One thing that has characterized the New England Patriots’ 16-year reign of terror on the NFL has been the team’s ability to win, even when key players are injured or get traded away. Staying the course even when chunks of the team are missing has been dubbed the “next man up” mentality, and it speaks to a team’s depth as well as its overall culture. For example, while the Patriots are famous for delivering wins by optimizing their depth, the Boston Celtics have adopted it this season. And they have been winning.
The Celtics’ season was off to a tumultuous start when they lost their blockbuster offseason signing Gordon Hayward to a season-ending ankle injury in the opening minutes of their first game. They went on to lose to the Cavaliers in game one and were defeated by the Milwaukee Bucks in the following game, leaving fans wondering what kind of grit this team had.
Fans were right to wonder about this group. After all, it has only four returning players from the previous season, and its longest tenured player, Marcus Smart, is just in his fourth year with the team. Furthermore, the Celtics were built with Gordon Hayward as a centerpiece. Losing him forced 19-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum to assume a larger scoring burden.
Despite their early-season woes, the Celtics responded by rattling off 14 consecutive wins en route to the best record in the NBA. These wins have not come easy as the undisputed leader of the team, Al Horford missed two games while going through the NBA concussion protocol. Kyrie Irving, the most prolific scorer on the team — and maybe in the entire league so far this season — missed almost two games with a facial fracture. Backup center Marcus Morris missed the season’s first nine games with knee soreness, and Jayson Tatum had to miss time due to ankle soreness. Still, since Oct. 18, the Celtics are undefeated.
Barring an unpredictable injury to Gordon Hayward, Danny Ainge’s high-profile transactions over the past two years have paid off with terrific on-court production and leadership from Al Horford and Kyrie Irving. Less visibly, though, his moves this offseason replacing last season’s bench have been just as impressive and impactful.
Ainge signed point guard Shane Larkin who, after being dismissed by the Brooklyn Nets, ended up in Barcelona last summer. He has been a solid scoring guard off the bench, and his 16 points against the Charlotte Hornets and lock down defense against the Nets were instrumental in securing wins against both teams. The backup big men have been just as critical. Like Larkin, Daniel Theis came to the Celtics via Europe, and Theis has been a remarkable defender and rebounder so far. Aron Baynes is also a key piece to the rotation, splitting time with Theis as a replacement for Al Horford. Defense in the paint and rebounding were glaring weaknesses for the Celtics last season. Theis and Baynes, along with Horford, have changed that so far. The Celtics have a league-best 95.8 defensive rating and are third in the NBA with 56.5 rebounds per game.
Danny Ainge has shown flashes of Bill Belichick recently by signing other teams’ misfits and castaways and putting them in a position to make an impact. The bench has been crucial to the Celtics’ 13-game win streak, as Hayward is out for the season and Horford, Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum have all missed significant time due to injuries. Against strong opponents like the Bucks, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, the bench has stepped up to push the Celtics to victory. Astute offseason transactions by Danny Ainge have enabled these Celtics to be championship contenders even without the superstar Hayward.
Charlie Blasberg ’18 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.