The Boston Celtics have spent most of the 2018-19 season waiting out themselves.
They are waiting for Jaylen Brown to recapture his comfort and efficiency within the offense. They are waiting for Gordon Hayward to be Gordon Hayward again following two surgeries in a span of seven months.
They are waiting for Al Horford to once again shoot the lights out from three. They are waiting for Terry Rozier to live up to the Sixth Man of the Year goodwill he stockpiled over the offseason. They were waiting for Jayson Tatum to de-Kobe his shot profile, and for whatever starting lineup they settled on to score at respectable clips.
Most of all, the Celtics are waiting on Kyrie Irving's lifeline to emerge.
Some of Boston's opening red flags are normalizing. Tatum continues to cut long twos from his offensive diet. The latest starting lineup is tallying more than 115 points per 100 possessions. Horford has knocked down 50 percent of his treys over the past few weeks.
Hayward hinted at improving form with a 30-point near-triple-double during the Celtics' Dec. 1 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Moving Brown to the bench upon his return from a lower back injury is supposed to spark a similar resurrection. He'll theoretically juice up a second unit that, for all of Boston's struggles, already ranks sixth in point differential per 100 possessions.
It would seem the Celtics' over-dependence is following suit. His usage rate is down from last year, and the offense appears to be trending in the right direction:
Sean Grande @SeanGrandePBP
Your feel-good-about-the-Celtics wonky stat of the day: In the last 10 days, the C's not only have the NBA's #1 offense, they're lapping the field. The gap between Boston (1.246 points/possession) and #2 Houston (1.179), is as big as the gap between #2 Houston and #12 Portland.
Strength of schedule skews this small-sample surge. Roundhouse kicking a Cleveland Cavaliers franchise more invested in scouting Duke games is nothing special. The same goes for Thursday's win over the defense-averse New York Knicks. Boston is 19th in strength of schedule played.
Still, the offense is settling into a groove. The Celtics are eighth in points scored per 100 possessions since the start of November. They're playing .500 basketball during this stretch, but their issues are no longer solely nutshelled at the offensive end.
Through it all, both the highs and the lows, the Celtics have yet to see the essence of their identity take shape. They are not a sum-of-their-parts powerhouse. They're more predictable than that, with a hierarchy absent welcomed debate.
Irving is their best and most valuable player, which is a non-revelation but also a slight disappointment.
This wasn't a given entering last season. More than a few would have been prepared to craft an argument in Hayward's favor.
Even after his injury, as Irving went from leading (or co-)star to Boston's offensive lifeblood, Horford taught a master's class in aggregate importance. The Celtics outscored opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions when he played as the lone star. They posted a plus-three net rating with Irving running solo, but were significantly better in those minutes following the halfway mark (plus-8.1).
Standout postseason performers Brown, Rozier and Tatum were only supposed to advance that position. Boston's offense stalled on plenty of occasions while Irving watched from the sidelines. But it was not a complete train wreck.
Combined with Hayward's return, the trial by fire for Brown and Tatum, armed the Celtics with letdown-proof depth. There would be a grace period as everyone learned to play together and off one another, but what they lacked in familiarity they'd make up for with surplus.
But this season hasn't played out that way. Boston doesn't have a clear solution to adequately surviving minutes without Irving.
Head coach Brad Stevens is not burdened with juggling a slew of No. 2s. Nor are the Celtics reaping the benefits from a less standardized, your-turn, my-turn, then-his-turn pecking order.
Boston's offensive rating plummets by 14.6 points per 100 possessions when Irving catches a breather, by far the largest differential on the team. Even the Horford-without-Kyrie minutes have lost their luster:
|Boston's Performance without Kyrie By Player|
|Player||Possessions Played without Irving||Celtics ORTG||Celtics Net Rating|
|Stats via Cleaning the Glass.|
Isolate the Celtics' performance since Nov. 1, and the offensive discrepancy widens to 19 points per 100 possessions without Irving. Most of the individual player splits look the same or get worse. Filtering for minutes played without Irving and Hayward to account for the latter's big-picture struggles doesn't help either.
Pairing Rozier with Marcus Smart has helped the Celtics weather some of their Kyrie-less minutes. But they've rested on their laurels on defense during those stretches. They're scoring 101.9 points per 100 possessions when those two play without Irving, and that offensive rating actually drops to under 100 when Smart and Rozier are joined by Tatum.
"I think it was a lot of different reasons," Tatum said of Boston's early-season struggles, per MassLive.com's Tom Westerholm. "Maybe we believed the hype too much and we didn't come out and perform. There was a big target on our backs. The teams were coming after us and we didn't understand that."
Lack of preparedness might explain dropping games to the Knicks and Orlando Magic at home, crunch-time losses and fourth-quarter defensive fits. It doesn't really address the strain incurred without Irving. That more than anything is a functionality issue.
Only the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs attempt a smaller share of their shots at the rim, and the Celtics are 29th in free-throw-attempt rate, just in front of the Magic. Irving is built to thrive within those confines. He has never lived at the foul line—he's getting there with career-worst frequency—and from-scratch pull-ups are his jam.
That doesn't apply to the rest of the roster. Not right now.
The Celtics rely on Irving's presence to generate any sort of volume at the basket. No one else on the team places in the top 100 of drives per game, and their share of shots attempted around the rim plummets by 6 percent when he's not in the game.
Boston is instead left to take even more jumpers off the dribble—a real problem when Irving is the lone player hitting more than 40 percent of his pull-ups:
It isn't hard to see this turning in time. Talent has a way of figuring things out, and the Celtics have hope to spare.
Barely anyone would have bet on Hayward working off all his rust by the quarter-pole. He has already started to look a touch more comfortable operating on his own and should eventually show more invention off the dribble as he reclaims feel and confidence—particularly when going after bigs on switches:
Brown is more committed than any of Boston's other guards and wings at getting to the cup. Spending extra time with the second-stringers could be the push he needs to increase his attacks without hijacking possessions. And he won't shoot under 25 percent on open and wide-open threes forever.
Tatum could still turn into an offensive hub. His jumper is smooth-looking enough, even when it doesn't fall, to carry lineups on its own, and the 2018 postseason is proof that he can wire himself to drive toward the basket and generate trips to the charity stripe.
Rozier probably needs a larger role to rival the rhythm he found last year. Playing with more firepower off the bench will either help or hurt. He's shooting better than 38 percent on catch-and-shoot treys, but he'll dribble into contested jumpers and step-backs no matter who's on the floor with him:
Horford's minutes minus Irving will mirror last year's stints if those around him settle down. Most of his time without his point guard has come next to at least one of Brown and Hayward, who have struggled more overall than anyone. Horford is in his bag when he can leverage his passes and pump fakes against one other shot-maker.
For all the very real concerns, the Celtics' pursuit of a second lifeline continues to feel like a matter of patience.
Really, they're not so much searching as waiting to see who solves their problem first—and whether that solution takes effect in time to claim the control they're supposed to have over the rest of the East.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games on Dec. 6. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.