The Boston Celtics may or may not be the NBA's best team, but nearly one month into the 2017-18 season they have more wins and a better defense than anyone else in the league. Given that they lost Gordon Hayward for the year only five minutes in, it's all very shocking.
Kyrie Irving looks like a contestant on Chopped who has every ingredient known to man at his disposal. Al Horford ranks fifth in Real Plus-Minus. And just about everyone else on the team, particularly 19-year-old Jayson Tatum and 21-year-old Jaylen Brown, has exceeded expectations in roles they didn't know they'd have during the preseason.
As part of TNT's Thursday doubleheader, Boston will put its 13-game win streak on the line against the defending champion Golden State Warriors. On the call with Marv Albert will be 14-year NBA veteran Brent Barry, an analyst who knows what a legitimate championship contender looks like—he won it all, twice, as a member of the San Antonio Spurs.
Leading into it, we chatted with Barry about Boston's surprising start, how Irving looks on his new team, why Marcus Smart is an invaluable puzzle piece, what he's looking to see from the Celtics in their biggest game of the season against one of the best teams in NBA history, and much more.
VICE Sports: Are the Celtics the most pleasant surprise in the league right now?
Brent Barry: I would say maybe other than [Kristaps] Porzingis being able to carry what he’s carrying in New York City, just because the league would want me to say that, because it’s New York (and I’m totally being facetious).
But I think that what Boston has done in the wake of losing Gordon [Hayward] in the first couple minutes and thinking about, maybe from the outside in, how much of a devastating blow that would be to the hopes of an entire season: You go through the summer, the prodigal son returns to his coach in Boston, and you’re able to get Kyrie Irving. All of a sudden, the talk of Boston regaining championship form is dashed in the opening minutes of the first quarter of a game. So what they’ve done after that—the resiliency that they’ve showed, and certainly the consistent play that they’ve had to the tune of how many they’ve won in a row—has been pretty awesome.
What were your expectations for Boston before Hayward went down, and how low did their ceiling drop, in your eyes, in the days that followed?
I thought they could be the second best team in the Eastern Conference. I just felt like there was nothing that Toronto or Washington had done that I thought was something that would be a huge step up in terms of how much better they would be. Washington obviously retaining that starting five, which was great last year, but looking for bench help. Toronto just finding ways to be steady, but not be a threat to anybody.
Then when Gordon went down I thought, I don’t know, Boston’s probably still a playoff team, they’ll still play some good defense. I’m looking at the rest of the Eastern Conference thinking about who it is that’s gonna play consistently competitive basketball throughout the year, and I just couldn’t come up with four teams that would be better than what the Celtics would offer up. So I still thought they could be playoff team after Gordon went down, possibly in a fifth seed or something like that, just missing out on home court.
From that initial impression, how much has your opinion of the Celtics changed based on the first three weeks?
It’s changed a little bit. I feel like what I’ve seen out of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, more specifically, probably has me reassessing how I thought Boston would finish. I just feel like those guys have been so steady, and the opportunities that they’re getting on a nightly basis don’t seem to be something that can’t happen consistently. It’s pretty awesome.
There are a lot of coaches around the league that are looking for the next Marcus Smart
I went to the game in Atlanta last Monday, before I went into the studio to go to work, and I was thinking about how much of Boston’s offense—from what it is that I saw in person and how much I’ve watched on film—is forced offense. You know how many possessions—besides isolation plays for Kyrie towards the end of the game when they’re trying to generate an advantage somewhere, where he has it most of the time with his ball-handling—these guys are pressing to do things, and it just doesn’t happen that often. That to me is a sign of a really good team, a team that can be consistent in terms of their offense on a nightly basis.
That leads me right into my next question, touching on Boston’s night-to-night consistency. As someone who played 14 seasons and was traded both in-season and during the summer, can you speak to how difficult it is for a team that had so much roster turnover to look as cohesive on both ends as they have in the season’s opening few weeks?
