How Worried Should We Be About The Boston Celtics?
As it happens, the top teams in each conference have both been covered here over the last fortnight.
The Utah Jazz have won seven games on the bounce, and 18 of their last 19, to apply some early pressure on the Los Angeles Lakers and the top seed with a 22-5 record.
The Philadelphia 76ers aren't going away either. There is no doubt of their threat to the championship with Joel Embiid playing the way he is and a new-look squad working well around him. They are an outrageous 14-2 when Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Seth Curry and Danny Green all start the game.
We can't forget about the Brooklyn Nets , Milwaukee Bucks and LA Clippers either.
One team however that's become less of a feature in the championship conversation: The Boston Celtics.
Their most recent loss to the cellar-dweller Washington Wizards dropped them to an alarming 13-13. While that's not a record that promotes championship chances, perhaps Jaylen Brown's play and improvement still to come from Kemba Walker will? The pair have had contrasting starts to the season. If Walker can get back to his best and the Celtics improve further on their already promising overall numbers, they may well be in touching distance of the big players come playoff time.
The emergence of Jaylen Brown
In a world of instant and often regrettable reactions, Jaylen Brown is part of NBA Twitter's (Should Be) 'Deleted Tweets Hall of Fame'. As president of the '(SB)DTHOF', it's fitting that Nick Wright offers up an excellent example of a fairly overwhelming response to Brown's most recent extension.
This season is year one of that contract. Brown is averaging 26.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists and shooting 42.4% from three. The $22,991,071 he's making this season and roughly $26.5 million he will make in each of the following three seasons looks like unders at the moment. For some perspective, Brown averages less money per year on his current deal than Andrew Wiggins, D'Angelo Russell, DeMar DeRozan, Al Horford and Otto Porter Jr make on theirs.
Danny Ainge struck gold on this extension.
It may not feel like it now, but some early-season injury and performance issues for some of Brown's teammates may yet add more value to the deal.
Jayson Tatum's spell in health and safety protocols and Kemba Walker's painfully slow return from injury have allowed Brown to occupy the 1A role in the team at times. He has performed it confidently with his 33 points in 19 minutes against the Cleveland Cavaliers a particular highlight.
Wright was onto something when mentioning Kawhi Leonard in a tweet about Brown, though. The new-look Brown is playing with a similar focus and poise to Leonard. He doesn't have the steely gaze and is a lot chattier, but Brown is playing with Kawhi-like comfort right now.
He's no longer driving to the basket for the sake of driving either. The head-first barrels towards the hoop aren't so regular. Brown is driving more. He has added 2.4 drives per game to last season to average 10.9 a night, but he's also connecting at a better clip (48.8% up to 53%). That rise in shooting percentage is across the board for Brown despite averaging four extra field goal attempts this season while increasing his usage rate from 24.7% to 31.2%.
He has become one of the highest usage players in the NBA (94th percentile) but managed to take the added responsibility and thrive.
Clutch minutes, in particular, will pay dividends for the Celtics down the track. Walker and Tatum's usage rate in clutch minutes last season both ended up around 28% each while Brown didn't scratch 17%. With Tatum spending time away and Walker struggling to get on the court and, worse still, play well while on it, Brown's usage rate in clutch minutes is up to 23.3%.
There is no dispute over who the second guy is in Boston anymore. Or is there? Is it Tatum now?
Working out Walker
It might be too early to call Brown above Tatum, but the 24-year-old has leapt Walker in the pecking order. The Celtics are 8.2 points per 100 possessions worse off with Walker on the floor so far this season. That puts the veteran point guard in the 11th percentile in Pts/Poss plus-minus.
Walker shot just 4-from-20 against the Suns and earned himself a technical out of pure frustration. He did say the right things to The Boston Heraldafter the game, though.
“I let myself get a little bit too frustrated. I just can’t have that. Like I always say, these guys, they look to me to be that positive energy. I wasn’t that today. It was pretty frustrating, but at the end of the day, if it’s not a call, it’s not a foul."
He backed up that game by connecting on just two of his 12 shots in Boston's loss to the Utah Jazz two nights later.
His 21 points per-36 minutes mark the lowest total since 2014-15 and is brought about by a career-worst effective field goal percentage. Walker's current 41.4% eFG leaves him in the bottom 8% of players in the league right now.
Walker is grossly out of sorts. His shot isn't falling and his recovery from a knee injury makes finding a rhythm difficult. He says his knee is "pain-free" but the eye test suggests it is at least restricting his movement.
But it's Walker's poor start and the faith Brad Stevens has in his revival that could turn the Celtics into a championship contender.
The Stats Insider Futures Model has kept the faith in Boston despite their pedestrian record more than a quarter of the way through the season, currently slotted in as a 7.9% chance to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Stevens and the Celtics aren't far off even while dealing with a handful of key outs and form slumps early on. Their 112.9 offensive rating ranks 12th in the NBA, while they're bang on league average where defence is concerned, surrendering 111.9 points per 100 possessions.
It's up to Walker to get the Celtics into championship territory. Brown's leap to probable All-Star looks sustainable at this point, and Tatum has long been considered a player that can be the best on a championship team. But the Celtics need their four-time All-Star to return to the level that saw him named All-NBA just two years ago.
Walker, Tatum and Brown can be an elite trio. Marcus Smart, Daniel Theis, Tristan Thompson, Payton Pritchard, Grant Williams, Semi Ojeleye and Jeff Teague round out a serviceable rotation.
A lot needs to break right for the Celtics if they're to make their way through the Eastern Conference and into the NBA Finals. Still, they're worth keeping an eye on as a possible Miami Heat-like threat when the playoffs roll around.
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