When Gordon Hayward’s ankle was facing the complete wrong direction just over five minutes into the opening game, the last thing Celtics fans were expecting was an extended winning streak. But that is the exactly what we have: a 13 game winning streak following the two game skid to start the 2017-2018 NBA season.
Tonight’s marquee matchup with the Golden State Warriors is all of a sudden the best game on the early NBA season schedule, and a battle between the present and future of the league. The young up and coming Celtics will be facing off with the established champions on the Warriors. These Celtics have a compelling similarity with the rise of the Warriors which makes this matchup all the more fascinating.
Now lets qualify this blog quickly. It’s VERY early. 15 games is hardly enough to make sweeping generalizations. Conversely, its difficult to win 13 games in a row at any point of the NBA season, so there is clearly something working with this franchise, minus Hayward.
30 years is a long time. .. pic.twitter.com/dVI4W0WbyM
— Sean Grande (@SeanGrandePBP) November 15, 2017
This success all stems from prudent personnel decision making by general manager Danny Ainge since The Big 3 era. It was a light speed rebuild and now the Celtics have all the makings of a team that can dominate the NBA for years to come, a la the Golden State Warriors. So let’s dive in to the decisions that garners Ainge consideration for Executive of the Year Award 15 games into the season and has the Celtics primed to knock of the Warriors in the NBA Finals in future seasons.
There was widespread anger from Celtics Nation when Ainge traded back from the first overall pick to the third overall pick while acquiring up a 2-5 protected 2018 first rounder from the Lakers or the 2019 first rounder from the Kings should that not convey. Markelle Fultz was dubbed the consensus first overall pick, future superstar guard on draft day but Jayson Tatum has been everything Ainge saw in him and more.
Impressive thing about 19 year old rookie Jayson Tatum is he hasn’t had a bad game yet. He contributes across the board. Points are a bonus.
— Kevin O’Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) November 7, 2017
ALL ABOARD THE JAYSON TATUM HYPE TRAIN I’M DRIVING AND THERE ARE NO BRAKES!!! pic.twitter.com/BrWmqNF502
— John Karalis 🇬🇷 (@RedsArmy_John) November 7, 2017
Tatum has been a starter from Day 1 and has given Brad Stevens productive minutes. He rarely ever looks like a rookie and is almost too poised for a 19 year old kid. Ainge is a wizard for trading down two picks, adding a potential Top 5 pick in the loaded 2018 draft class and still getting the guy he wanted. Genius. The cherry on top is he looks a lot like a young Paul Pierce. Celtics fans are too spoiled because this guy is going to only improve as his body and mind continue to develop. Jayson Tatum three years from now is a scary thought.
Also the fact that Fultz has an injured shoulder and is messing around shooting with his left hand is even more cause for Tatum being the right selection for the Celtics.
Markelle Fultz is running 4-on-0 drills with coaches on the far court. Have seen him take about 5 jumpers so far…all left handed.
— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) November 6, 2017
The second, highly controversial move Ainge made was trading Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick for Kyrie Irving. Just like moving back to pick number three, it seemed highly risky, with seemingly endless numbers of ways they could lose the trade. Now again, it is only 15 games into the season and these narratives can shift over time but Kyrie has been sublime so far. He has actually had a few subpar games, isn’t shooting efficiently yet, but its clear he is trying to mesh with Brad Stevens, his teammates and change the direction of his career from a isolation scorer to an all-around basketball superstar.
Kyrie Irving is Basketball Houdini pic.twitter.com/JPWXIk2Ii6
— Kevin O’Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) November 7, 2017
Irving has been a highlight machine in the first few weeks of the season but everyone already knew how skilled he is with the basketball. What has been impressive is his passing and defense.
— NBA (@NBA) November 7, 2017
His full highlights from the Atlanta Hawks game on November 6th showed his full array of talents that he has worked so hard to hone. The passing numbers aren’t stellar, he is averaging 5.2 assists per game which is marginally lower than his 5.5 career average, but he has dropped his turnover numbers almost a full turnover per game. That assist to turnover ratio is drop dead gorgeous when discussing his overall offensive ability. The defense has been disruptive and explosive as Irving was tied for the lead in steals in the whole NBA, before his facial fracture kept him out of the games against the Charlotte Hornets and Toronto Raptors. His defensive rating, which is a real indication of his value on that end of the floor, is a staggering number that even NBA gurus could have not predicted.
