In today’s NBA, tanking is much more desirable than being mediocre. Though the Boston Celtics are far from the tanking end of the spectrum, they are closer to the mediocre than the elite. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors dominate the league with the least parity among major U.S. professional sports, and are aiming to become the first teams in NBA history to match up in The Finals for three consecutive years.
The Celtics (26-16), meanwhile, sit at third in the Eastern Conference four games behind Cleveland for the No. 1 seed. While the records indicate the Cavs and Celtics are closely matched, the on-court results differ. Boston is winless in two games against Cleveland this season losing by an average score of 126-120. In fact, the Celtics are 0-8 on the year against teams which currently have a better record than them – Cleveland, Golden State, San Antonio and Toronto (Boston has not yet played the Clippers).
Despite not possessing a signature win on the season, Boston separated themselves from a crowded middle-of-the-pack in the East, where the fifth and 11th place teams are separated by only four games.
Along with Thomas, Al Horford and Avery Bradley have battled various ailments in the first half of the season. Boston owns a 16-5 record when Brad Stevens’ top unit of Thomas, Horford, Bradley, Jae Crowder and Amir Johnson start the game and are 10-11 when one or more are missing.
Wednesday night’s 117-106 loss to the slumping New York Knicks sans Bradley, who has been battling a sore Achilles confirmed the worries general manager Danny Ainge, Stevens and many Celtics fans – the team struggles to defend and rebound in crunch time.
The Knicks, who were without big men Joakim Noah and Kristaps Porzingis and had lost 11 of their past 13, finished the game with a plus-24 rebounding margin and doubled up the Celtics on the offensive glass 18-9.
“[The Knicks] punked us,” Thomas said via ESPN. “They were the harder-playing team on both ends of the floor. They had guys come in the game and just play way harder than we did and that was the definition of this game. They played harder than us, they out-rebounded us, they played more physical than us. You’re not going to beat anybody the way they manhandled us”
Bradley, who leads the team in rebounding with 6.9 per game at 6’ 2”, likely would have helped, but he cannot alone mask Boston’s deficiencies on the glass.
The Celtics sit at 28th in the league with a -4.5 rebounding differential at the season’s midway point, better than only New Orleans and Dallas. Only the Mavs own a worse rebounding percentage than Boston’s 47.4%
The Celtics give up 11.4 offensive boards per game to opponents, which is also second worst in the NBA.
Heading into the latter half of the schedule, the Celtics’ vulnerabilities could keep them from catching Toronto and Cleveland in the East. In a playoff series, where defense and rebounding is even more crucial, Boston could find themselves going home much earlier than expected if they do not make a move before the Feb. 23 trade deadline.
Danny Ainge has armed the team with a treasure chest of assets even Jack Sparrow would envy with up to six first round picks in the next three drafts and a plethora of young talent under contract.
Celtics fans are fawning over rumors of Jimmy Butler and DeMarcus Cousins potentially being put on the trading block, but lesser names such as Kenneth Faried, Nerlens Noel or Taj Gibson may be on the move over the course of the next month.
Boston would be wise to consider a deal that would not only improve the defense and rebounding of this years squad, while also holding onto their most valuable assets if a star-caliber player becomes available in the offseason.
If not, the team could be playing golf this spring before the Eastern Conference finals even start.