The Boston Celtics had an offseason full of change. They’ll make the playoffs, but there are multiple factors that will determine how far they can go.
It’s hard for a team to lose both Kyrie Irving and Al Horford in the offseason and still have a great shot at making the playoffs. Thanks to their drafting over the years and success in free agency, though, the Boston Celtics find themselves in that position heading into the 2019-20 NBA season.
It’s not as if Boston had a bad season; they won 49 games and ran into Giannis Antetokounmpo in the playoffs. But Irving wanted to join Kevin Durant in Brooklyn and Horford saw more championship upside in Philadelphia. The bench saw some key losses as well with Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris, and Aron Baynes leaving town.
Danny Ainge and the Celtics pivoted, adding Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter in free agency and Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, and Carsen Edwards in the draft. The additions are good, but the pieces don’t fit perfectly and it will take time for Brad Stevens to play around with the puzzle. In order to earn a top-four seed in the East this season, there are five questions the Celtics must answer.
1. Can Kemba be the No. 1 option on a good team?
Walker was once an inefficient scorer on an awful team, but over time has developed into a no-doubt offensive engine capable of putting up huge scoring nights. Playing for a bad Hornets team, these nights have often come up fruitless and Walker has made the playoffs just once in his career.
Which is why he’s now wearing green. Boston offers Walker the stability in the front office and coaching staff he didn’t have in Charlotte, along with a roster that takes some of the pressure off of Walker.
While Walker can definitely be the go-to scorer for an offense, he needs some balance. With a 6-foot-1, 184-pound frame and an aging body, Walker only has so much juice left to give. With the roster in Charlotte, Walker may not have been far from some sort of a breakdown in his body and performance.
Fellow free-agent addition Kanter, an efficient low-post scorer, may give Walker some Al Jefferson vibes. The real offensive help, though, needs to come from Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward. Marcus Smart, who would be a great backcourt partner on the defensive end for Walker, could also give Kemba a break and allow him to operate off-ball here and there.
Kemba has a massive role to fill, replacing Kyrie Irving. While the Irving experiment didn’t go as expected, he undoubtedly carried a huge load on offense. With so many mouths to feed in the offense, perhaps bringing Walker in will help satisfy both the need for a lead scoring guard and someone that can mesh better with the core roster pieces.
2. Will Jayson Tatum break through to the next level?
The hype was real surrounding Jayson Tatum during his rookie year. There were some concerns with Tatum coming out of college as a long-range shooter and defender. It didn’t take long for Tatum to impress, though, and put himself in the “Next Up” category of young NBA talents.
In his rookie season, Tatum averaged 13.9 points and 5.0 rebounds per game on .475/.434/.826 shooting splits. He performed on defense and played an important role for a Celtics team that gave LeBron James and the Cavaliers a tough seven-game Eastern Conference Finals series.
With Irving injured, Tatum had to step up offensively and did so, averaging 17.9 points (49.7 percent shooting) in the series. The series before, a five-gamer against Philly, Tatum averaged 23.6 points (52.4 percent shooting).
With a rookie season like that, it was hard to see Tatum going anywhere but up. He did improve his averages (15.1 points and 6.0 rebounds) in his second season but his shooting percentages dipped. He attacked the rim less and pulled up in the mid-range more. As a result, Tatum’s effective field goal percentage went from an above-average 54 to a below-average 50.7.
The vibe with the Celtics was off last year, and perhaps that played a part in Tatum’s halted progression. Tatum went away from what worked as a rookie and it hurt him last season.
Now, the organization has refocused and with Irving and Horford gone, Tatum is much closer to the center of that focus. If Tatum can get back to attacking the rim at a high-rate and knocking down 3s, the popular sentiment will turn back positive on Tatum. But more importantly, the Celtics will have a lot more success.
3. How badly will the loss of Al Horford hurt?
Kyrie Irving is the best player the Celtics lost this offseason, but Al Horford may be the most important. A flexible, versatile defender, Horford was quarterbacking Boston’s defense and was the key reason they had so much success on that end of the floor.
Sure, it hurts to not have one of the few (or only) guys that can give Joel Embiid fits. But what about everyone else?
