The Truth About the Boston Celtics' Early-Season Turmoil

A. Sherrod BlakelyContributor INovember 3, 2021

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, sits with ice on his knees on t he bench with guard Marcus Smart, left, during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat, Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

If you read the whole quote and not just the Instagram excerpt, Marcus Smart's supposedly explosive comments about teammates Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were more measured than you've been led to believe.

"They're still learning," Smart said of Tatum and Brown. "And we're proud of the progress they're making, but they're going to have to make another step and find ways to not only create for themselves but create for others on this team, to open up the court for them later on in the game where they don't have to always take those tough shots or take tough matchups when they do get the one-on-one. 

"... It's something that we've been asking for them to do, and they're learning. So we just got to continue to help those guys do that."

But Smart's words do raise relevant questions about the Boston Celtics, who are either a) experiencing early-season growing pains while losing five of their first seven games or b) hurtling toward a deep locker-room divide between the franchise's key figures. 

It seems too early to say Smart, Tatum and Brown can't coexist. The trio has been through too much adversity on and off the court to let a couple of weeks of selfish play interrupt years of chemistry.

They were on the floor when Gordon Hayward suffered a horrendous ankle injury in 2017 that became a rallying cry that led to them winning 16 of their next 17 games.

When Kyrie Irving said in 2018 that he would re-sign with the Celtics, only to have a change of heart nine months later and instead sign with the Brooklyn Nets, the trio was as surprised as anyone. Boston still managed to get to the second round of the playoffs that year and followed that up in 2020 with a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals before bowing out to the Miami Heat.

No one is under the impression the Celtics are built to compete with the top-tier teams in the NBA. But they should absolutely be winning at a higher clip than we have seen so far this season. 

Smart is spot-on in pointing out how Tatum and Brown have shown growth in their playmaking in recent years. He's also correct that they don't involve their teammates as much as they should.

Both Tatum and Brown have taken a step back in assists per game this season after each averaged a career high in that category last season. 

But the pieces around them have not converted opportunities, making it tougher for Tatum and Brown to be willing passers and efficient scorers. 

Brown, who averages 2.5 assists per game this season (down from 3.4 last season), averages 5.7 potential assists per game—the same potential assists average he had a year ago. 

And Tatum, whose 3.7 assists are down from 4.3 last season, has seen a slight dip in his potential assists per game (8.0 compared to 8.5 last season). 

Al Horford is a five-time All-Star, but he's 35 and well past his prime. Yet Horford has been among Boston's most consistent performers, with four double-doubles in five games played.

Josh Richardson has come off the bench to average 12.5 points in Boston's last two games, shooting 45.5 percent from the field. Dennis Schroder leads the team in assists (6.4) and ranks fourth in scoring (14.0) despite primarily coming off the bench. 

Richardson and Schroder have been decent, but their play along with Horford has not been enough.

Smart, never known as a top-shelf shooter, is also among the Celtics' perimeter players who have struggled offensively thus far this season. Smart is playing a career-high 36.4 minutes per game, but he is shooting a career-low 29.3 percent from the field to go with career lows in net rating (plus-1.9) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.85). 

Meanwhile, Tatum has seen a dramatic drop-off in his shooting. A 45.5 percent career shooter, Tatum is making just 39.5 percent of his shots this season, including a career-low 27.1 percent from three-point range. 

"It's a long season." Tatum told Bleacher Report prior to Boston's loss to Chicago on Monday. "Where you'll have some stretches where, shots that normally go in, open shots, won't. I think I've been doing this long enough ... I'll be alright."

Tatum and Brown's supporting cast has to be better and capitalize on scoring opportunities in order to regain the trust of the two stars and make them more willing to pass. 

Improved ball movement is a good start, but that by no means is the elixir that will cure the ills of this Celtics team offensively. Boston averages 292.4 passes per game, ranking seventh in the NBA. 

Head coach Ime Udoka has empowered Smart to be more of a facilitator this season, something Smart has wanted to do for as long as he has been in Boston. 

But it's not translating. Smart disappears on offense more than most NBA point guards, while Tatum and Brown carry a larger share of playmaking duties. Despite playing a career high in minutes, Smart's usage rate of 14.4 ties a career low. 

"I just wanna play basketball," Smart said. "Every team knows we're trying to go to Jayson and Jaylen. Every team is programmed and studied to stop Jayson and Jaylen."

The role that Tatum and Brown play for the Celtics is not lost on Udoka. The Celtics' first-year coach has been around the league long enough to know he has to be on the same page as his star players. 

The easier-said-than-done challenge: Balance his respect for Tatum and Brown's exceptional skills and experience within the framework of the team's goals. 

Tatum and Brown continue to say all the right things, and Udoka is being publicly candid with his feedback. 

Following a loss to Washington, Udoka talked about how "mind-boggling" it was to see Brown play a certain way one game and completely different, in a bad way, the next. 

"It didn't bother me," Brown said when told about Udoka's comment. "It's mind-boggling to me, too."

What we are witnessing now with the Celtics is a gut-check moment. They may not be built to win a championship, but there's more than enough talent on this roster to remain competitive. 

Smart's words may have stung a little, and may have skipped some context, but they were needed. In the NBA, accountability and success starts and ends with your best players.