Coming off an underwhelming finish to the 2022 NBA Finals, things only continued to snowball out of control for this offseason for the Boston Celtics.
Their star rookie head coach, Ime Udoka, was caught up in a scandal that got him suspended for the year, and his future with the organization is still up for debate.
Rumors of big-time trades involved moving foundational pieces of their team, including reigning defensive player of the year Marcus Smart and even All-Star guard Jaylen Brown who will soon be a pending free agent.
Many were even questioning the “superstar” status of Jayson Tatum following his fall from grace during the matchup against Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
But despite all of the turmoil this offseason, the Celtics sit atop the NBA with a league-best record of 17-4. This team is on a redemption tour. And so far, they are playing like the best team in the NBA.
Starting on the offensive side of the ball, Boston has been one of the most effective and efficient offenses in the league through the first month of the season. They currently rank 1st in points per game, scoring 119.8 points a night with 11 players averaging double-digit minutes.
They are the league’s best three-point shooting team (40.5%) while taking the second-most three-point attempts in the NBA (41.4). Mainly thanks to the help of big men Sam Hauser and Al Horford, two of the team’s five players that are shooting 45% or better on at least 3.5 attempts or more from beyond the arc.
They are practically mauling teams in the scoring department as they are winning games by an average of 8.4 points overall and have been even more dominant at home as they are winning by an average of 12.4 points a night.
The key has been their ability to take control of games during matchups against opposing teams’ bench units. Led by their new acquisition, Malcolm Brogdon, the Celtics bench has a plus-minus of +295, which is second in the league behind only the Cleveland Cavaliers (+416). They are also statistically one of the most efficient scoring benches in the NBA, as they shoot 49.4% from the field (2nd) and 44.1% from three (1st).
Not to mention that they are the 3rd best team in the league in terms of taking care of the ball, as they are only turning the ball over 13.3 times a game.
In practically all facets of the game offensively, the Celtics are firing on all cylinders.
On the other hand, the defense might be the glaring flaw for this team so far this season.
They are 14th in opponents’ points per game, as they allow 112.9 points, and are 17th in defensive rating at 113.1. For context, last season Boston was one of the best defensive teams in the league as they were 1st in opponents’ points per game (104.5) and were 2nd in defensive rating (106.9).
The main difference from last season to this season: No Robert Williams III.
Last season, the voters determined that reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Marcus Smart, was the most impactful defensive player for the league’s top defense. But you could make the argument that Williams III was more deserving of that DPOY trophy.
Last season, Williams was one of the best rim defenders in the league averaging 2.2 blocks a game (2nd behind Memphis Grizzlies’ forward Jaren Jackson Jr.) and was top-10 in contested shots per game (8th with 11.1 contests a game). He may not be the scrappy on-ball defender that Marcus Smart is. But his ability to be a deterrent in the paint was a real catalyst to allow guys like Smart, Tatum, and Brown to be more aggressive defensively on the perimeter.
Williams III has already missed as many games this season (21) as he missed all of last season, and the report of his return timetable being eight to 12 weeks does not have him returning to the lineup till the middle of December at the earliest.
But we saw during the last season that when healthy, he is a real game-changer, and some may even argue that his left knee situation was the determining factor in their Finals series against Golden State.
So far, Boston is surviving as a middle-of-the-pack defense, with 36-year-old Al Horford and Luke Kornet soaking up all the Center minutes. But, if they can get even 20 minutes a night from Williams III at nearly 100%, that instantly addresses the team’s primary dilemma while injecting some much-needed energy and athleticism into the frontcourt.
But most of all, the real sign of a championship-caliber team is the presence or emergence of an MVP-caliber player. It seems that Jayson Tatum has officially arrived.
Since his rookie season, Tatum has been considered an All-Star caliber talent. But many have been hesitant to anoint him as a true superstar.
During the last postseason, he was on his way as he was the driving force that led the Celtics to victories over the likes of Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, and Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat. But it seemed like all the Tatum hype vanished overnight following Game 6 of the Finals.
After an offseason of chatter and doubt, it looks like Tatum has taken the criticism personally and, in turn, is reminding the league just how good he is.
He is currently averaging 30.9 points per game which is the 5th most in the NBA, along with 7.7 rebounds and a career-high 4.6 rebounds a game. Although he has been a high-volume scorer, the big difference this season is that he has been much more aggressive about getting to the rim and has become more efficient.
He is having a career year efficiency-wise as he is shooting 48.1% from the field and 87% from the free throw line on a career-high 8.5 attempts per game (6th in the league). His True Shooting percentage is also by far the best of his career at 62.5%. In 20 games played this season, he has scored 30+ points in ten of them, including a season-high 43 points with seven made threes in a win over the Detroit Pistons.
It shows on the tape that rookie interim head coach Joe Mazzulla has empowered Tatum to be more assertive offensively while still asking for All-NBA caliber effort on the defensive end. Tatum looks more like the team’s leader than ever, and his teammates are also buying in.
In short, the Boston Celtics are the most well-rounded team in basketball. They have an elite scoring offense backed by their depth and hyper-efficient three-point shooting. They have an above-average defense with the capability for upward mobility after they get back their wildcard in Robert Williams III. And they have an MVP-caliber player in Jayson Tatum, who is considered a frontrunner for the award on some MVP ladders and no lower than 3rd on others.
There is still a lot of the season left. But if Tatum and the Celtics continue on the trajectory that they are currently on, we may be looking at the runaway favorites to hoist the Larry O’Brien this season.
Hi there! My name is Jalon Dixon, but most people just call me Jay. As an aspiring, young sports writer and podcaster, I enjoy discussing sports (mainly basketball and football) and sharing my knowledge with others. Growing up right in the middle of Towson University, Morgan State, Goucher College and others, I have gotten the chance to learn so much about a handful of the different athletic teams that thrive here in Baltimore. I want to be the voice of local fans and teams that may not get the same spotlight as others, but still play a big part in our everyday lives. My motto is “Always Embrace Conversation,” so if you ever want to give me feedback on a piece or even just have a friendly sports debate, feel free to email me! Hope you enjoy my work and maybe even learn something along the way.