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NBA Daily: What’s The Path to Success For Boston?

The Boston Celtics haven’t had a strong season thus far, but what can they do to get back on track?

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After entering the season off a run to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Boston Celtics have disappointed in 2020-21 so far. Despite entering the year with title aspirations, the Celtics hold a record of 14-14and sit fifth in the conference.

The last few weeks especially have been tough on the Celtics, suffering losses to the Washington Wizards, Detroit Pistons and Sacramento Kings. In February, the Celtics are 4-6 and have lost key rotation guard Marcus Smart to a left calf tear.

While Smart’s absence has been a thorn in the Celtics’ side, their problems run deeper than missing players due to injury. Boston has a problem on offense; outside of its star duo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the Celtics have gotten minimal offensive production from the remainder of their squad.

The Celtics’ third-star player is supposed to be Kemba Walker, who they acquired on a four-year, $140 million contract last offseason. Walker – who is now nearing his 31st birthday – has had a bad start to the season, averaging just 16.3 points and 4.0 assists per game while shooting a lackluster 36.3 percent from the field. Both of those averages are career-lows for Walker since his rookie season in 2011-12. Walker’s poor play can be explained by his persisting knee injury that has caused him to miss around half of all games. But with his age and consistent issues with injuries, it’s worrisome that Walker’s days as a lead scoring guard may be behind him.

Outside of Walker, Brown and Tatum, the Celtics only have one player averaging over 10 points per game – Smart at 13.1, but now, of course, he’s injured.

This lack of scoring is reflected in the Celtics’ offensive rating, where they hold the NBA’s 17th highest offensive rating, at 111.8. That mark sandwiches them between the Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Hornets, two teams with losing records.

If the Celtics are serious about contending, it’s clear they will need to acquire more offensive firepower to compete with the top teams in the NBA. This might make Bradley Beal a clear trade option for the Celtics – even if the former says he’d like to continue building in Washington.

Beal is the NBA’s leader in scoring, averaging 32.9 points per game on an outstandingly efficient 58.9 percent true shooting. Beal’s offensive prowess would be quite an upgrade to the current Celtics roster, while Boston holds a treasure trove of assets. Boston owns all of its first-round picks, plus the $28.5 million trade exception acquired from Charlotte and prospects like Payton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith, Robert Williams and Carsen Edwards that could interest the Wizards.

A cheaper elite scoring option that fills a positional need is Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic. Vucevic is having a career season for the Magic, putting up 23.7 points and 11.4 rebounds per game while shooting 48.3 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from three-point range. Adding Vucevic would be an immediate offensive upgrade over the Celtics’ current options at center, where Daniel Theis and Tristian Thompson split the bulk of the minutes and combine to average 15.9 points per game over 46.1 minutes per game. Vucevic doesn’t come without some concerns, however.

At 30-years-old, Vucevic isn’t young and, with two years remaining on his four-year, $100 million contract, he won’t come cheap either.

If the Celtics don’t want to or can’t acquire a star offensive player, they still could make significant improvements to the roster by trading for elite role players on the market. One area Boston could surely stand to improve upon is their perimeter shooting. Only three players on the Celtics average over four three-point attempts a game. As a team, they average 32.7 shots from beyond the arc a game, good for 22nd in the NBA.

Enter: Sacramento Kings’ forward Harrison Barnes. The eight-year veteran is having a career renaissance in Sacramento, drawing interest from suitors around the league. Barnes is averaging 15.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game while shooting 39 percent from three-point land. Barnes would slot into the Celtics’ rotation nicely and provide some much-needed depth scoring and positive contributions on the defensive end.

While it’s obvious the Celtics need to improve their play to become serious contenders, they do have the luxury of being in no rush. Brown and Tatum are also locked up long-term, with the former under contract until 2024 and the latter until 2025. The youth of their stars gives the Celtics some breathing room; there isn’t as much pressure to get a trade done as other teams around the league with older stars approaching the tail ends of their careers. So if Boston feels the asking price of Beal or Vucevic – or whomever they’re targeting – is too high, they don’t need to overpay and risk hurting the organization’s future.

Boston also has plenty of intriguing young talent on the roster that could prove to be the answer to these problems. Pritchard, a newly-minted rookie guard, has had an excellent start to his NBA career, already one of the best scoring options off the bench so far this season. The Celtics also have guards Nesmith, Edwards and Romeo Langford, all of whom haven’t had the chance to play consistent minutes yet, but were all highly-regarded prospects coming out of college.

Naturally, the Celtics will improve when Smart returns from injury, fixing the problems Boston has had on the defensive end since he got hurt. On top of all that, it’s far too early to say Walker is finished as a productive NBA player. While he is still clearly missing a step, Walker recently tallied back-to-back 20+ point games, scoring 21 against the Toronto Raptors and 25 against the Wizards, giving some hope that he could return to peak form as he continues to get healthy.

This season hasn’t been what Celtics fans would have hoped for – that’s for sure – but it isn’t time to panic in Boston just yet. The Celtics have plenty of options to improve their roster in the short term, while the front office has always played the trade deadline shrewdly. Eeven if they don’t make a move, the future is still bright in Boston.

Zach Dupont is a staff writer with Basketball Insiders currently living in Chicago. Zach's work has been previously featured in The Boston Globe, Boston.com and The Basketball Tournament.

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