Most teams couldn’t withstand the offseason loss of their two best players.
The Boston Celtics haven’t just absorbed the departures of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford over the first two months of 2019-20, though. They’ve used a rebuilt roster as a springboard to re-cement themselves as one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
And if Boston gets better injury luck as the season progresses, there’s ample reason to believe it could be even more than that.
The Celtics enter Monday’s action at 20-7, with a +7.9 net rating . They’re one of four teams to rank top-seven in efficiency on both sides of the ball. The others? The Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, and LA Clippers, who have separated themselves from the pack as clear-cut favorites for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Boston already has wins over the Bucks, Dallas Mavericks, Toronto Raptors, Denver Nuggets, and Miami Heat. All but one of its losses, a 100-99 defeat to the Sacramento Kings, have come against surefire playoff teams. Only one of them was by more than six points, and only one came from the friendly confines of T.D. Garden.
The Celtics boast one of the most impressive early-season resumés in the NBA. Only the Bucks and Lakers’ are objectively superior. Even that enviable status, however, may not accurately portray Boston’s viability as a title contender.
No team in the league has been more beset by injury than the Celtics.
Gordon Hayward missed most of November with a broken left hand, and has sat out the past three games while nursing a sore left foot . Marcus Smart avoided serious injury to his oblique in early December only to contract an eye infection that’s sidelined him for six straight games. Jaylen Brown has already missed multiple games, while Kemba Walker missed one game last month due to a concussion.
As a result, Boston has played a grand total of five games with its core of Hayward, Smart, Brown, Walker, and Jayson Tatum available. Tatum is the only member of that group to appear in every game this season.
Reading too much into small sample sizes can be folly, but the Celtics’ numbers at full-strength have been extremely encouraging.
Boston is 4-1 when its five best players are healthy, with an average point differential of +10.7. Lineups featuring Walker, Brown, Tatum, and Hayward boast a net rating of +24.6 , fifth in the NBA among quartets that have notched at least 100 minutes of court time.
Hayward is the Celtics’ lone lingering injury risk. His left foot was an issue before he went down with a broken hand. Fortunately for Brad Stevens, Boston has already proven it can play at an extremely high level without him.
With Hayward, Brown, Tatum, Smart, and Semi Ojeleye, Boston has five players who can switch across four positions. Grant Williams factors in there, too, especially when playing center. That malleability has propelled the Celtics to a top-five defense, and should serve them even better under the postseason microscope.
Boston has as many shot-makers as any team in the league, too. It’s gotten back to the more egalitarian ethos this season that marked Stevens’ first teams. Even so, the ability of Walker, Hayward, Tatum, and Brown to make something out of nothing offensively ensures the Celtics always have an imminent offensive safety valve even teams like the Bucks and Lakers don’t.
Boston has been one of this season’s most pleasant surprises. If they’re healthy leading up to the playoffs, the Celtics could further surprise by joining the league’s true elite.