After a somewhat turbulent start to the season, the Celtics appear to be smoothing things out. Roughly half way through the season, the C’s are on a brief winning streak (at least as of this writing), and they’re down to just one player on the injury report, after dealing with all kinds of bumps and bruises in the season’s opening months.
At the same time though, plenty of Boston fans are frustrated. Heading into the season, it looked as if the Celtics had the most talented roster in the East, and possibly all of the NBA, Golden State notwithstanding. Many were anticipating a Celtics-Warriors Finals matchup, to the point that an actual betting guide for the Finals used the Celtics as an example of a hypothetical opponent to the Warriors. It seemed that the sky was the limit, and some even thought we would be witnessing the beginning of a dynasty. It’s hard for Boston fans to feel quite so optimistic after the first few months.
So, where do things actually stand? After a rough start but a smoother road of late, are the Celtics still favorites in the East? Let’s dig into those questions a little bit.
Kyrie Irving’s Form
Kyrie Irving’s form has been one of the bright spots of the last month and-a-half of Celtics play. While he can’t quite be said to be at the full peak of his powers - Irving tends to reserve that level for the biggest stages - he’s done well enough to haul the team out of its early funk to some degree. Perhaps we should have all expected Irving to take some time to get into the flow of the season after missing the end of last year due to injury. Whatever slowed him down early seems to be gone though, and the Celtics can once again confidently assume they’ll be getting some of the best point guard play in the league as long as Irving stays healthy.
The Depth Issue
The most predictable issue for these Celtics heading into the season seemed like a rich man’s problem, so to speak. The Celtics quite plainly had too much depth, and too much talent. Unfortunately this has proven to be a legitimate issue though. We just recently saw yet another write-up about whether or not Boston should put Jaylen Brown back in the starting lineup. Yet this comes just when Gordon Hayward has started to show flashes of a return to form. Throw in Marcus Morris having one of his best seasons, Marcus Smart still looking indispensable, and Terry Rozier wanting a starting opportunity, and something’s got to give.
The Trade Options
We still probably shouldn’t take for granted that this is the Celtics team that’s going to go into the playoffs. The trade deadline is rapidly approaching, and given the depth issues just mentioned, Boston could be poised to make a move. The real prize is Anthony Davis, and Boston would seemingly have the assets to pry him loose, but New Orleans is insisting their star isn’t on the market. So really, the trade market is a mystery - but the Celtics look more likely than most teams to make a deal of some sort, be it a major blockbuster or something smaller and more targeted to fix a specific issue.
The Raptors Issue
The biggest issue the Celtics are confronting may not ultimately be anything internal, but instead may be the fact that the Toronto Raptors are simply better than expected. The trade that sent DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio in exchange for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green is looking like a stroke of genius. And at the same time some of the Raptors’ other pieces - Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and Serge Ibaka - are having career years. This is a versatile, talented team, and a bigger challenge to the Celtics’ presumed East supremacy than anyone expected to see.
Because of the Raptors factor and the Celtics’ slow start, we can probably only call them co-favorites in the East, at best. However, when you consider capacity for improvement, it’s still fair to say Boston has a chance to become the clear favorite by season’s end. A lot will depend on what happens before the trade deadline, Kyrie Irving sustaining his health, and depth issues being solved.