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Celtics’ depleted roster presents challenges moving forward

Celtics

Point guard Kyrie Irving will be out the Celtics’ lineup for up to six weeks.

The All-Star and former NBA champion underwent a minor knee procedure on Saturday. The surgery was to remove a tension wire in Irving’s patella, placed there after his kneecap was repaired in 2015.

Irving has already missed the Celtics’ last five games due to knee discomfort. The rest didn’t improve his situation, leading to an expedited surgery timeline. The surgery was originally going to be scheduled for after the season.

With Irving officially sidelined, Boston’s roster keeps getting slimmer and slimmer. And with the playoffs on the horizon, the Celtics’ ability to field a team that can compete for the NBA Finals has been officially called into question.

Here is a look at the Celtics’ immediate future, regarding injuries, schedules and expectations.

Injury report

Irving is slated to be out of commission for anywhere from three to six weeks. The soonest he can return is April 14, the day the playoffs begin. If his return is pushed to six weeks, he could possibly not return until the Conference Semifinals.

Boston will be missing 24.4 points, 5.1 assists and 3.8 rebounds per game without Kyrie. Not to mention serviceable defense and some of the very best ball-handling and iso scoring skills in the league.

Fellow point guard Marcus Smart is also out after undergoing thumb surgery. He has been quoted as saying that he is eyeing a return sometime in May. The bulk of the point guard duties will fall on Terry Rozier and Shane Larkin in their absences.

Celtics
Daniel Theis grabs a rebound against John Collins. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Rookie Daniel Theis is out for the remainder of the season after tearing his meniscus on March 11th. He has already undergone surgery, and is expected to return to the Celtics next season.

Jaylen Brown is aiming to return to the lineup on Sunday night, after being in the NBA’s concussion protocol since March 8th. The Celtics have been extremely careful regarding Brown’s injury, and his potential return will be a game-time decisions.

Of course, Gordon Hayward is still out after suffering a broken leg in the first game of the season. Coach Brad Stevens has adamantly stated that Hayward will not return, but the reports are not uniform. Hayward himself has not ruled out playing again this season, saying, “the hope is still there.”

Hardship Exemption

On March 23rd, it was reported that the Celtics are filing for a Hardship Exemption from the NBA. It is defined as follows by SB Nation:

“The Hardship Exemption is a tool that allows NBA teams that are hit hard by injuries to continue to field a deep enough roster to both practice and play games. In order to qualify, teams must have at least four players out for at least three games to petition. As soon as one of the injured players is ready to return, the team must drop back into compliance with standard roster size.” (Keith P. Smith, SB Nation)

If granted, this could be potentially huge for the Celtics’ playoff seeding hopes. It would allow them to sign players that fit Brad Stevens’ system in an effort to win the necessary games to secure home court advantage.

However, dropping that player could be potentially problematic, especially considering some returning players present question marks moving forward. Utilizing previously dropped players, though, would give a chance for that individual to showcase his skills as a form of tryout, which would be useful for all parties.

Stevens has been quoted as saying that Boston would target a perimeter player, if the exemption is granted. With a big chunk of their outside and mid-range shooting on the bench, this seems like the best fit.

Remaining schedule

The Celtics only have 10 games remaining on the season. Five are against lottery teams, four are against playoff contenders, and one comes against a potential playoff team (Utah Jazz).

Their schedule is obviously favorable. The lottery teams will be all but trying to drop these games against Boston. It is not an exaggeration to say that Boston’s bench alone could beat them.

Of their remaining five games against playoff teams, though, four are on the road. Two of those are against the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors (one at home, one on the road). These games are huge trouble for the second place Celtics.

Celtics
DeRozan dribbles against Celtics’ Jaylen Brown. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

The third place Cleveland Cavaliers are winners of four in a row, and their schedule is equally favorable. If the Cavs can stay hot and the Celtics start dropping games, they could easily be overtaken for the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

The good news is that even if they dropped all 10 games, they would still be a playoff team, albeit with a significant disadvantage. How far the Celtics go in the playoffs, however, is completely dependent upon when their injured stars can return and contribute at a high level.

Expectations should be leveled going forward. It would be a win for the team if they can go 5-5 in their last 10 games, which would probably keep them in second place. There is not a huge difference between the two and three seed in the NBA. If Boston wants a spot in the Conference Finals, though, they’ll need every home court advantage they can get.

Featured image by Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports

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