictate that their good fortune should not continue to such an extent.
For starters, the Celtics have benefited from some fortunate shooting. Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown have all shot over 40% despite never having been elite or even great shooters in their basketball careers. Horford, a 10-year vet, is shooting 8% above his career average. Tatum, athletic but streaky from deep, is currently 16th in the entire league in three point percentage. Boston will have to find new ways to score once these three cool off.
But who’s to say that Brown and Tatum simply hadn’t developed their shots? Think from the viewpoint of an opposing scout: you have limited footage on these two, Brown is a sophomore and Tatum is a rookie. As you accumulate more tape, you learn their tendencies and idiosyncrasies. An adept coach will interpret these and find new ways to stop them. This isn’t to say that coach Brad Stevens can’t counter-adjust; just that right now, he has a trump card that he won’t have forever.
Another issue that will surely germinate with time is fatigue. Boston’s 5 starters — Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, Brown, Tatum, and Horford — have all played over 30 minutes per night. Adrenaline can only drive a team for so long, and we are not even a quarter of the way through the season. A team like Golden State can get away with it because bench guys like Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and Nick Young would be starters elsewhere. Unfortunately, with Gordon Hayward out for the year, Stevens doesn’t really have a choice.
Ostensibly, it might seem like the Celtics’ youth could stave off these negative effects, but remember that most of these guys played deep into the playoffs last year — including Kyrie for the opposing Cavs — and had short summers. Tatum, though his season ended in March, must adjust to games being 20% longer than in college. A team that relies on defense the way Boston does also exerts more energy than a squad of similar talent but on the offensive end. They’ll certainly be in better shape than an older team would, but the benefits may not be as ample as one might perceive.
Fatigue isn’t the only issue a lack of depth can exasperate. Should the Celtics endure another injury, they’ll be in serious trouble. Terry Rozier and Aron Baynes are capable backups to Irving and Horford, but neither is equipped to handle the grind those two endure. Marcus Morris is the lone guy of starter quality. In the past, championship teams have filled out their rosters with legit talent on the cheap that wanted to win — see: Ray Allen hitting the game-tying three in game 6 to push Miami to the title in 2013. Boston just does not have the cache yet to attract such players.
In order for the Celtics to maximize the usage of the bodies they do have, they will have to continue to take advantage of their positional flexibility, particularly on the wing. Smart, Brown, and Tatum can all play three positions. At least two of them are on the court at virtually all times. This is a blessing for Kyrie, who can solely focus on the offensive end knowing he’ll be bailed out if need be. It also allows the bench guys to guard lesser offensive threats when they’re out together. This is the primary reason their defense is the best in the league; they can mix and match with anyone.
Though this piece has a solemn tone, it is not intended to discount the Celtics. Also, the obvious reality exists that a 16 game winning streak is ultimately unsustainable. If either Brown or Tatum can buoy his hot shooting, the starting lineup will have zero holes. As other teams compress to shorter rotations in the playoffs, Boston will have a leg up with preexisting chemistry, provided their legs aren’t shot by then. Stevens is one of the best coaches in the game going back to his days at Butler; regardless of how the year turns out, nothing will be left on the table.