Are the Boston Celtics contenders or pretenders? Fans in Celtics Nation have watched the first twenty games and asked themselves that question. At 12-8, things look pretty well for the C’s in regards to playoff hopes; they rank 3rd in the Eastern Conference. With that said, we still need to wonder whether or not they will contend this year or fall short again.

At 12-8, the Celtics have definitely had spurts of both positive and negative play. Positive play has shown in good wins against Charlotte, Indiana, and Detroit all on the road. Negative play, however, has shown in bad losses against Denver and Detroit at home and against New Orleans and Washington on the road. What could be more alarming than that are some of the wins actually. Winning narrowly against teams like Brooklyn, Sacramento, and Philadelphia is not exactly encouraging. They can win against teams like those, but can they contend with the top teams?

Positives:

Let’s start with the positives for the Celtics so far. The Celtics have had a pretty good year so far offensively. They score 104. 7 PPG and shoot 45% overall from the field. That both (barely) ranks in the top half of the league. When you dig deeper though, the offense looks much stronger than that. The team has an Offensive Rating of 109. 1, which is points scored per 100 possessions. That is good for ninth in the league. Also, the team is efficient from beyond the arc, shooting 36% from deep. Finally, the Celtics play team basketball and average 24. 4 assists per game, and for those keeping track at home, that is an impressive 2nd in the NBA.

Individually, we have seen Isaiah Thomas pick up right where he left off. Isaiah Thomas is the highest scorer on the team at 26. 3 PPG while shooting 42. 7% from the floor. Even more impressive, he is shooting 88. 5% from the free throw line and averaging 9 attempts per game. Those free throw attempts add up and translate to many points. Also, Thomas gets his teammates involved averaging 6. 4 assists per game.

Thomas is not the only Celtic doing well. Avery Bradley has really improved his game all-around so far this season. Avery Bradley is up to 17. 7 PPG while shooting 46. 9%. He also has seen his rebounding spike from 2. 9 RPG in 2015-2016 to 7. 9 RPG this season. Also, despite limited action, Al Horford is asserting himself in this Celtics rotation. He has scored 14. 9 PPG on 52. 1% shooting. While he has rebounded well, he has worked into the team concept and has become a playmaker averaging 4. 6 APG. These three Celtics look like the anchors going forward this season.

Negatives:

While the Celtics have had some positive play, we would be kidding ourselves if we said this team did not have negative stretches of play. A few qualities have led to this. The first quality is the team rebounding. The team ranks 22nd out of 30 in rebounding and it has come back to bite the Celtics numerous times. Rebounding seems like the Achilles’ Heel for the team and if they want to go far, that issue needs to be addressed.

Also, we have yet to see consistent play from the second unit. This is where the loss of Evan Turner is so crucial. With the exception of Marcus Smart, we have not really seen anyone on the bench make consistent contributions to the team. We have seen guys like Terry Rozier, Kelly Olynyk, Jonas Jerebko, and Jaylen Brown do well off the bench in spurts, but it has not been a guarantee every game. This is one drawback of all the draft picks Danny Ainge acquired. These prospects are nice, but they are still very young players.contributions from the bench could be a bit scarce.

Finally, we have seen the team tend to play down to some other opponent’s level. Against Philadelphia, for example, we saw the team play down to Philadelphia’s level, only winning by one point. Against New Orleans, we saw the Pelicans out-shoot the Celtics 43% to 40%. If the Celtics want to contend, they need to stop lollygagging against rebuilding teams. Sure they may play other contending teams hard, but showing weakness against lesser teams will catch up to the celtics.They were lucky to win against Philadelphia and Sacramento, but dropped against Denver and New Orleans already. Losses like those will affect seeding potentially. They have to get the job done against lesser teams.

Where Do We Stand Now?:

Can the Celtics contend? Absolutely. They have the players that can potentially lead them far. Isaiah Thomas is scoring at an All-Star clip, Avery Bradley is having a career year, and Al Horford is proving he can be that driving force down low. The Celtics also have role players like Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, and Jonas Jerebko that can get it done and bring the extra spark for the team. The offense has actually been strong this year, especially from beyond the arc, ranking in the Top 10 in 3P%. If the Celtics can keep up the offense, they will be a hard team to beat.

With that said, we have to be careful when we think of this team as contenders. When stacked up against Cleveland or Toronto, the team may look a little more like a Tier 2 team. More importantly, this shows against Western Conference foes like Golden State, San Antonio, or Los Angeles. Things do need to change if the team wants to be considered a true contender. They need to figure out the rebounding and we need to see more from the second unit. Also, the defense has been left to be desired this season and defense was supposed to be a calling card for the team this year.

There is still plenty of time for things to happen. There is still time to address those issues that could stop a potential run this postseason. Who knows; maybe Trader Danny strikes a huge trade to push the team over the top. It is a long season yet to go; there are still 62 games remaining. Twenty games in though, we have to say this with cautious optimism, but we can lump the Celtics in with the contenders for right now.