NBA trade deadline moves won't matter unless Celtics core decides to change

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Chris Forsberg
·5 min read
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Forsberg: Trades won't matter unless C's core decides to change originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The NBA trade deadline looms a week away and all eyes are on Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge.

But here’s the sobering truth: No move Ainge can make is likely to change the trajectory of the 2020-21 season unless the core players of the team are willing to change their ways.

For all the obvious obstacles encountered, the Celtics have woefully underperformed this year. There is no combination of moves that will fully remedy a team that lollygagged its way to a 21-point first-half deficit in Cleveland on Wednesday night then ran out of steam at the finish line of another unsightly loss to a bad opponent.

Two-thirds of the way through the season, Boston is 20-20. If the playoffs started today, Boston would be the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference and would be forced to navigate the play-in tournament for the right to play one of the conference’s top seeds in the first round.

“It’s been a challenging year,” Ainge admitted during his weekly chat with 98.5 The SportsHub’s "Toucher and Rich” program. Ainge noted the team’s struggles have added a layer of difficulty in how he navigates the trade deadline.

“I feel like there’s parts of games we play well. It’s just how long that part is. Is it a quarter? A half? Three quarters? We’ve struggled to close out games, and we’ve struggled with consistency. I think you hear me talk a lot about resolve and it seems like we don’t have a lot of characteristics of a really good team, for sure.”

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These Celtics don’t have an identity. There’s no facet of their game that they can consistently lean on when things get tough.

Boston does not lack for talent and that makes its roller coaster ways even more maddening. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are All-Star talents but they’ve struggled to get the most out of the players around them. Kemba Walker has struggled to find consistency working his way back from left knee rehab. Marcus Smart missed 18 games with a calf injury and is still navigating a minutes restriction as he ramps back up.

But that core, and with the recent emergence of Robert Williams, should seemingly be something better than one of the nine teams in the NBA within three games of .500. Instead, Boston is 12-17 over the past two months. Even when Tatum and Brown have had solid nights, it hasn’t consistently translated to wins. In fact, Boston has lost each of its last six games when both Tatum and Brown score 25 points or more.

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The root of the issue is seemingly effort. The Celtics, when they want to be, can hang with the NBA’s elite. They showed it Tuesday night while trading haymakers with the Utah Jazz. But crunch-time woes and a general inability to collect themselves whenever things go sideways has sentenced this team to mediocrity.

Can a talent infusion aid this team? Almost certainly. The Celtics, because of health woes, have been forced to lean heavy on the likes of Semi Ojeleye, who has one field goal in 38 minutes of floor time while being a spot starter the past two games. Jeff Teague continues to get floor time because Brad Stevens is relentlessly faithful to his veterans, even at the expense of rookie development as Aaron Nesmith withers after an encouraging stretch in which he provided much-needed energy.

This is where Ainge can help. He cannot sit on his hands at the deadline. Even if Ainge elects to pocket the Gordon Hayward traded player exception in hopes of maximizing it this summer, Ainge must prune this roster and find creative ways to infuse more trustworthy talent on the bench. Boston needs to cut bait with players that don’t fit their long-term vision and invest deeper in the younger players with the potential to blossom like Williams has in recent weeks.

Celtics Talk Podcast: Appreciating Time Lord and rationalizing a Lonzo Ball trade with John Karalis | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

But even after the dust settles from the trade deadline (and the buyout market that follows), the Celtics need an attitude adjustment.

This team simply isn’t good enough to show up and expect to beat inferior opponents. Boston needs to figure out how to more consistently play with the defensive energy that had been the calling card of Stevens’ teams throughout his NBA tenure. It’s downright flabbergasting that Boston sits 22nd in defensive rating this season while allowing 112.3 points per 100 possessions. Well, flabbergasting unless you’ve watched opposing guards shred Boston this season.

The Celtics desperately need to figure out what’s ailing them in crunch time, including not allowing offensive struggles to linger onto the defensive end. It would help, too, if Boston stopped settling for jump shots and more consistently attacked the basket.

Trades can help this team but the bigger makeover needs to occur with their attitude and effort.