The current situation Boston has at center is… not promising. Kanter, who had a nice run with Portland in the playoffs last season, is not a good defender and won’t be starting for the entire season. Robert Williams led the league in block percentage last season but still has a long way to go picking up other defensive concepts. Daniel Theis is fine but is quite foul-happy. Vincent Poirier is huge (7-feet, 255 pounds) but still needs to prove himself as an NBA-level defender.
We could get cute and throw Grant Williams into the conversation, but he’s only 6-foot-7. He’s incredibly smart on the defensive end and knows how to use his body (much like Horford) but it would be easy for teams possessing traditional bigs to run him off the floor.
Don’t worry: I haven’t forgotten about Tacko Fall. Scoring on the 7-foot-6, 290-pound Fall at the rim is no easy task, but defense is more than shot-blocking, after all. Fall should get some run in spots but he’s not the Celtics’ long-term future at the position.
Heading into the season, Boston will have to hope the group they have holds everything together. It will be incredibly difficult to replace Horford on the defensive end, but perhaps Stevens has a plan to help Celtics fans move on.
4. Will youngsters get much run?
As stated earlier, the Celtics have overhauled their bench with newcomers such as Carsen Edwards, Grant Williams, and Romeo Langford joining via the draft. Depth pieces such as Tremont Waters (two-way) and Tacko Fall were added as well.
These players should all get a fair shake competing for minutes. Edwards will likely share the backcourt with Marcus Smart off the bench. Langford, the last pick of this year’s lottery, may be playing alongside them. Williams likely has a hold on the backup 4 job.
These are all good players, but how much they contribute to winning right away will be important in determining the Celtics’ ceiling. They all offer a unique skillset; Edwards offers pull-up shooting from 3 and enough shake to get to the rim, Langford has immense upside as a complementary scorer, and Williams operates with a high basketball-IQ, burning-hot motor, and budding skills as an outside shooter.
This one seems like an easy one to answer: they will get run, but how much will they impact winning? Boston’s bench will be quite youthful, but the young reserves are no slouches.
5. Is Gordon Hayward in for a bounceback season?
It was just two years ago when Gordon Hayward, coming off a career-year with the Utah Jazz that helped net him a four-year max deal with the Celtics, suffered that horrific lower leg injury less than six minutes into his Boston tenure. But it feels like it’s been a lot longer.
The storylines in Boston before last season grew to be simple subplots of the Celtics’ disappointing season. It all seemed so clear: with a proven cast of young players, Boston was just a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward away from making the Finals.
Hayward was going to start slow, of course. With such a terrible injury, overcoming the fear of playing on once-broken bones was going to be a process for Hayward. Getting his body (and mind) used to playing again was going to be a hurdle, but once Hayward cleared it, it was smooth sailing from there.
The waters never calmed, however. Hayward averaged 10.2 points per game on 40.7 percent shooting in October. Then 10.3 points on 41.7 percent shooting in November. It’s OK, still early.
In January, he averaged 11.5 points on 46.5 percent shooting. Getting better but still not max-level production.
As time went on, it became clear that Hayward was not going to average 20 points a night. He wasn’t going to average 15, and he may not even get to 12.
In March, the final full month of the regular season, Hayward had more games with less than 10 points (three) than he did more than 20 (one).
Late March moving into April, Hayward started showing more flashes. He was playing 30 minutes or at least close to it and started to have more impact as a scorer. For a Boston team that had such a roller coaster of a regular season, high-level production from Hayward may have been the remedy to all the team’s ailments heading into the postseason.
Hayward was not able to carry that late-season momentum into the playoffs, however. In Boston’s first-round series against Indiana, Hayward posted scoring lines of 10, 13, 6, and 20 points. In the next round against Milwaukee, Hayward averaged 7.4 points on 32.2 percent shooting.
The drama is out the door now and Hayward has another offseason post-injury under his belt. With Irving and Horford gone, Hayward will now have to be the offensive crutch when the playoffs roll around.
Before then, however, Hayward needs to prove to his team, and himself, that he’s ready to be a star again.