When you start the season 2-5, you have issues. When you keep choking at the end of games and are incapable of winning on your home floor, you could make the case you have serious issues. Lord knows there's a laundry list of reasons why the Celts currently find themselves in this position, so I wanted to go through what I find to be the most important issues and try and decipher which might be just small sample early season struggles, and which might end up being a larger problem. I do think it's possible for both to exist. There's shit that sucks right now that realistically if history tells us anything shouldn't be a concern in two months. There are other fundamental issues we're seeing that I feel are more of a long term concern.
Jayson Tatum's shooting, especially late
We may as well start with one of their biggest issues. Early signs suggest that as long as Jayson Tatum is going to shoot like dogshit, this team is in trouble. Whether it's his overall splits of 40/27%, his fourth quarter splits of 25/37%, or his clutch time splits of 28/11%, no matter how you slice it this shit is killing the Celts. Given his volume and role in the offense, there's really no overcoming things if he's going to continue to shoot this poorly. It's not as easy as just having Tatum shoot less, they need him to score in order to be effective. When he doesn't, especially late, we see this team tank offensively.
So while this is bad, it's important to look at history when it comes to Tatum. We've literally never seen him shoot this poorly in his entire NBA career. There is a much larger sample of what type of shooter/scorer he can be compared to this 7 game stretch. Let's just focus on the 4th quarter for the sake of this blog, because that's where it's really hurting this team. Look at how that looks historically
Pretty much his entire career we've seen Tatum be an elite fourth quarter shooter/scorer. Of those numbers, which looks like the outlier to you? That's the encouraging part. We have a body of work that suggests things will eventually even out and water will find its level. How quickly that happens is now the question, not if it happens.
When you look at the clutch time numbers, you see a similar trend
As you can see, it's a similar story here as well. Historically, in a much larger sample, we see Tatum be more than adequate as a late game clutch time scorer. If you look at his shot distribution in these moments, I think you'd actually be surprised at Tatum's approach. In the fourth quarter this year he's taken 32 total FGA. Those break down as follows
11 are at the rim (4-11)
8 are in the paint (1-8)
5 are midrange (0-5)
2 are from the corners (1-2)
6 are above the break (2-6)
This tells me that it's not as if Tatum is stuck only settling for bad shots in these moments. 19 of his 32 FGA are either in the paint or at the rim. Extend that to a midrange jumper and it's 23 of 32 in zones that Tatum historically shoots well in.
11 are at the rim (4-11) 8 are in the paint (1-8) 5 are midrange (0-5) 2 are from the corners (1-2) 6 are above the break (2-6)
Verdict: Not a huge concern
The absolutely horrific defense
If Tatum's shooting is something that you can feel optimistic about given his history, I'm not sure we can say the same about the Celtics defense. Frankly, it's the worst in the league. This is coming off a season last year where it wasn't much better. We've already seen issues with the switch everything approach, and it's no surprise that Ime went away from that against the Bulls as they were building their lead and it worked.
The problem is, it's still bad. Given that they have a new coach and new scheme, I think it's totally valid to be skeptical that it drastically improves. There will be things that get better in terms of communication, but big picture we haven't seen this team show us at any point over a prolonged period to start the year that they can consistently defend at a high level. The early numbers are very concerning and it's confusing because individually this roster is made up of what should be plus defenders. There are certain lineups that are showing defensive promise, but on the whole you are what your defensive ranking is and the Celts are at the bottom of the league. Everything starts on that end for this team, and at the moment they can't hold anyone to under 115 points.
For a team starting two bigs, they are getting destroyed in the paint. The Celts are 26th in this area. It's not a rim protection issue, the Celts lead the NBA in blocks. Rob and Horford have been great. The issue is more the perimeter. This is what happens when you switch, you're relying on a big to be able to stay in front of a quicker player and we are seeing these guys get into the paint and score at will. That's a system issue.
Verdict: VERY big deal
Poor shooter lineups
With Smart, I think things can get twisted when talking about his season. When it comes to accepting his role and reducing his shooting which is something a lot of people want, he's done that. He's dropped a full shot per game and his per 100 FGA are the second lowest of his career. He took just 2 FGA in the entire second half last night.
At the same time, his shooting splits are a problem within this offense. It's no longer a volume issue, but they still absolutely have a production issue. The thing with this is, it's a domino effect. It's not just the fact that he's shooting 25/28%, it's what that inefficiency does for the rest of the offense/lineups. Teams are able to sag off Smart and focus more on Tatum/Jaylen. If Smart makes it, so be it. Essentially, teams do not have to respect his shot and it clogs everything up.
This is also true when it comes to Dennis Schroder and Josh Richardson. Schroder is down to 36/37% and when we see those three on the floor together there are lineups that shoot 33% and 25%. Doesn't matter who the other two guys are, that shit does not work. It's one of the concerns many of us had about this guard trio. There simply is not enough reliable shooting and we're seeing the downside of that. Last night was a great example when we saw the Smart/JRich pairing to close. That group shot just 31/16% together. Given their shooting history, this is more of a fundamental issue to me. Both in terms of roster construction and rotaitons
Verdict: Big deal
Jaylen's lack of touches
This is where things get weird. If you look up the actual metrics, you'll see that Jaylen's usage in the second half/fourth quarter is actually pretty good. Yet when you watch the games, it feels like he never even touches the ball. It's one of those situations where the numbers tell you one thing but your eyes don't line up. His 4th quarter FGA is identical to Tatum, but it doesn't feel that way. His usage is 2nd on the team at 29% to Tatum's 31%, but it doesn't feel anywhere close to that even.
This is where I'm partially looking to Ime to help rectify this. Run more sets for Jaylen. Have him initiate the offense. They need to find ways to prevent games where he's repeatedly standing in the corner and watching. At the same time, there needs to be way more off-ball cutting with Brown. He needs to be better demanding the ball in these situations. So far neither of those things really happen. Hopefully Ime has seen enough to find ways to adjust this, because it's easily correctable
Verdict: A small concern
The shortened rotation
Don't ask me to make sense of it. I'm all for shortening a rotation come playoff time, but we're already seeing the downside of doing this so early in the season. The regulars are gassed by the fourth quarter. It's part of the reason why they are the worst 4th quarter team in basketball. This is the time of the year where you should be getting your young guys run to help build confidence and a rhythm. The fact that Ime still won't do it and is stacking Ls is basically the worst case scenario. Especially with all the OTs that this team has played.
I get that players have to earn minutes, but how can they earn it if they are getting DNPs-CDs or like 5 minutes a night? I'm curious as to what someone like Richardson has done to "earn" those minutes other than being a vet? This mostly concerns me when it comes to Nesmith/Pritchard/Romeo since spacing is such a glaring issue. I'm all set with Kanter's role as of now, but the other two need to find a way onto the floor more. If this year was supposed to be all about maximizing the Jays, why are we not playing guys than provide a skillset which should help do just that.
Verdict: Minor deal in the short term, potentially big deal in the long term
Overall, I'd say given what we've seen, there's more to have legit concern about than not. The important part is the things that have really plagued this team early like Tatum's shooting, Jaylen's late game usage etc shouldn't have you panicked. History and sample size is on their side. But issues like defense, lineup rotations that aren't working, those are the things that have legit issues and don't exactly have a quick fix. The hope would be as Tatum's shooting comes around, that helps cover for some of those issues. Whether or not that happens is anyone's guess because through 7 games it certainly hasn't.