— Adam Kaufman (@AdamMKaufman) November 7, 2017
Irving is truly writing his own destiny with Stevens and the Celtics and with the Cavaliers struggling to open the season, Ainge is looking more and more like a genius everyday. Irving will only get more efficient on the offensive side of the ball as he becomes more comfortable in Stevens’ system and the ball-hawking defense will continue with simple effort. Irving has played just as Ainge envisioned when making this jaw dropping move and shipping Celtic sweetheart Thomas away after his magical season.
- Disclaimer: This trade will be more accurately judged once Isaiah Thomas returns from injury but the Celtics seem to have the upper hand out of the gate.
Trading away two of their better defenders from last season in Avery Bradley and Crowder seemed like a miscalculation by Ainge, but the whole squad is playing lights out D thanks to Al Horford. He has proved he is worth every penny of that max contract, averaging 15 points, 9 rebounds and almost 5 assists per game, on sniper level shooting numbers. Oftentimes the offense works through him and he always makes the right play. His defensive rebounding has been a huge part of the resurgence of the D and he has made a concerted effort to get on the glass. The Celtics rank second in the NBA in total rebounding percentage and much of that success can be attributed to Horford. He makes everyone around him better and Ainge was smart to pair his new stars (Irving and Hayward when he returns), and his young studs (Tatum and Jaylen Brown) with Horford because they all look like a cohesive squad that is built to be a sustained contender in this new era, small-ball NBA.
The Celtics-Warriors comparisons cannot end without discussing his 2016 first round draft pick Jaylen Brown. He has made the year two jump that everyone expected and its beautiful basketball. Pairing his elite athleticism with much improved shooting numbers (44% from the field, 37% from three) and some deceptive ball handling has given Celtics fans a taste of what the 21 year old wing can become with further development. Ainge has nailed the last two drafts, the last two free agent classes and skillfully used trades to assemble this team that has Golden State potential. The pieces all fit just right especially when they pass like this to secure a 13th straight victory.
KYRIE > JAYLEN > JAYSON TO SEAL LUCKY NO. 13 IN A ROW!!!!☘️ pic.twitter.com/NEtkYWbxMe
— Marc D’Amico (@Marc_DAmico) November 15, 2017
“The only thing that really matters is us handling our preparation, understanding the trust that we continue to build from one another, and the expectations we have within this locker room are reality based,” Irving said after the Celtics win over the Hawks on November 6. “We know what we want to accomplish but it starts with not taking any moment for granted and understanding we gotta continue to get better.” This is the kind of attitude that breads long term success. Team work, constant effort and attitude are how teams go from being just good to greats, like the Warriors of the past 5 years.
Ainge has bought into the small ball style of play that is taking over the NBA but he has put his own spin on it. He has put an emphasis on defense first and foremost, with a multitude of athletic wings between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-10. These guys can guard anyone on the floor so they are able to switch every screen and still be able to cover effectively. This makes it much more difficult to shoot the three, which is the way teams base their offensive schemes around these days. They are fourth in the NBA in opponent three point percentage at 32.8%. They should end up near the top of the league in this stat and Ainge’s moves made this defensive philosophy possible. The Warriors are a potent offensive team but they always played strong defense when it mattered. The Celtics have the potential to be an even better defensive team than the Warriors which can cover up some of their offensive deficiencies while they allow their young guns to develop.
The offensive philosophy that Stevens has developed has elite potential that hasn’t been reached quite yet. There is going to be a learning curve with this group without Hayward because there is a lack of experience in carrying a scoring load for Brown, Tatum, and most of the second unit, but the position-less basketball that Stevens has developed can be Warrior-esque. When they get Hayward back next season, he will be another athletic wing who can handle, shoot and distribute, and the rest of the starters will have improved their offensive games rapidly in his absence, which will create a lineup who has elite ability in all 5 starting spots. It will be incredibly hard to guard the Celtics later on this season even, once the group is in sync, because all of the players on the court can dribble, pass and shoot. Position-less basketball, with a focus on athleticism and defensive versatility is what Ainge envisioned in his master plan for the Celtics. The moves to acquire Irving, Hayward, Brown, Tatum, Horford, Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Semi Ojeleye have created this roster filled with versatility on both sides of the ball. Its been poetry in motion the past 13 games and this team has proved themselves to be a force not just in the Eastern Conference but the entire NBA for the foreseeable future.
