Is Al Horford's Health the Only Reason for the C's Slow Start?
The Boston Celtics entered the 2016-2017 NBA season as a projected top 3 team in the Eastern Conference. The NBA season has yet to reach full swing, but as we enter the month of December, the Celtics are now at 11-8. While the .579 winning percentage is not shabby by any measures, Boston has had some early struggles.
The prime contributing factor to the rather sluggish start can be attributed to the health of Al Horford. The veteran All-Star big man was brought in during the offseason to space the floor and command the middle. However, Horford's health has waned to begin the season. The center missed a whopping 9 games in the month of December. During this span, the Celtics went 4-5. Surely his presence could and would have impacted some of those games in a different way. Particularly, a 105-106 loss to the abysmal New Orleans Pelicans could have gone the other way had Boston had Horford to score in volume and help contain superstar Anthony Davis.
Since Horford has returned, the Celtics won 4 straight, and are 5-2 to date. Over the course of these 7 games back, Horford has averaged 2.2 blocks and 4.3 assists per game. Both numbers are extremely impressive, as his scoring ability is unquestioned, but his innate ability to distribute and protect the rim are the difference makers. All in all, the Celtics are 7-3 with Horford on the floor, and as previously mentioned, 4-5 without. It is evident that the big man is instrumental to the success of this team as perhaps their most valuable player.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not only Al Horford's absence which has negatively impacted Boston to date. The lineup has fluctuated immensely. Guard Marcus Smart has seen several starts at small forward this season, a head scratching call by standout coach Brad Stevens. Smart has a well rounded statline, but his 35% from the field is sheerly unacceptable and a detriment to the offense. The frontcourt rotation is also in a bit of disarray. Is Tyler Zeller the main backup center? Is it Kelly Olynyk? Yes, Brad Stevens is attempting to experiment with his lineups. But this should be handled in practice, as 11-8 is only three games above .500, and the luxury might not be an affordance at the moment.
There are, however, inconsistencies with the Boston Celtics' record and its correlation to player production. All-Star Isaiah Thomas is averaging a career high 25.7 points per game and 6.3 assists on 41% shooting from the field. His field goal percentage and his 35% 3 point percentage have room for improvement, but he has certainly done his part. Aside from himself and Horford, Avery Bradley is also having a career season, putting up 17 points and an astounding 7.8 rebounds a game, both career highs. His assist to turnover ratio (2.7:1.7) is also nothing to scoff at.
So why then, is Boston not a few more games above .500? As a team they are shooting 44% from the field and snag 42.2 rebounds a game. We could delve further into the stats but it's clear the correlation here. The numbers suggest that their record should be better. It might be too early to hit the panic button on Boston. Moreover, improvements will need to be made. Better bench production will be needed, as not a single player in the second unit is averaging double figures, and only one is putting up more than 6.4 points (Kelly Olynyk). The second unit has definitely not delivered the goods and, as we all know, the bench guys are imperative to a team's success. In addition, the defense needs revitalization. The C's currently rank 16th in defensive score, allowing roughly 105 points a game. Simply these two areas receiving dramatic improvement could lead to a Boston Celtics tear. Until then, Boston might continue to tinker around .500. They are currently the 4th seed now. Let's see if they can ascend.