There are few more compelling thought experiments in the current professional sports world than figuring out what’s going on with the Boston Celtics.
Pre-season expectations were exorbitant. The team had their top dogs back in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, both of whom had their seasons cut short the previous year.
Young studs on the team like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were riding a wave of momentum after taking the Lebron James-lead Cavaliers to a seven-game Eastern Conference Finals berth they had no right being in.
And after a slow off-season from the Celtic perspective, the team made no indication that the upcoming year would be any different. There was an added layer of drama regarding shot distribution with such a wealth of talent on the bench, but the genius of head coach Brad Stevens felt like an easy remedy for concern.
This year, the entire organization seemed to move into the regular season with an air of optimism—you could call it bravado. Prediction models had the team outperforming their 55-27 record considerably, and 60 wins felt nearly certain.
It felt like the birth of an outright fun period of Celtics fandom.
Until it wasn’t.
As of March 1, the Celtics have twenty games left before the start of the NBA Playoffs. If they intend to improve on last season’s record, they can afford to lose only two more games.
In terms of playoff seeding, the Celtics sit at fifth in the Eastern Conference, behind teams like Milwaukee, Toronto, Indiana and Philadelphia.
These teams are all pretty significant in their own right: measures of offensive and defensive efficiency place these teams in the upper echelon of NBA teams this year. In fact, the only area where the Celtics lag in looking at team’s averages or the season is in the rate of total rebounds the team collects.
One potential explanation comes from the wide number of lineups Brad Stevens has put on the court. Thirteen different combinations of players have played at least 40 minutes over the team’s 62 games played, and there’s very little consistency to build a hypothesis off of.
Stats like net rating measure the average number of points a team scores as compared to how many points they allow their opponent to score, extrapolated over the time of a full NBA game.
This can be misleading, since players generally regarded as solid defensive players may be part of lineups that struggle defending as a whole.
Defensive stalwart Al Horford is present in nine of the 13 lineups, his defensive impact isn’t felt in every lineup he plays. Meanwhile, players who have been never been notable for their defensive play like Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier are featured in some of the team’s most efficient lineups, despite their own shooting inefficiencies.
So then the argument of what’s wrong with the Celtics seems to be consistency. Then again, is there a problem in general? Basketball is a game of efficiency and a game of runs. A wise man once said, “someone just needs to get hot at the right time.” There’s no right answer to this, but that’s the point.
And so the final answer, for everyone who’s asked: there’s nothing inherently wrong with the Boston Celtics, and that’s okay.