NBA scout: Celts have work to do to contend

Bill Burt, The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.
·5 min read

Mar. 10—The Boston Celtics are red-hot ... comparatively speaking.

The All-Star break has come and is almost gone, picking back up tomorrow night in Brooklyn against the scariest team in the NBA.

We will see how hot — four in a row and at 19-17 — they really are.

Local NBA scout Jeff Nelson, formerly with the New Orleans Jazz and currently with the Philadelphia 76ers and a long-time Bradford resident, hasn't worked as much due to COVID-19, but he has seen practically every Celtics game.

We asked him to help us assess the team at the exact halfway point.

"It was a nice way to head into the break, winning four straight," said Nelson. "They needed it. They beat three teams that are decent with losing records, and they beat the Clippers without Kawhi Leonard. But that's OK.

"Those have been the kind of games they've been losing. Fixing that part — beating teams you are supposed to beat — makes them a top four team in the East."

But there are problems, according to Nelson, problems that time could fix ... with an emphasis on "could."

"They don't really have an exact formula to win games," said Nelson. "They don't really have an identity other than Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who are obviously very good. They're legit all-stars.

"And they have to be better on the defensive end," said Nelson. "Tatum and Brown expend so much energy on the offensive end that it's affecting their defense.

"Not having Marcus Smart has hurt them, especially on defense. That should help. And with Robert Williams stepping up, playing better, maybe it's time to commit more minutes to him. He gives them at least some defense near the basket."

A topic of discussion around the league in talking about the Celtics for much of the last two-plus months is the lack of passing and, well, "hero ball." Too many players, including the top two and Kemba Walker, are playing one-on-one.

"Sometimes it works, but in tough games the ball has to move better," said Nelson. "The better teams are averaging about 28 assists per game. The Celtics are at 22.4, which is 27th out of 30. That's bad."

Nelson says he has the utmost respect for head coach Brad Stevens and the way the team has improved over most of his run. But the fact that there are so many different players in the mix every night has affected the consistency.

"Sometimes you see a guy play 20 minutes and then you don't see him play the next game," said Nelson. "It seems like he's had issues getting the bench players to be more consistent. It's not easy. But that's on the coach."

Nelson also said there seems to be some issues with roles, that Walker hasn't seemed comfortable being the third wheel. And Smart has intimated that he wants a bigger role offensively, maybe believing he should be considered among the Celtics new Big Three.

"Again, that issue is something Brad has to address if it is an issue," said Nelson. "Guys accepting roles seems to have been an issue for a few seasons now with the Celtics.

"I get it. They are still a young team in that its two best players are still growing. But guys need to know their roles and accept them. It's that simple."

Nelson said that losing Al Horford's presence has affected this team, particularly the way Stevens likes to coach.

Horford's ability to hit the 3-pointer was special, said Nelson. He could work the pick and roll and stay out there beyond the 3-point line because he drew attention and opened the floor up for slashers like Tatum and Brown.

"They miss Al a lot," said Nelson. "(Daniel) Theis has gotten better with his three-pointer, but it's inconsistent. Horford was outstanding."

One of the highlights this season, says Nelson, has been the play of rookie Payton Pritchard.

"He's a mentally tough kid," said Nelson. "But he's a legit threat from the 3-point line. He's shooting 40 percent. You can see he's not afraid of the moment. I think they got a good one in him. He has made up for some of the disappointment with Jeff Teague."

Nelson said the Nets and Sixers are the iron of the Eastern Conference. Both would be too tough to beat if the Celtics didn't improve greatly and/or make a move.

What move?

"The guy I really like is Nikola Vučević of the Magic," said Nelson of the 6-11 center, averaging 24.6 points, with two-plus years on his contract. "He can hit the three as well as any big man.

"I think he would add a lot to this offense and team. The Celtics would have to give something up for him, though. Someone good, a lot of picks, etc. That kind of player would really impact the Celtics in the East."

Let the second half begin. As our local scout noted, it's not too early to get excited, but it's too early to order the Eastern Conference finals tickets.

You can email Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @burttalkssports.