Nobody would ever say that having too much talent on one NBA team is a problem. In the rarest of occasions, it can be. An NBA GM isn’t trying to build the best Daily Fantasy Roster. You need to build a team that fits together like a puzzle. A coach needs to clearly define roles so every player feels comfortable knowing what is expected of them. You need stars (ideally superstars) and role players. When you get too many stars on one squad the pecking order gets harder to define, roles become cloudy, and eventually, everyone starts looking for theirs (cough Washington wizards cough). Too many chiefs, not enough Indians as the saying goes.
It’s possible that is what we’re seeing with the Celtics this year. Before we hit the panic button on the C’s I’ll note that I think they’ll figure it out. They have a plethora of really good talent and they have the boy wonder Brad Stevens leading the charge.
Before the season kicked off, Vegas set the Celtics over/under at 57.5 wins. Lofty expectations that came in as the second highest over/under in the league with only Golden State ahead. Even after losing Kyrie for a quarter of the year and Gordon Hayward for the entire season, the C’s still managed to win 55 games and make the conference finals so it isn’t unreasonable to believe that they’re capable of winning two to three more games this year. But did we crown them the best team in the East too soon?
Perhaps we overreacted to a lot of Celtics related story lines. Like how the NBA world anointed Jayson Tatum as the NBA’s next superstar. Tatum had a brilliant rookie campaign and he was a killer in the playoffs. Over the course of the season we watched him evolve from a tentative rookie to a go to scorer going head to head with Lebron James in a game seven of the Eastern Finals. Early in the season Tatum looks more like a rookie than a go to guy. The sophomore slump is real. Some of Tatum’s percentages from last year were unsustainable. Tatum wasn’t known for his distance shooting coming out of college and he came out of the gate as a flamethrower. Tatum shot 43% from behind the arc last year after shooting 34% at Duke. This year he’s back to shooting the three ball at 34%. I’d wager that he finishes the year at around 37%, but his current percentage is closer to the kind of shooter that he truly is. One of the reasons for the drop is that he is creating more shots out of isolation for himself. According to Basketball Reference, Tatum’s assisted threes are down 6% from last year, while his two point attempts have been assisted nearly 20% less. Tatum is also receiving more defensive attention. There is a year worth of NBA video on him and he is getting the opposing teams best wing defender every night. He’s earned that attention but it has led to below average offensive efficiency. At some point Tatum will adapt. He has too much offensive skill in his bag and Stevens will find him higher percentage opportunities. We should still view him as one of the league’s future stars, but he isn’t playing like one right now.
The season hasn’t fared any better for the Celt’s other wings. Hayward is having his worst season as a pro where he’s sporting a sub 50 TS%. That’s a rough number. When you aren’t getting to the line and you aren’t hitting open shots, it’s tough to be a positive difference maker. This shouldn’t be surprising. He is coming off a tough injury and he clearly isn’t one hundred percent healthy. He should be coming off the bench to get his groove back but Stevens has stuck with him in the starting lineup. The most likely reasoning is to keep his confidence high, but if he keeps playing poorly it may have the inverse affect. If the Celts keep struggling, you have to wonder how long Stevens can keep Hayward in the line-up when it’s hurting his teammates.
Jaylen Brown spent the summer training with Tracy McGrady with his focus on becoming a more multi-faceted scorer. If you want to learn how to score from different spots on the floor, there aren’t many guys that were better at it than T-Mac. But Brown is the fourth option in the starting line-up and that doesn’t change much when Rozier enters the game. Brown has seen his usage rate decrease and he’s stuck playing the same glue guy role as last season. Brown is going to be due a big pay day soon and a player of his talent will want a bigger role going forward.
Rozier is another guy looking for a new contract, and he expects it to be big. The team just resigned Marcus Smart and Kyrie has verbally committed to resigning next year so it’s hard to believe the Celtics have Rozier in their long term plans. Rozier fancies himself a starter not a seventh man. Coming off the bench this season has caused a dip in his production and if he continues playing at a below average level teams may quickly forget that he started on an Eastern Conference Finals team. Teams can see that Boston has too many mouths to feed right now and have already started sniffing around on Rozier’s availability. He’d be a good fit on Phoenix or Orlando (I might be a good fit on those teams at this point), two teams starving for anyone competent at that position.
Even with the early season struggles, the Celtics are still the envy of most every front office in the league. A log jam of talent is good problems. After barely surviving the Phoenix Suns they find themselves at 7-4, good for third in the East. If the Celtics find their stride they can be scary good but eventually they’re going to have to consolidate some of their talent. Don’t think Danny Ainge doesn’t know this. We’ve already heard the Anthony Davis buzz and he may be saving his bullets for that target, but I’m skeptical that the Pelicans will be willing to deal Davis this year and maybe even next. Davis is a generational talent.
If the Celtics can’t land Davis, they need a backup plan. You can’t have five guys on max deals and two backups on large contracts. If you hold off on trading your talent for too long you become the mid-2000’s Chicago Bulls. Before Derrick Rose came along, the baby Bulls had a crop of cheap young talent and two lottery picks courtesy of Isiah Thomas’ tenure with the Knicks. The baby Bulls are what happens when you value your own guys too highly and wait too long to consolidate your assets. They famously missed out on Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Memphis Pau Gasol because they wouldn’t include Luol Deng in any of the deals. Deng was a fantastic player in his prime and is an all-time Bull, but he never lived up to the expectations that were set for him after he lit up the defending champion Miami Heat in his sophomore season. If you’re the Celtics and you have a shot at consolidating your talent into a star; and Davis isn’t on the table; you need to make sure you don’t miss out on it because you didn’t include Luol Deng.
This is the NBA. Good problems can become bad problems in a flash.