Don't look now, but the Celtics are barely clinging to the fringe of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
The Boston Celtics are not going to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals this season.
Pessimistic though such a proclamation seems this early in the year, it’s entirely logical. To be honest, the team’s play thus far places its chances of reaching the postseason at all in question.
Though Boston fans are surely longing for a return to the conference finals and revenge against the Miami Heat team that knocked them out at that stage last year, it’s simply not going to happen.
Here are 10 signs exhibited by the 2012-13 Celtics that already indicate that this squad is destined to be eliminated from the playoffs in an early round.
The loss of Ray Allen is beginning to show up in Boston's shooting statistics.
For the last five seasons, the Boston Celtics enjoyed the luxury of possessing one of the best three point shooters of all time.
Ray Allen averaged more than 16.5 points per game during his time in Boston. He left the team for the Miami Heat following last season, however, leaving a void that the Celtics have been entirely unable to fill.
The signings of Jason Terry and Courtney Lee were supposed to be enough to make up for the loss of Allen’s perimeter shot, but it hasn’t worked out that way. While Terry is having a respectable season, Lee’s offensive play has been miserable. Paul Pierce, too, is shooting his worst percentage from beyond the arc since the 2003-04 season.
As a result, the Celtics are second to last in the NBA in three-point makes per game. For a team that thrived off of big threes from Pierce and Allen in recent seasons, that’s a huge loss that will make a return to the conference finals much less attainable.
Just to rub salt in the wound, Allen is currently shooting the best three-point percentage of his career in Miami.
Garnett and the Celtics have been totally overwhelmed on the boards this season.
The Boston Celtics are the worst rebounding team in the league. Nothing made the weakness in their front court more apparent than Tuesday night's game against the Chicago Bulls, as Joakim Noah dropped a triple-double.
When Andrew Bynum and Amar’e Stoudemire return from their injuries, Philadelphia and New York will add size and significantly improve their rebounding. The Celtics have no such force waiting in reserve, and it will show.
If Boston wants to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, it’ll need to add a dominant big man that can control the boards. That addition must be the priority before the trade deadline.
Otherwise, the Celtics’ weakness in the rebounding department will be exposed by any Eastern Conference team they meet in the early rounds of the playoffs—if they even make it that far.
Pierce and Garnett are two of the Celtics' most important players, and also two of their oldest.
It has been pointed to as an issue for the Celtics for a couple of years now, and it has never been more true than it is right now: Boston is old.
All told, only five teams in the NBA are older than the Celtics. The difference is that Boston relies on those aging veterans more than most—three of the Celtics’ top four players in terms of minutes played (Garnett, Pierce and Terry) are also the three oldest players on the team.
With that many guys that are that old playing that many minutes, the wear and tear of an NBA season is going to catch up with the Celtics.
Which leads to the next point…
As the season wears on, the Celtics handling the bulk of the team's minutes will have to battle fatigue.
As a squad for which age is an issue, the Boston Celtics were actually fortunate to have last year’s lockout-shortened NBA season decreased to 66 games. They were able to cruise through a schedule that lacked some of the stress of a full season and secure the No. 4 seed in the playoffs, saving energy for the games that mattered most.
No such luck this year, however—the Celtics and everyone else will have to play a full 82-game schedule.
Last year’s abbreviated season took valuable time away from teams like New York, which could have used it to figure out how to optimize rosters that included prominent new faces. This season, new-look squads like the Brooklyn Nets will have more time to incorporate their talented additions.
For a Celtics team that is struggling already, the outlook by the time its aging stars have put almost 60 more games on their legs is bleak at best.
The new-look Brooklyn Nets have contributed to making the Atlantic Division much more competitive this season.
The Boston Celtics have won the Atlantic Division five years in a row now, ever since assembling their 2007-08 championship squad. At this early point in the season, the chances of Boston extending that streak appear to be somewhere in the range of slim to none.
The New York Knicks are emerging as a powerhouse, posting the best record in the Eastern Conference despite playing without Amar'e Stoudemire. The upstart Philadelphia 76ers gave the Celtics fits all the way through a seven-game playoff series last season, and stand to improve as soon as Andrew Bynum is healthy.
