After a brutal road trip, these Celtics must get real about their issues

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Forsberg: Time is running out for these Celtics to make it work originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

On the day the Celtics launched into a five-game west coast trip, our NBC Sports Boston producers asked us to predict what the headline would be when Boston returned home from an eight-day trek.

This writer’s prediction? “After roller coaster trip, C’s have nine games to convince Brad Stevens not to sell.”

We don’t bring this up to take a victory lap — though we did suggest a 1-4 trip was possible — but because it’s the sobering reality as the Celtics limp home sitting 10th in the Eastern Conference with a sub-.500 record. And, quite frankly, they might not even have nine games before tough decisions need to start being made.

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The Celtics dug themselves a 20-plus point hole for the third straight game on Friday night, this time against a Phoenix squad playing without Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. Marcus Smart was an offensive mess. Robert Williams had a miserable trip. And it feels like the team’s last hope is getting a jolt from the impending return of Jaylen Brown from a hamstring injury.

The Celtics are on the clock. They’re running out of time to show they are worth investing in. NBA trade season technically opens on December 15 but, once the calendar flips to 2022 and even more players start becoming eligible to be moved, the Celtics will have to plot a path forward.

And they might have to go backwards to go forward.

If the Celtics are still a middling team stuck in play-in territory, Boston’s best option might be to swallow hard, embrace a seller role, and resign themselves to accumulating assets with hopes that some additional draft capital might aid the pursuit of the top-end talent the Celtics so desperately need.

Maybe legitimate contenders will inquire about Dennis Schroder and his easy-to-absorb $5.9 million contract. It’s hard to imagine where the Celtics might be without Schroder but, with no clear path to retaining him after this season, it’s probably best to sell high. Maybe a wing-craving contender would consider Josh Richardson, especially given his defensive talents. The Celtics will have plenty of motivation to shed salary and dip below the tax, which could ease payroll burdens in future seasons.

Stevens, in his first days in his new role, showed he’s capable of bold moves when he dealt Kemba Walker to Oklahoma City. He might have to be aggressive again. The effort level of this team has been ghastly on this trip and it’s offensive flaws are obvious. Banking on a surge seems like a wishful thinking.

Maybe there’s a bigger splash to be made, particularly if any disgruntled superstars land on the trade block, or if the Celtics simply decide to break up the veteran pieces of this core. Remember, this is a team that’s been .500 since February 2020. This isn’t a 27-game sample. It’s nearly two full seasons of being mediocre.

The Celtics desperately need shooting but, unless there are ways to add players that will stick around beyond this season, it’s probably better to wait and let younger players like Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard show what they can do with increased playing time. Even that might just be to juice their trade value before a potentially pivotal offseason.

Even as the Celtics come home and settle into a home-heavy stretch, the challenges keep coming. Two of the best teams in the NBA kick off the homestand when Milwaukee visits on Monday and Golden State comes to town on Friday. The Knicks, Sixers, and Cavaliers visit before Christmas.

Stevens, in his first days in his new role, showed he’s capable of bold moves when he dealt Kemba Walker to Oklahoma City. He might have to be aggressive again. The effort level of this team has been ghastly on this trip and it’s offensive flaws are obvious. Banking on a surge seems like a wishful thinking.

No one in the East has been particularly good against above .500 competition. Even the conference-leading Nets are 6-7 in those games. But Boston is now 6-10 after this road trip. They’ve routinely wilted in close games. There are not a lot of signs that this group is capable of being a true contender.

These Celtics have maybe nine games to convince us otherwise. But the final three games of this road trip did little to invite confidence. Stevens must decide soon how to proceed and it might not be a particularly endearing path for a team that’s used to hunting for upgrades during trade season.

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