Boston Celtics fans don't have time to go searching for the panic button. They're too busy digging through the history books to process just how bad things have already gotten.
Four games doesn't make or break a season. But the Celtics faithful have been forced to focus on that fact more now than they have in decades.
Following Monday night's 95-88 defeat at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies, the Celtics (0-4) are one of just four winless teams left in the league. Boston hadn't opened a season with four consecutive losses since the 1969-70 season, via Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald.
So, how did things get so bad so quickly for a franchise just two seasons removed from an Eastern Conference Finals appearance? In the wake of Danny Ainge's summer cleaning, some unfortunate truths have started to surface that suggest this historically rough start is only a sign of darker days ahead.
Rajon Rondo Cannot Return Soon Enough
With Rajon Rondo (torn ACL) sidelined indefinitely, maybe first-year Celtics coach Brad Stevens had no other choice.
Even still, the fervor in his support of Rondo's stand-in Avery Bradley made you wonder if the defensive specialist might actually be up for the job—even when his resume said he clearly was not.
“When you have elite ability, part of that is being versatile, part of that is being able to do a lot of different things,” Stevens said about his point guard placeholder, via Baxter Holmes of The Boston Globe. “He has that.”
Through four games, though, what Bradley really has is an unsightly stat sheet and undoubtedly a massive collection of "get well soon" cards for his hobbled backcourt mate.
Bradley's struggles, while glaring on their own, are best seen through the struggles of Boston's offense as a whole:
|Assist Per Turnover||0.68||30|
Bradley isn't a point guard, no matter how hard Stevens tries to make him one. He's dishing out just 3.0 assists in 32.5 minutes per game. He's tied for 98th in the league with just 6.0 points created by assist per game.
It's not as if Bradley's filling the role of a scoring point guard. He's putting up just 10.8 points a night, shooting 37.7 percent from the field and 10.0 percent from distance.
The challenge for Stevens, though, is the fact that he doesn't really have anywhere else to turn.
Undrafted free agent Phil Pressey has made one brief appearance so far. Ditto for unabashed gunner MarShon Brooks.
Jordan Crawford might have the best handles on the team, but he's far more liable to call his own number (9.8 points per game) than look for a teammate (2.8 assists). Gerald Wallace and Jeff Green are willing passers, but neither are particularly gifted in the craft.
Stevens could actually put his playmaker search on hold if he could just find someone capable of initiating his offense without turning the ball over. Boston has four different players (Bradley, Wallace, Kelly Olynyk and Vitor Faverani) in the league's top 50 in turnovers per game.
"Our biggest thing right now is turning the ball over," Stevens told Holmes. "There's no question about it. If we don't do that, we're going to have a better chance of winning."
When the game slows down late in the contest, Boston's inability to stay out of its own way has been crippling. The Celtics average more turnovers (1.3) than assists (0.5) in clutch situations (final five minutes of a five-point game) and have shot just 21.1 percent from the field and 12.5 percent from three during that time of the game.
For a team having this many problems executing its offensive chances, finding extra possessions would be a goldmine. Unfortunately, the Celtics have had just as many problems in this area.
Rebounding Woes Are Glaring
Controlling the glass should be one of Boston's strengths. Stevens' creative decisions have afforded this team one of the league's biggest starting lineups.
Bradley's the only true guard among Stevens' starters. Wallace (6'7") and Jeff Green (6'9") have flanked Bradley on the perimeter. Brandon Bass (6'8") and Faverani (6'11") have been the first players patrolling the Celtics paint.
The frontcourt isn't massive, but it's a decent-sized group in today's league. Bolstered by Boston's super-sized wings, the Celtics appeared to be no worse than an above-average rebounding team, with the ceiling to be something greater than that.
Through four games, though, this team has been a disaster on the glass.
Boston ranks just 25th in rebounding percentage (47.7) and 29th in defensive rebounding percentage (66.1). The Celtics have been outscored in second-chance points by 9.0 per game. Their minus-3.8 rebounding differential stands as the league's sixth-worst mark, via ESPN.com.
Kris Humphries, who's fighting a losing battle as a veteran trapped behind young prospects, managed nine rebounds in his lone run of the season. Faverani (7.8) is the only other Celtic averaging better than 6.0 rebounds a night.
Sophomore Jared Sullinger has been strong in spurts (9.6 points per 36 minutes), but foul trouble has limited his activity (7.2 fouls per 36 minutes). Faverani's effectiveness on the glass has been hampered by the fact that he's the only real rim-protector on the roster (2.8 blocks per game).
His shot-blocking prowess has been a nice surprise, but he gives up valuable rebounding real estate when he steps up to challenge a shot.
Bass (5.8 rebounds per game) could be considered a disappointment on the glass, but his resume (career 4.6 average) suggests that this should have been expected. Sullinger and Olynyk have fallen victims to the same growing pains that plague most young players.
Boston has to make rebounding a team priority. Unless Sullinger can learn to play without fouling, and Faverani can find some help guarding the rim, Boston's two best rebounders are going to be limited in what they can bring to the glass.
Green (5.3) and Wallace (3.3) have to do a better job of crashing inside when shots are released. Olynyk (3.5) needs to put his 7'0" frame to better use.
Stevens told Bulpett that when his bigs are sealing off the opposition, his wings need to hit the glass harder:
I've always had a theory on rebounding, and that was, if you either hit and get or you hit and stay. Sometimes you just have to box out and let somebody else get it. There were a couple of good clips of that (Monday) where fours and fives blocked out and threes and twos cleaned it up, and I think that's going to have to be the case more often than not.
Boston's had rebounding trouble for years but managed to mask the problem in seasons past with a suffocating defense. The Celtics aren't terrible at that end (102.0 defensive rating, 17th overall), but they're a little too slow on the wings and a little too soft in the middle to push their ceiling any higher than it currently sits.
Throw in the offensive struggles this team's enduring, and you can see why Ainge was fielding questions about tanking the entire offseason. The Celtics will face an uphill battle more often than not this season simply due to a lack of talent.
What is the biggest challenge facing the Celtics?
Boston needs to overcompensate for that shortage with a furious determination to make the small plays that can win games. The Celtics have to send five players after errant shots and chew hardwood in the race for loose balls.
Those same scrappers—new in name but identical in responsibility—have now become the collective face of the franchise. The talent gap between the Celtics and the NBA's elite is as wide as its been in some time, but this group doesn't have to be confined to the cellar.
Better discipline, more energy and a cohesive focus will be enough to get Stevens his first NBA victory. If this mindset continues, the Celtics might be surprised how far it can take them.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com/stats unless otherwise noted.