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NBA Daily: Why The Boston Hype?

The Celtics’ hype train got rolling a bit during the NBA’s hiatus. Matt John explains why many seem higher on Boston than they were before, and why that train may still need some brakes.

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Excuse me while I do my best Carnac the Magnificent impression. *Puts an envelope to his forehead* The Milwaukee Bucks, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Los Angeles Clippers.

“Name the three teams most likely to be crowned champion of the 2019-20 NBA season.”

Okay that bit might be way too old for you youngins to get, and honestly, that may have been the worst possible tribute to such a classic sketch, but you know what we’re getting at here. When people think about the safest picks to win it all this season, it’s those three without question. With Golden State’s juggernaut down for the count, the Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers have stood out as the three teams most likely to be the last one standing when (or if) the season finishes.

Yet, there seems to be a question that’s grown exponentially since the NBA’s hiatus – “Why not Boston?”

When word got out that the season was going to be resumed after all, national media types started picking the Celtics to be the surprise team to come out of the east. Shortly after that, gambling odds started to favor them a little more too. This narrative became so popular that, in their case, the term surprise in surprise pick didn’t sound accurate anymore. The Bucks were (and still are) the safe pick to win the Eastern Conference, but the Celtics suddenly became the sexy pick.

In all fairness, when you compare them to the crème de la crème in the NBA, they split the season series with the three top teams in the league – although that will change when Boston and Milwaukee face off on Friday – and five of those games were must-watch thrillers. The only exception being when the Celtics spanked the Lakers on Martin Luther King Day.

So, is the growing hype around Boston justified? Yes and no. The Celtics have for the most part been an excellent squad this season – impressive seeing how much firepower they lost, especially on the defensive side – but they have been hot and cold. One game they are giving the Lakers all they can handle on LA’s home turf – without Kemba Walker no less – and the next they are blowing a 17-point fourth-quarter lead to the very undermanned Brooklyn Nets at home. The good stretches have outweighed the bad stretches, but the bad stretches still stand out.

That of course explains why Boston is viewed as more of an underdog compared to their three elite competitors instead of being right there with them. Still, the fact that the Celtics have risen up to the occasion against the best of the best does make picking them to make the finals appear not as irrational as some may think.

Really, the fascination with the Celtics stems from the fact that their ceiling remains somewhat mysterious. We still haven’t really gotten to see what this squad looks like together when everyone is healthy. Boston’s top four players – Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, and Kemba – have played all of 19 games together. Just as one would come back from injury, another seemingly would get hurt shortly before, during, or after the return.

The shame of it all is that when those four have shared the floor, the Celtics have a scorching near-121 offensive rating together – the best among Boston’s four-man lineups that have played at least 200 minutes. By the way, just to point this out, the fact that the Celtics have gone 31-14 in games with at least one of their core four out speaks volumes as to how invaluable Marcus Smart has been for them.

The Celtics don’t have a duo of players on their squad that match the talent of LeBron James/Anthony Davis or Kawhi Leonard/Paul George or James Harden/Russell Westbrook, but they may very well have the best quartet of players in the league. No one else has a trio of players averaging 20 points a game, and having another scorer who averages 17+ on top of that is a rare luxury. The only other team that comes close to what the Celtics have among their top four guys scoring-wise is the Clippers, and we all know what their goal is.

When rotations shorten, having multiple guys who are capable of putting up big scoring numbers on any given night is incredibly crucial. Now that Boston will have all four of their top guys in ship shape, that gives them an almost unfair amount of cushion compared to their rivals both in their conference and around the league.

That’s not all. There’s something else worth bringing up about Boston and their health that many have overlooked. Let’s start with Jayson Tatum’s ascension.

The sublime numbers that Tatum put up in February – 30.7 points on 49/48/77 splits – was very much the talk of the town before the hiatus. Let’s not beat around the bush here- that’s the kind of production you’d expect from a young superstar. We all believed Tatum had that potential, and we were seeing him fulfill it.

The only problem was that it coincided with the worst stretch of Kemba’s career. An ill-fated knee injury took away a lot of his burst, which definitely hurts someone like Kemba Walker. When Walker wasn’t recuperating from his knee injury, he was not himself. From Jan. 28 to the hiatus, he was averaging 16.3 points on 32/31/83 splits. He made a valiant effort to play, but let’s not beat around the bush here either- He stunk.

With the hiatus, Kemba’s had the time to heal up. While it’s no guarantee that we’re going to see the same old Kemba we’re used to, and that knee is definitely a concern, combining what he was before his knee started acting up with Tatum’s dominance makes the Celtics that much more lethal. The Celtics have taken it slow with their star point guard since the Bubble began, and their efforts look like they haven’t been in vain.

Sadly Boston is all too familiar with the “When they get (player X) back in (Y amount of time), imagine how good they are going to be!” mindset. There’s no guarantee that Kemba will be Kemba when the postseason starts, but because we know what he can do when he’s 100 percent, the Celtics’ playoff potential skyrockets putting him with what they already have.

So, should Boston enter the season at full strength, there’s a lot to like about them, but there’s still a reason why they are not put in the same tier as Milwaukee or either of the LA teams. That starts with their depth. Enough has been said about how good their four best guys are when they play together, but the rest of the roster outside of Smart and Daniel Theis is a question mark.

The Celtics’ top six of Tatum, Brown, Walker, Hayward, Smart, and Theis is capable of winning a championship, but a title team can’t consist of just six rotation players. There are too many minutes for just six guys. Outside of them, it’s hard to say who will fill out the rest of the rotation. The most likely candidates will be the likes of:

  • Enes Kanter: Has been uncharacteristically injury-prone this season. When healthy, he’s been his usual post-dominant self, and the Celtics have done a good job minimizing his defensive lapses – He somehow has a better Defensive Real Plus-Minus than Andre Drummond and Dwight Howard – but he’s been badly exploited in the wrong matchup as usual.
  • Grant Williams: Fits perfectly into Boston’s scheme of playing multi-positional wings with defensive versatility. He’s even shown he has the strength to handle players bigger than him. Even though he’s shot 35 percent from three since hitting his first one on Dec. 9, opponents will leave him open until he can make them pay.
  • Brad Wanamaker: Inconsistency has been his biggest issue. His month by month numbers have been a roller coaster all season. There’s no telling which Wanamaker Boston would get if they played him.
  • Robert Williams III: A hip injury got in the way of what was supposed to be a baptism by fire type of season. The physical tools are definitely there for him to be an exceptional rim protector, but he’s been prone to brain farts and block chasing. The playoffs would be a perfect time for him to learn, but his raw skillset could make him a disaster to play.
  • Semi Ojeleye: In and out of the rotation all season. He brings defensive muscle and even an improved three-ball. He’s even had his moments at times. Besides that, not much progress has been made on his part.

There are other options, but those are the most qualified ones the Celtics have at their disposal, and as you can see, it’s not cut and dry. If one or two of those options pan out well, then Boston should be right there. However, because there are no answers, we’ll just have to see who fits best with what they want to do.

The Celtics could potentially have a lot going for them when the postseason arrives. There are X-Factors that could result in a first-round exit or a trip to the finals. Their health and their depth could play a huge role on how these playoffs turn out. If they play their cards right, Boston might just turn into the team everyone thought they would be.

Last year that is.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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