I know that training camp was abbreviated and all that sort of stuff, but there’s really no change in that sense. You check in for training camp, you get your new sneakers, you put on your practice jersey, and the first day you’re on the court are guys you’re familiar with. They’re the guys you anticipated seeing on that day when you’re about to get your first practice in, so I don’t know if their adjustment was really all that significant, even though they lost familiar pieces in Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder and all that sort of stuff.
The other thing I was looking at, Michael, before you called me, was Boston has six of the top 16 players in defensive rating. Or, if you want to include Aron Baynes, seven of the top 26 defensive players right now, which is just an incredible number, to have that many guys contributing. It’s pretty sweet.
I know you’re a numbers guy, so my next question is a follow-up on your last point. Boston has been first in defensive rating for most of the year. They’re fifth in defensive rebound rate and that was a huge problem for them last season. When you dig into the advanced statistics—and I know you just brought up individual defensive ratings for a few guys—does anything else stand out to you about this team?
Well, I just think that for how much we’re celebrating basketball skill, how much we’re looking at these big guys that can shoot threes and run fast breaks, so much talk about the skill of the league. When I watch Boston play, and I watch Marcus Smart play, and I think about what the numbers would tell you about Marcus Smart, there’s not a lot of people that would tell you he’s one of their favorite players, yet it seems like whenever I’m reading something about the Boston Celtics, Danny Ainge or Brad is mentioning Marcus Smart most of the time.
And so if we move away from the celebration of basketball skill and we start to talk about basketball savvy, there’s so much of that in what Marcus Smart does for this team that helps me really believe in basketball. That might sound really cheesy to you, but I love when each character plays a role on a team. And when that role ends up helping other guys have success or get appreciated, but that player doesn’t ask for it or want to be mentioned, it’s pretty astounding. And Marcus is one of those players. He's under appreciated from a general standpoint.
There are a lot of coaches around the league that are looking for the next Marcus Smart, and it’s not for Marcus to shoot a three, and it’s not for Marcus to throw some over-the-head, behind-the-neck pass to Jayson Tatum on the baseline, because he could have six turnovers in a row, or he’s gonna air ball the next three-pointer. It’s the fact that he’s calling out every set from the other team. It’s the fact that when he’s on the court, there’s a toughness that the Boston Celtics are able to play with. And there’s a spirit behind his play that makes him go.
There’s definitely an unquantifiable aspect to Smart's game. I don’t think numbers can ever evaluate his total impact.
Great! Good. That’s great. There’s not a number for that, in today’s analytics-driven Twitter-sphere. Talk about this stat and the other. But the fact of the matter is you can still make contributions in a game where there’s five players out there that have responsibilities that can impact the greater good of your team, and Marcus does that in some very unique ways.
Speaking of variables that are hard to measure, everyone points to Brad Stevens as a guy who utilizes his players where they can be most effective. He gets them to play hard in those roles and in those spots. From the outside looking in, what is your impression of the job he’s done this year?
I think it’s been remarkable. We talked about Brad over the last two and a half seasons with glowing remarks and with good reason. He’s built a really good foundation in Boston, and a style of play in Boston that’s very much appreciated. He’s borrowed from some of the better teams in the league, some of the things that have worked. But I think one of the things that gets misconstrued with Brad—or maybe not misconstrued, maybe underappreciated—is his ability to connect with his players and provide an atmosphere for them to succeed.
I think I read something recently—besides him playing a bunch of Ms. Pac Man—about how Brad just doesn’t feel like he exists well when he’s angry. He just doesn’t communicate things well when he’s angry. And I think there are a lot of younger players that appreciate the fact that they have a coach in Brad Stevens that isn’t volatile and does a great job of communicating what it is that he wants, by not just demanding it from the player but at times asking for it, and at times just giving those guys the opportunities to show that they’re capable of doing it.
That’s very empowering when you have a coach that does that for you, especially when young players have that as their first experience with a coach. That can multiply many times over as that player goes through his career, and Brad’s got a couple of those guys in what Marcus Smart is, and what Rozier is, and what Jaylen Brown is, moving forward.
