Not many would argue with you if you called the Boston Celtics the best team in the NBA for at least the last calendar year. The Celtics have the best record in the league at 36-15, two games better than the Nikola Jokic led Denver Nuggets.
The Celtics finished last season on an absolute tear but fell two games short of their first title since their big three of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in 2008. The team got off to a rocky start in the 2021-2022 campaign but picked up the pace in the second half of the season finishing an absurd 33-10 to contribute to 51-31 overall record. The 2022 NBA Finals was a bittersweet ending to a sensational season that ended at the hands of the Golden State Warriors dynasty.
MVP hopeful and perennial All-Star Jayson Tatum earned his fourth consecutive selection earlier this week, leading the Celtics attack tied for third in the league in points per game at 31.0 on 47/35/87 shooting splits while snagging 8.6 rebounds per game and 4.4 assists per game. The Celtics offense is top five in the NBA in team scoring midway into this year as well as leading in plus-minus.
Tatum secured a starting spot in an uber-talented Eastern Conference that is stacked with wings. Tatum was the top vote-getter amongst media, third amongst fans, and fourth with the players. Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, and team captain Giannis Antetokounmpo are the only players who finished ahead of Tatum in the frontcourt for All-Star voting.
The Celtics 7-3 in their last ten games with pivotal victories over the Warriors, Toronto Raptors, and New Orleans Pelicans to name a few. Tatum most recently exploded for a 51 point masterpiece, putting on a shooting clinic going 15-23 ( 65%) from the field and a perfect 14-14 from the charity stripe against the lowly Charlotte Hornets.
The addition of veteran point guard Malcolm Brogdon, who has seamlessly fit into the rotation, looks like an absolute steal by Brad Stevens and the front office. Brogdon gives the C’s some much-needed leadership and scoring off the bench, something that was sorely lacking and a pain point from last years NBA Finals collapse. Brogdon is a strong contender for this year’s Sixth Man of the Year award but is in a close race with Russell Westbrook, who’s having a great season in a new role for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Sam Hauser, a new rotational piece for the Celtics, started the season shooting lights out but has predictably come back down to Earth regressing to a respectable 39% from behind the arc. The C’s desperately need someone to lighten Jayson Tatum’s workload though if they expect to make another deep run this year.
Cream of the Crop
The Celtics have been dominant winning 69 games since last January. This season would no doubt be a disappointment if they don’t make another NBA Finals appearance. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Boston. The Celtics haven’t skipped a beat with a dramatic offseason and changes that threatened to rattle the foundation Stevens and the front office have built over the last couple of years.
Joe Mazzulla has done a remarkable job as a former assistant coach, leading the C’s to a league high 36 wins thus far in his first opportunity as an NBA head coach. Mazzulla stepped into what most would describe as a strange situation filling in for Ime Udoka, who was suspended indefinitely at the start of this season. Mazzulla was the Celtics’ top assistant for the last three seasons before taking over head coaching duties.
Areas of Concern
Mazzulla has had his learning experiences though as a first-time head coach. There were a couple of late-game blunders, most recently last Tuesday night in their matchup against the Miami Heat and dropping a close game in overtime to the New York Knicks on Thursday. Mazzulla opted not to take a timeout midway in the fourth quarter amid a 13-0 Heat run. The C’s fought back but a couple of bad turnovers by Tatum eventually cost them, with the team losing a close one in Miami 95-98.
Tatum, who’s averaging a career-high 37.5 mins a game, looks gassed frequently late in games which is reminiscent of last year’s duel with Steph Curry and the Warriors.
The loss of Danilo Gallinari (torn ACL) has exposed the Celtics’ lack of wing shooting depth, a need that the front office is most certainly going to address before February’s trade deadline.
The Celtics will also need to address the excessive amount of playing time for their leading scorer at almost 40 minutes a night without spelling him much. Mazzulla will need to learn more efficient time management if the Celtics want to make another deep playoff run and compete for a championship.
Jae Crowder, OG Anunoby, and Jakob Poeltl would be considered potential trade targets for the Celtics. Crowder, Anunoby and Poeltl have been the subject of trade rumors since the regular season began, having all been linked to a potential move to Beantown.
Anunoby and Crowder would step in and make an immediate impact on both ends, giving the Celtics some much-needed shooting and defensive help. Anunoby is in the second year of a four-year 72 million dollar extension, of which the five-year veteran has a player option in the final season for 19.9 million.
This would be a bargain for the blossoming wing, whos averaging 16.9 ppg on 45/36/82 shooting splits this season. Anunoby has been ruled out for the remainder of the Raptors seven game West Coast road trip (2-2) after which he’ll be re-evaluated according to team sources.
If You Ain’t First, You’re Last
The Celtics hold a three game lead over the recently surging Philadelphia 76ers, who have only dropped three games in all of January and look like the Celtics biggest challenger in the rugged Eastern Conference. The Celtics look to remain atop the East despite their relative coaching inexperience, youth, and lack of depth especially on the wings.
The Celtics remain the odds-on favorite at +390 (FD) but Mazzulla and company still have quite a bit to prove as this season approaches All-Star Weekend in February. Can the Celtics right last year’s wrongs and overcome an irregular start to the regular season? Or will it be more heartbreak in Beantown after lofty expectations in the second year of Stevens front office role?
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