The Celtics defense might be the story of the first half in the NBA. The Celtics hold the #1 rank in both defensive efficiency and points allowed (by 0.1 over San Antonio), despite the fact that they allowed a 4 points more per game to opponents in December than they allowed during the months of October and November. The defense should return to peak form as their schedule eases up and they have more time to rest. Ultimately the Celtics defensive philosophy of having multiple players that can switch and defend different positions is being fully implemented for the first time in the Brad Stevens era with defenders that are longer and lengthier than he’s ever had. The Celtics added a total of 15 inches to their starting lineup this offseason and it’s been doing wonders for them on that end of the floor. If the Celtics can sustain this defensive level going into the playoffs it’s impossible to consider them as anything less than an NBA title threat. No one wants to play a team that defends like the Celtics can.
The Celtics offense hasn’t been as great as you might expect. The individual numbers have been nice, Kyrie is averaging 24.4 points per game, Tatum, Horford, Brown are all hovering around the low to mid teens, and Terry Rozier has provided a constant spark off the bench, however those numbers don’t appear to be enough to get the Celtics in the top half of the league in points per game. The Celtics rank 20th with 103.4 points per game in the league, but the more analytical stats tell a slightly different story. They rank 13th in points per 100 possessions and 12th in fewest turnovers per game. By no means has the Celtics offense hasn’t been great this season and still has a lot of potential to improve, especially if Gordon Hayward were to comeback at some point this season. Marcus Smart has done a lot to hurt the team’s shooting percentages and the Celtics still lack a consistent second scoring option, but with continued progression from their youth and a lot of luck on the injury front, the Celtics could be a drastically different team offensively by the time April rolls around. As of right now, they’re just slightly above league average.
Rebounding has been without a doubt the Celtics biggest improvement this season. The Celtics went from 29th in rebound rate last year to 9th this year. The aforementioned 15 inches added to the starting lineup probably has something to do with that, but two of the top contributors are Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum and Aron Baynes. Baynes and Tatum crash the glass better than anyone on the Celtics last year and that has taken what used to be a huge weakness for the Celtics and turned it into a strength. Celtics fans don’t have to pull their hair out watching opponents get 2nd, 3rd, and 4th chances anymore.
Kyrie Irving: A
Kyrie’s scoring average has gone up every month this season and he only seems to be getting more comfortable in Boston. His assist numbers aren’t as good as some may have expected them to be, Kyrie’s clearly been comfortable not having it in his hand and letting Al Horford and the rest of his teammates make plays, something that many questioned about him after leaving a ball dominant player in LeBron. Kyrie has proven to be a great teammate, an excellent mentor, and clearly one of the best players in all of basketball.
Al Horford: A-
Al is leading the team in assists, his rebounds are up from last year, and he looks well on his way to being named to the All-Star team. His scoring is down, but he’s a reliable option when the Celtics need him to be (as proven against the Rockets with the game winner) and Al’s steady leadership presence has resonated throughout the entire team and created a positive culture in the Celtics locker room. He’s embraced his role as the team’s primary facilitator, never complains about shots, and does whatever Brad Stevens needs him to, but does that make him worth thirty million a year? (Hint: yes)
Jayson Tatum: A-
No one quite expected Jayson Tatum to have such a huge role on the Celtics as quickly as he has, but going into the draft he was always considered the most NBA ready and he’s been nothing short of spectacular so far. His handle is elite, his finishing ability has been impressive, and along with his unreal shooting from deep Tatum has NBA superstar written all over him. Tatum can score in pretty much every way possible on the basketball court whether it’s in the post, driving, spotting up, off the dribble, he can do it all. He still needs to add a few more inches to his vertical as proven by a few deflating rim rejections, but if Tatum can improve on his ups or maybe even grow an inch or two in the next year or so the Celtics have a franchise cornerstone on their hands. Tatum should get more touches in the 2nd half and only improve on what’s been one of the best rookie seasons in Celtics history.
Jaylen Brown B+
Jaylen has has the most up and down season of all the Celtics. On some nights he scores 20+ and looks like an All-Star and on other nights he misses his first 3 shots and you don’t hear from him much after that. His free throw shooting hasn’t been ideal at 58%. He has the game to get to the rim and draw a lot of fouls, but with subpar numbers from the line it doesn’t seem to benefit the team right now. Jaylen has improved drastically and will likely finish in the top 2 or 3 in most improved voting, but his inconsistency from night to night has been his downfall. Nevertheless, the 14.4 points per game have been impressive and he’s always good for a highlight reel dunk every week. You can’t be disappointed with the numbers Jaylen has been putting up in his second year.
Terry Rozier: A+
Talk about improvement. Terry Rozier has gone from a role player to the Celtics sixth man, and maybe even a sixth man of the year candidate. Terry’s points, rebounds, and assists are all up and more importantly his percentages are up. He’s up to 40% from the field and 38% from deep, up 3% and 6% respectively from last year. The Celtics have been desperate for offense at times and Terry Rozier has provided it. Personally, I’ve been very critical of Terry Rozier in the past. All I’ve asked is that he hit shots with more consistency. He’s doing that this year and earning all the minutes, respect, and praise he’s been getting. (I still don’t think he’s as good as Mike Conley @ the Twitter user that suggested that.)
Marcus Smart: C
Marcus Smart’s grade has certainly gone up recently, but his first half hasn’t been great as a whole. Marcus has a career low field goal percentage, a career low in steals, and his points per game average is down from last year. Smart has improved his three point shooting as of late and has saved his grade some in the process (the Rockets game didn’t hurt either), but every time he misses a layup I think another Celtics fan wakes someone in their house up with a scream. The early returns were so bad that his grade suffers to a C.
Brad Stevens: A+
At the beginning of the season, Brad Stevens said that it was as if he took a new job with all the new faces on the Celtics roster this season. Getting all the new players to mesh and play together, but also within the Celtics system wasn’t going to be easy and most, including myself, assumed it would take time for the Celtics to learn how to play together and to really start winning. Brad has been highly regarded as one of the bright young NBA minds since his first day as Celtics head coach and his reputation has only improved since. Now it seems Brad will finally be rewarded with a coach of the year award for taking players from the 2016-17 Cavaliers, Pistons, Blue Devils, Mustangs, Brose Bamberg, Baskonia, and Shanghai Sharks and getting them to play at the highest level immediately. The key to the Celtics record through heartbreaking injury, Kyrie’s early struggles, a back breaking schedule, rookie ups and downs, and anything else that’s happen during this crazy season has been unquestionably Brad Stevens.
Final Grade: A+