Switching gears, I want to talk about Kyrie Irving for a second. When you watch him play this year, have you seen any growth or adaptation in his game, or is he just an awesome talent taking advantage of a new situation?
I haven’t really dug into things statistically, where his shots may be coming from, or what percentage he’s shooting from different areas, but the fact of the matter is that Kyrie is in a situation where, for the first time—and you go back to his rookie year in Cleveland when he was handed the reins of a franchise after LeBron left, which was difficult—he has complements everywhere on the floor. He’s got complementary guards. He’s got complementary centers. And he’s playing in a style of offense that’s gonna have guys that like to move around and set screens and stay engaged and involved, where he can pick and choose his times to take advantage of what the defense is doing.
I just don’t think there’s been that kind of flow in any offensive situation that he’s been in. And given that he’s such a gifted offensive player, as the season goes on they’ll be able to go deeper and deeper into the playbook.
I think that basically he’s taking this opportunity, and he’s on a mission this year to prove what he’s learned and, more importantly, just how good he is. I love the way he plays. I just think he’s unbelievable to watch. What a treat to have Kyrie as your point guard every night.
People are gonna really be surprised by how gifted a passer and playmaker Kyrie can be, and again that speaks to him having very capable players around him, where day in and day out he’s getting more and more confidence. Not only in himself, but in what it is that those guys can do for him. So they’re just scratching the surface right now with him offensively.
His shooting numbers are pretty low so far, relative to the rest of his career, but when you watch him it’s easy to notice his willingness to make a great pass over a contested long two, which is what he was doing in Cleveland most of the time.
And maybe we can say that the early indicators right now about how Boston won over the course of the last couple years was Isaiah Thomas being Superman in the fourth quarter. We’ve already had instances this year where Kyrie’s been able to take over in the fourth quarter, where he’s been able to make and take big shots, and make big plays. I think there’s a big difference between how Kyrie will start to manipulate the last three or four minutes of games, given that I think he’s more of a willing playmaker during those times. But the idea that "Can Boston finish out games, and what will be the fourth quarter after all the attention Isaiah got last year?" There have been early indicators that that might not be as problematic as what people thought.
VS: Is there anything you can learn about Boston on Thursday? It’s so early in the season but are there any results in that game that can shift how you perceive them in terms of what they can accomplish this season?
Barry: If I can pinpoint one thing in that game, it’s if [the Celtics] can continue to dictate or play at their pace. If they don’t get sped up, or if the young guys don’t get caught up in the Warriors trying to run them around and make it a scoring contest, there’s a win in that. Whether they win or lose, there’s a win in the fact that Boston continued to play at their pace and not force offense against a team that...they haven’t seen the likes of what the Golden State Warriors represent. Not only offensively, but defensively. They’ll be looking at what it is that they aspire to be. Looking in the mirror, so to speak, defensively, about things being cut off, no lanes, no driving angles, contested shots, not fouling, all those sorts of things. So the win for Boston on Thursday will be, can they maintain the pace at which they play all their other opponents.
VS: Is there anything else you wish I asked that I didn’t, or anything else you’d like to say about the Celtics or Thursday night’s game (on TNT)?
Barry: I think one of the things that I’ve certainly been pleasantly surprised about is just how much Aron Baynes means to this team so far. I know he had the 21-point game, a career high the other night. But what he brings to their team, that’s been a pretty good signing. To think that you would lose two players in Crowder and Bradley, and think about the defensive impact it might have on your team, and then you go out and find a guy like Aron Baynes, who can come in and man up the middle, and decide to have him instead of $12 million of Kelly Olynyk, it’s a pretty remarkable signing, in my opinion.
VS: Baynes has been impressive on the defensive glass. His verticality has been great. Screen setting, on ball and off ball. Those have been pretty impactful this year.
Barry: Him and [Daniel] Theis, I mean between the two of them, that’s a pretty good management of your roster. And I love Kelly Olynyk. I love Kelly’s skills and all that stuff, but to think that you could manage the combined minutes of what Olynyk gave you last year, for the most part, with those two guys as your additions? That’s pretty heady.