The Brooklyn Nets brought a revamped, talented team to their new city, and the Celtics have been unable to beat them thus far. While the Toronto Raptors remain fairly inept, that’s beside the point—the Celtics could easily end up being the fourth-best team in their own division this season.
Making the playoffs at all will be difficult with that kind of competition. Unless the Celtics’ season takes a drastic turn, making it to the conference finals seems entirely out of reach.
The tough Eastern Conference will get even tougher when injured players like Rose get back into the mix.
Gone are the days of the Boston Celtics only having to worry about a handful of other teams in the Eastern Conference.
Boston is currently in eighth place in the conference, just a half-game ahead of Philadelphia for the final playoff spot were the season to end today. All the teams ahead of the Celtics must be viewed as legitimate threats this season.
The truly scary part, however, is that some of those teams are playing as well or better than the Celtics while missing All-Star caliber players. Andrew Bynum, Amar'e Stoudemire, Derrick Rose, and Danny Granger are among those out with long-term injuries that will return at some point this season.
When they do, several of the Celtics’ main competitors will get significantly better. Though Boston can look forward to the return of Avery Bradley, it’s unlikely that another guard will provide the answer to this struggle of a season.
With players like Courtney Lee not living up to expectations, the Celtics' apparently deep roster seems a bit more shallow.
That simply hasn’t been the case. Only five players are averaging more than 25 minutes per game, and only two more average at least 18. With the same core of players eating up the vast majority of the team’s minutes, the likelihood of injury or pure exhaustion taking its toll skyrockets.
Bradley’s return will add depth to the backcourt, but the frontcourt is and will remain horrifyingly thin. Darko Milicic was a total non-factor before leaving the team, and Jason Collins has played in just four games so far. That leaves Chris Wilcox and rookie Jared Sullinger as the only reinforcements behind Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass.
Does anybody else miss Kendrick Perkins right about now?
The Celtics' perpetually stellar defense has faltered this season.
The Boston Celtics are currently giving up 97.9 points per game, which places them 16th in the league in terms of scoring defense. That’s definitely not great, but it’s not a terrible sign, right?
Wrong. Over the last five seasons, Boston has been among the NBA’s top five scoring defenses each and every year. To suddenly drop into the bottom half of the league is catastrophic. This team isn’t going to blow anyone out of the water with its offense, which only posts 97.4 points per game itself.
The Celtics have been a defensive stalwart ever since the 2007-08 season, and suddenly they look soft. That is a terrible sign for this season’s future.
The Celtics have been unable to piece together any stretches of sustained success.
Basketball is a streaky game, and seasons are generally filled with streaks of their own.
This season’s Boston Celtics, however, have been unable to put together any sustained periods of impressive, winning basketball. Their best stretch to this point was an early November run during which they won five of six. That stretch, however, included two ugly wins against the Washington Wizards (worst in the Eastern Conference) and no game decided by more than a six-point margin.
It’s not as though last season was without its ups and downs—the Celtics had their fair share of disappointing stretches. But on six separate occasions throughout that 66-game season, Boston was able to string together four or more wins in a row.
The Celtics’ inability to connect wins this year makes it hard to imagine them finishing the season with anything much better than a .500 record. Currently, the team is on its longest losing streak of the season at three games. All were double-digit losses.
Who other than Pierce can truly be trusted with a clutch perimeter shot?
With the weapons the Boston Celtics possessed in recent seasons, they had to be considered one of the league’s most confident, dangerous teams in game-winning shot situations.
Another product of Ray Allen’s departure is the loss of a good deal of that confidence.
It now feels like Paul Pierce has to be the guy to take the shot. It also feels like opponents know that, and are prepared for it. Kevin Garnett’s deep two-pointer is a solid option, but if a three is needed, Pierce is the only one to be trusted.
None of the newcomers—not even Jason Terry, despite his respectable shooting percentages—have instilled the kind of confidence that make them trustworthy in clutch situations. For a team that has already been involved in three overtime games and four games decided by three points or less, that’s not a good sign.
If the Celtics can’t establish some reliable options for last shot duties, they will be doomed to lose close games throughout the season and into the playoffs.