The Celtics appear to have to come to the conclusion that changes need to be made. Now.
According to sources around the league, the Celts have been extremely active in trade talks ahead of the February 10 deadline, looking to reconfigure the pieces around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The club also seems ready to alter a course charted with last summer’s transactions.
“It’ll be interesting to see if something like yesterday makes them back off a little or makes them patient,” said one rival GM. “But they’ve definitely been looking to get something done.”
“Yesterday” refers to the 116-87 waxing of the Wizards down in Washington, a game in which Tatum broke his 3-point ice — nay, iceberg — after missing his previous 20 attempts from beyond the arc. He went for 51 points in 33 minutes, adding 10 rebounds and seven assists in a well-rounded effort that largely mirrored the Celts’ efficiency as a whole.
Significantly in the larger sense, it was Marcus Smart’s first game back after six out with a thigh bruise and health and safety protocols, giving the club back its starting five and most desired rotation overall from the first half of the season. Those starters have been together just 13 games (8-5), and there may be some interest in seeing how they and primary subs Grant Williams, Josh Richardson and Dennis Schroder can function over the next two weeks.
But riding it out with that rotation would require a large change in the Celtics’ stance as it has developed over the last two months.
Time to Play the Kids?
According to Heavy.com sources, there has been understandable frustration with the club’s inconsistencies, not only from game to game, but from quarter to quarter. Devolving into isolation ball on offense and failing to get back in transition on defense have been just some of the issues that have left the Celts at 24-24.
At this stage, sources are indicating that first-year head of basketball operations Brad Stevens is at the very least looking to unload some salary cap burden (as he did in moving Juancho Hernangomez last week) and clear a path for Payton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith and Romeo Langford to get more playing time.
The first two of the latter trio were essentially buried when the Celtics acquired Schroder and Richardson in the offseason. The idea was to get more experience around Tatum and Brown, and the vets have had some very good games. But, for many reasons, the mix hasn’t yet worked to a satisfactory extent. Much can be attributed to poor execution, but there is clearly a need for the kind of shooting the young three have shown in flashes.
When it was suggested in a Heavy.com discussion with a league exec that Nesmith might be a reasonable facsimile of Miami marksman Duncan Robinson if given the same opportunity, the exec said, “That’s one reason that (Heat coach) Erik Spoelstra is one of the best coaches in the league. And (Grizzlies’ coach) Taylor Jenkins. They look at what players can become.”
Said another front office source who’s worked with new Celtic coach Ime Udoka, “It looks like Ime is doing what a lot of first-time head coaches do: He’s leaning on some veterans and playing guys a lot of minutes. But Ime’s a good coach. He’ll be better. I know he’s got the support of Brad and ownership.”
“They’ve got some guys all through the rotation that you have to play,” said a former NBA head coach. “But some of them are not that good that they should play no matter what.”
Celtics Had Eyes on Alperen Sengun
Looking at the current roster, it’s interesting to reflect on last offseason’s moves.
Kemba Walker had lingering knee issues and two big-money years left on his contract, and the Celtics got away from that by dealing him and their first-round pick to Oklahoma City for Al Horford (one guaranteed year and a partial for 2022-23). Moses Brown and a second-round pick swap were also included.
Word is 19-year-old center Alperen Sengun was the Celts’ guy if they had kept the pick — and OKC ended up making him the choice and dealing him to Houston.
“He’s a tough kid,” said one NBA personnel man of the 6-9 Sengun. “He’s a little raw, but he’s been playing with adults overseas for years. He’s going to be good. Him and (Rob) Williams would be a really good tandem.”
The roster created has shown it can compete in wins over Milwaukee (twice), Phoenix and Philadelphia. But the Celts have suffered embarrassing losses on too many other nights, squandering late leads and going away from their best interests.
They are now in the same mathematical position as last summer following the 36-36 season and first-round playoff exit.
“They have big expectations,” said a league exec of Celtic ownership, “and they really want the Brown-Tatum tandem to be special.”
It remains to be seen whether the club can move closer to those expectations before February 10, or will have to wait until summer for a more significant renovation.