On some level, the difference between Boston’s record and its rather rosy preseason projections represents a bit of bad luck — the Celtics are only 3-5 in games decided by five points or fewer, and under- or over-performance in close games is usually more about random chance than a reflection of a team’s ability to perform under pressure.
There are at least some reasons to suspect Boston’s unique roster, filled with good-but-not-great players, might be ill-equipped to close games against good opposition. Boston is only 5-11 against teams at .500 or better, for reasons which are somewhat easy to discern.
While it’s great the the Celtics don’t have to give many minutes to bad players, they face a disadvantage on a nightly basis against the top players from most teams. Though not a perfect representation of talent, this chart created by ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh illustrates each team’s top 10 players according to the #NBARank surveys conducted before the season:
Though Boston was recognized for having the best “back end” of its rotation relative to any team save San Antonio, the perceived strength of its starting line was only 21st of 30. Even accounting for misrankings and players outperforming preseason expectations, the point stands that best five vs. best five, Boston is overmatched against the majority of other teams in the league. To some extent, this disadvantage might be mitigated by the relative ease of Boston’s schedule, though the surprising depth in the East may belie that supposed edge.
And it isn’t just the general talent level that presents a problem. The Celtics will very likely struggle to score all season. There is a definite lack of shot and offense creation up and down the rotation. Their most dynamic scorer, Isaiah Thomas has been one of the players who benefited the most from working against weaker bench units in the past, and that trend continues into this year:
Thomas’s 17.4 percent drop in effective field goal percentage vs. “starting” units is one of the highest among players with decent samples against both starters and benches this season. The extended absence of Marcus Smart has forced Thomas into even more time against starting units, where his moxie and tricks have at times been swallowed up against the greater size, athleticism and general defensive skill of opponents’ top lineups. He went 3 for 15 against Cleveland ton Tuesday, for example.
Boston’s defense, however, has been mostly excellent — sporting the fourth best defensive efficiency in the league. Even a little bit of improvement from Thomas or the return of Smart might be enough to transform a few of these close losses into wins.
At the same time, Boston’s superior depth has allowed it to overwhelm the lesser teams in the league, going 9-1 against sub-.500 opposition so far. Naturally, a team that beats all the teams it “should” and struggles against everyone else is not the ideal profile for a playoff team.
That said, concerns about the Celtics’ postseason readiness are most likely a season premature. With Brooklyn’s first-round draft pick coming their way this offseason and a plethora of other potential trade assets, General Manager Danny Ainge is well-positioned to add higher-end talent without sacrificing the depth which has won Boston the degree of success it has enjoyed. Whether a proverbial “go-to guy” is added prior to the Feb. 18 trade deadline will largely determine if the Celtics can be expected to compete deep into the playoffs this year or are merely getting reps for the players who will remain once the team is more complete.