by Fox Doucette
Talk about “no respect.”
The Celtics were the No. 1 seed in the East last year, they added Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving in the offseason, and I’ve yet to see a Twitter pundit who wasn’t from Boston who’s predicting them to make the Finals. It seems like everyone thinks Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder are going to put LeBron back in the catbird seat, and some folks are even suggesting that the Wizards or Raptors are going to grab the No. 2 spot this year.
That might just be absurd.
Irving’s been waiting three years now for the chance to show how he’s matured as a primary scorer from the ballhandler’s position, and Hayward is only underrated because he played in a place where nobody in the national media’s paid attention to the team since John Stockton and Karl Malone were still in their prime.
But we don’t rely on the eye test here, oh no. This is a proper, civilized analytics site. So let’s break down the numbers and then we’ll decide at the end who’s making the Finals out of the East.
2016-17 record: 53-29
2018 over/under: 54.5
Gordon, Gordon, Put Us In Stitches
What, nobody else still has this stuck in their head 30 years later?
But hot damn, what a get for the Celtics. They got a plus defender (106 Defensive Rating and a neutral DBPM), a guy who just put up the best True Shooting mark (.599) of his career, a .199 WS/48 guy who’s added nearly 11 VORP in the past three years, and a first-time All-Star.
Plus, he goes back to his days at Butler with the coach. And he’s 27. Hayward is going to be a big deal this season. He’s a genuine superstar-caliber player.
I have not been much more wrong in my career as a writer as when I dismissed Irving during the 2015-16 season as a good-stats-bad-team gunner who was only making noise because he had LeBron on his team.
For one thing, he was a big damn hero during the 2016 Finals, not only adding offensive heroics of his own but shutting down Steph Curry and making the Warriors’ offense a non-factor in Game 7. For another, the guy who I talked up, good old Matthew Dellavedova, has been hot garbage in Milwaukee and lost any chance he had of emerging as a starter.
He’s an atrocious defender (that Finals performance notwithstanding) statistically. But so was Isaiah Thomas. But he’s also a four-time All-Star who just put up a .473/.401/.905 slash line, the second 40-plus-percent three-point shooting season of his career. The guy’s emerged as a legitimate force with the ball, with a career-high .535 eFG%.
And he’s only 25. Interestingly, he and Hayward share a birthday; they were both born on March 23.
The Great Marcus Smart Gamble
Boston lowballed Smart on his contract extension even as they’re banking on him to replace the defensive performance that Avery Bradley used to give them as the nominal shooting guard. Smart is an atrocious (.358/.291/.762 in his first three seasons) shooter who can’t score from any range.
But he managed 2.7 Defensive Win Shares and has put up a positive DBPM every year in the league. He’s a stopper on a team that slipped defensively from fourth to 13th over the past season. He will be the glue guy alongside a terrible defender; new look, same great taste for the fifth option on the offense.
The Al Horford Problem
Horford can score, becoming an increasingly effective stretch 5 as he posted a .473/.355/.800 slash line out there in 2017. His career-low raw field goal percentage was offset by a decent but still way below his career mark .527 eFG%. The stats say he should get his butt back into the low post and provide some rim protection.
He’s also a disastrously bad rebounder, pulling down 18.6 percent of available defensive boards and 11.8 overall. The Celtics are easy to limit to one shot, and they’re just as easy to get extended possessions against; this is the Achilles heel that the likes of Tristan Thompson in Cleveland are perfectly positioned to exploit in the playoffs.
Last year, that lack of rebounding played a role in the demise. If they don’t fix it this season, they might not get by Washington or Toronto in Round 2.
What’s The Deal With Jaylen Brown?
It’s hard to see the potential in a guy who posted a minus-4.0 BPM, minus-0.7 VORP, 10.3 PER, .454/.351/.685 slash line, and anemic 102 Offensive Rating, but then again, he was a green as his uniform rookie. He can take care of the ball (12.5 turnover percentage, not great but not awful and good for a rook), get to the basket and finish at the rim (61.4 percent from three feet and in), and 34.1 isn’t awful from long range for a guy still adjusting to the NBA game.
If he learns how to be a more productive offensive player and continues to mature into at least an average defender, well, he’s not taking the world by storm, but 2016 was a dead zone in the draft, so that might just be rotten luck for the Celtics having to pick third from such a slim talent pool.
Behold the Mook
Marcus Morris posted a 12.4 PER, .508 True Shooting, .072 WS/48, and negative (-0.5) BPM. He hit a pathetic 33.1 percent from three and 41.8 overall. And now he projects as the stretch 4 for this outfit?
He’d better play some industrial-strength defense, because this is looking like a bit of a headscratcher as a pickup for the Celtics’ rotation.
Look, if Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford are your three best players and Brad Stevens is your coach, you’re winning a lot of ballgames. The team is good, as in Confirmed good.
But I can’t help but agree with the Twitterverse. This is not a Finals team. Not even close. In fact, I see them as a three seed, crashing out against the Wizards in Round 2 and watching IT, Jae, and the Cavs do battle with Golden State for the fourth straight time.
They’re good. They’re just not good enough. Hesitantly Confirmed.