When discussing direct comparisons with the Celtics and Warriors there are stark similarities between their paths to greatness and it all started through the draft. The Warriors drafted Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green who have become stars and also drafted bench pieces like Patrick McCaw and Jordan Bell who are vital pieces to a championship team. Ainge drafted starters who are on the path to stardom in Brown, and Tatum and his bench contributors include draft picks like Smart, Rozier, and Ojeleye. The Warriors supplemented their home grown talent with two massive free agent signings in Andre Iguodala and Kevin Durant. The Celtics have changed the narrative on Boston as a now sexy free agent location and swiped up Horford and Hayward in two straight off-seasons but also got the vote of confidence from Irving before the trade was completed with the Cavs. It always starts with hitting on high draft picks, which Ainge has seemingly done, but augmenting with superstar signings and trades is how a GM turns their franchise into a contender for years to come. Even Warriors head coach Steve Kerr sees the bright future the Celtics have.
Now, when looking at the matchup of players for the gigantic early season matchup on Thursday night, the players even have some similarities on each team. The Warriors are a more polished and proven version of the small ball team but the Celtics have not reached their peak yet. The Celtics almost certainly won’t be as dynamic offensively, but they have a high offensive ceiling not yet reached and they can almost certainly be a more aggressive and successful defensive team.
The most obvious comparison is Irving and Curry. They are both sharpshooting, deadly ball handling, highlight reel producing point guards who drive their teams success. They can both get grossly hot, and it will be beautiful to see these guys matchup on Thursday because whoever gets the edge in this matchup will have an edge in the game.
A second clear comparison is Green and Horford. They are both versatile offensive players who has the offense run through them. They can both pass, rebound, dribble and shoot and their numbers don’t always tell the whole story about their impact. This will be another stellar matchup that could push the tide of this mammoth game in either direction.
This next comparison isn’t direct because Brown needs more polish in his offensive game, but both he and Thompson are ball hawking, two way shooting guards who have the ability to score the basketball. Brown may never shoot as efficiently as Thompson, but Brown has shown vast improvement of his shot in his second season and has a bruising inside game that Thompson can’t even match in his sixth season. This matchup seems to be a wash because both are going to guard to crap out of each other and both will shoot a poor percentage on Thursday night.
The fourth comparison doesn’t quite fit either but Tatum has that smooth offensive game, poise under pressure, and lanky athletic body that was built for scoring like Durant. Durant is of course one of the greatest scorers in NBA history but Tatum has shown flashes of being able to shoot the three, get to his spot in the mid-range and also put the ball on the floor and get to the rim. Tatum is doing it as a teenager just as Durant did in 2007 so its not as crazy of a comparison as it seems at face value. Tatum needs to add additional pieces to his game each years as Durant has been doing for a decade now and Tatum could end up being the fluid scorer Durant is in 5 years. Morris is likely to cover Durant in the actual game, and whether Morris can limit the damage will be key for the Celtics.
These comparisons could keep being made because these teams are built so similarly. Ultimately this game on Thursday will come down to the stars making the plays they are capable of, the Celtics top-ranked defense against the potent Warriors and whether a bench player on either side can catch fire. It is going to be a statement game around the NBA and a test for the Celtics to see if their version of the versatile small ball lineup can defeat the mighty Warriors.
This is all Ainge’s work and he deserves the Executive of the Year award because there is no other team that brought back four of their players from a one seed team the year before and got noticeably closer to replicating and ultimately beating the Warriors. That is some serious re-tooling and understanding what it takes to win in the modern day NBA. Congratulations to Danny Ainge on preemptively winning the Executive of the Year award and putting his Boston Celtics in a position to contend for a long time.