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You’ve heard about too many chefs in the kitchen or too many hands in the pot, but too many talented players on the same NBA roster—is that even possible?
Pose that question to the overloaded Golden State Warriors, and you might get laughed out of the room. Approach the 2018-19 Boston Celtics with it, though, and there’s at least some consideration.
Last year’s group followed a 55-win regular season with back-to-back playoff series triumphs. It then built leads of 2-0 and 3-2 before falling to LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals—the same fate all other challengers endured for nearly a decade straight.
This season’s roster includes all the principle players from that one, plus healthy versions of Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, and bouncy rookie big man Robert Williams.
You’d think the Shamrocks would be running away with the LeBron-less East, then, and preparing for this core’s first crack at the championship round. And yet, they’re seeded fifth, stuck in between the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets. They have the worst road record among the top seven seeds (11-13) and the same offensive efficiency as Doc Rivers’ star-free Los Angeles Clippers (110.8).
The Celtics (29-18) have zipped past the halfway point without establishing an identity or enjoying any semblance of consistency. Before their current four-game winning streak, they’d won at least four straight three different times. The first was followed by back-to-back losses, and the others were both trailed by three consecutive defeats.
“It’s tough to win four straight and lose three straight,” Marcus Morris told reporters. “I would be lying if I said we knew our identity because the identity of a good team don’t do that.”
The Celtics, of course, are objectively a good team. Their plus-6.0 net efficiency rating is third-best in the entire Association.
But something is holding them back. Oddsmakers saw 57.5-win potential in this team. Right now, it’s on pace to just barely clear 50.
So, what’s the problem?
“I don’t think we’ve all been on a team like this,” Terry Rozier told Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill. “Young guys who can play, guys who did things in their career, the group that was together last year, then you bring Kyrie and Hayward back, it’s a lot with it.”
Rozier offered a more succinct diagnosis next: “Too talented.”
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It probably isn’t that simple.
Gordon Hayward has been slower to recover than expected, and Jaylen Brown has taken a surprising step backward. The offense gets almost nothing at the foul line (28th in free-throw attempts). The defense is statistically strong, but it’s been skewered by scoring guards like Jamal Murray (48 points), James Harden (45), Kemba Walker (43) and Devin Booker (38). This still isn’t a good rebounding team (16th in percentage).
Frustration has also played a supporting role this season. Irving has called out his supporting cast’s lack of experience and urgency. Al Horford has criticized the effort. Head coach Brad Stevens has questioned the club’s toughness, which is usually one of its primary strengths. There have been blow-ups on the bench and air-clearing team meetings.
This doesn’t mean the roster is inherently flawed or that these issues can’t be corrected with time. But considering how close the Celtics might be to contending, who would blame them for attempting to address these issues in trades that also raise the collective ceiling?
Bleacher Report’s Ken Berger lists Boston “among the most motivated teams” to make a play for All-Star scoring guard Bradley Beal. One executive opined that a package of Jaylen Brown, a first-round pick and either Marcus Morris or Aron Baynes might get something done.
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That would give the Celtics another high-level scorer and experienced closer. Beal would instantly be among Boston’s best spot-up and off-the-dribble shooters, and his assertiveness might help fine-tune an offensive hierarchy—especially if an additional rotation player must be added to the outgoing package.
The Celtics could also try building a package around Rozier for Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic, who’s playing the best ball of his career and shouldn’t be too costly as a short-term rental.
While Vooch wouldn’t be expected to maintain his marks, his current numbers would make him Boston’s best rebounder (12.0 per game), second-best scorer (20.5 points) and third-best distributor (3.8). The Celtics are always looking for glass-cleaning help, and they could use another oversized shooter (38.2 percent on three-pointers) behind Al Horford.
Or maybe Rozier could be routed to the Utah Jazz, who could stand to upgrade at point guard and just so happen to have a spare interior anchor on hand. Derrick Favors, whose 2019-20 salary is not guaranteed, is basically the best version of what Williams might become. Favors would be a low-maintenance addition to the offense and an above-the-rim asset to the defense.
Orchestrate one or more of these moves, and you’re left with a rotation that’s shallower and heavier at the top. That could be a good thing, considering the way rotations shrink in the playoffs and the fact that Boston’s abundance of quantity might be spoiling its quality.
“The Celtics lack nothing; with Irving, Horford and Hayward healthy, they have everything they need to be exactly who we all expected to them to be,” Dan Devine wrote for The Ringer. “At the moment, though, that kind of seems like the problem. When can a team be less than the sum of its parts? Maybe when it has too much of a good thing.”
While narrowing the offensive focus might help, it’s hard to say if it’d be more beneficial than just practicing patience.
Expectations were sky-high because this roster is stacked. Slicing it now—when the trade values of Brown, Hayward and Rozier might be at their lowest—would be risky, especially without knowing just how good this nucleus can be.
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“We’re always looking to upgrade our team if those opportunities present themselves. But I think that’s going to be tough,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s “Toucher & Rich” (h/t NBC Sports Boston’s Darren Hartwell). “As far as trading players, I don’t really see much out there. We have a lot of good ones. It’s hard to get better players than we have.”
Could Ainge be posturing? Sure. We’re in peak smokescreen season, after all.
But he knows as well as anyone how much talent is based in Boston right now. He’s also acutely aware of the fact that any trade chip that’s cashed in now is one that couldn’t be used in a future Anthony Davis pursuit.
Maybe Ainge throws caution to the wind and makes a blockbuster move for Beal or Vucevic anyhow. Maybe the executive sits the swap season out and hopes the chemistry clicks. Maybe he splits the difference and makes marginal moves, adding an outside specialist like Wayne Ellington or a complementary rebounder like Robin Lopez or Enes Kanter.
The Celtics aren’t quite what they could be. But it’s on Ainge to decide whether standing pat or trading is the best possible solution.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.