If you wanted a test of “addition by subtraction”, the 2019-20 Boston Celtics may be one of the better options in NBA history. After the previous iteration of the team, having done their best to show us that you really can have too much of a good thing, spent its summer containing the fallout caused by a significant number of swift exits.
Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Marcus Morris Sr., Aron Baynes, and Terry Rozier headed to new teams this past summer. Whilst former Charlotte Hornet, Kemba Walker, came the other way with the hopes of filling Irving’s void. Enes Kanter and Vincent Poirier were also added, along with five other rookies to complete the team’s new, chemistry-orientated look.
While the jury’s out on how the new arrivals will mesh with veterans, early results from Summer League and Team USA have been promising. But with Gordon Hayward still on the mend from an injury he suffered on opening night almost two seasons ago, and both he and Jaylen Brown potential free agents next summer, only time will tell whether this chemistry experiment will be successful.
After dragging the 2017-18 “Hospital” Celtics to the brink of the 2018 NBA Finals — falling short behind a superhuman effort by Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers — despite losing Hayward for virtually the entire season and Irving and center Daniel Theis for the postseason, expectations for the Celtics were high. So high, they were a near-unanimous pick to win the Eastern Conference, and players were asking if they might be on par with one of the greatest NBA teams ever.
Then, reality took over.
Division rivals gambled on high-stakes trades, and, for the Toronto Raptors, it paid off with a banner. Obscure rules and questionable tactics stymied Boston’s long-time pursuit of Anthony Davis, and individual goals with a lack of clear, effective leadership combined to cause the team to implode in one of the more painful seasons to watch in recent decades. Nearly the worst possible scenario unfolded. Hayward was up-and-down most nights. Rozier was mostly down, in what was a reduced role during a contract year. Brown and Tatum’s anticipated growth was not forthcoming, and Irving appeared to give up mid-series against the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the postseason, bringing it all to a merciful end in just five games.
The offseason didn’t start much better, with Kyrie reneging on his promise to stay with the team, decamping to the Brooklyn Nets with ex-Golden State Warrior, Kevin Durant. Frontcourt stalwart Al Horford left as well, taking a bigger paycheck and clearer path to contention with division rival Philadelphia. As the 2018-19 season drew to a close, things were looking bleak, indeed.
Eager to put the problems which contributed to a disappointing 2018-19 season behind them, Boston’s front office embarked on a cautious path in the 2019 NBA Draft, selecting high-character prospects with only one big swing — Indiana wing Romeo Langford at 14th overall — amid three other high-floor (if lower-ceiling) prospects.
Tennessee’s Grant Williams (drafted 22nd overall), too small to be a typical NBA big even at his listed 6-7 height, has shown promise adapting to a more mobile role with more emphasis on perimeter offense than he saw in the NCAA. Purdue’s Carsen Edwards (taken 33rd) has also impressed on both ends of the floor, despite his also-short stature as a 6-1 guard, particularly with his ability to hit from almost anywhere on the court. All three could find their way into some serious playing time and even Boston’s last pick, LSU guard Tremont Waters (51st overall) could crack the deep rotation by season’s end.
For now, the plan seems to be building around the team’s young core of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum while hoping UConn product Walker and the hopefully-rehabilitated Hayward, provide the veteran leadership needed to integrate so many NBA novates. That latter category also includes French center Vincent Poirier, and could grow to include Summer League sensation Tacko Fall by training camp.
Boston’s front office should be commended for recovering from such a series of disasters this summer, remaining poised to re-enter the contention picture should one of their young players take a step forward, particularly if it solidifies the team’s biggest weakness – the frontcourt rotation. That isn’t likely to be solved with the collection of bigs currently on the roster, but it’s not out of the question that coach Brad Stevens may be able to make a strong facsimile of a contender out of more coachable players, while either an in-house candidate or viable trade candidate emerges.
1. Renewed focus on chemistry
The Celtics have done a great job of retooling while staying relevant, but have work ahead of them to make the pieces fit. There’s a few veteran voices who’ll need to set the tone despite lack of ties to the team (Walker, Kanter), relative youth (Smart), or level of recovery (Hayward). Solid results from summer play hint at this team’s ceiling, but a roster with less talent and similar potential issues may produce worse results than previous campaigns.
With so many departures, finding a functional rotation will be a challenge. Mercifully (and likely intentionally), this roster has bodies and skill sets more disposed to coach Brad Stevens’ preferred style of play. From All-NBA guard Kemba Walker to two-way contract floor general Tremont Waters, player coachability and facility in Stevens’ read-and-react offense are evident. The biggest questions are who’ll be moving the rock, who’ll provide the firepower, and, most importantly, how the team will defend with so many more middling to bad defenders than last season.
3. Can they play defense?
This may be the biggest hurdle to meeting the coming season’s lower expectations. More hubris and less buy-in than we’ve seen in this summer’s largely meaningless tilts, could create the sort of chaos we saw last year, whilst also jeopardizing the team’s designs on nearer-term contention. But getting players known for their (short) stature, bad defense, or both to buy into Stevens’ often-overachieving defenses could see a return to the ex-Butler coach’s tendency to exceed expectations.
Kemba Walker| 25.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 5.9 apg
A killer in the clutch, known for making those around him better – a career season with this much talent around him is definitely on the table.
Gordon Hayward | 11.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.4 apg
A potential free agent by season’s end, Hayward seems poised to rehabilitate his value – but to what level?
Marcus Smart| 8.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 4.0 apg
Having found his shot in his fourth season, Boston’s longest-tenured player can solidify his newfound two-way status with more consistent offense and his trademark defense.
Jaylen Brown | 13.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.4 apg
Another potential free agent next summer, Brown has much to prove in terms of both deserving the Brinks Truck-sized payday he’s hoping for — and to silence doubters saying he’ll never deserve it.
Jayson Tatum | 15.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.1 apg
Perhaps more than any other player, Tatum’s growth will determine the path the franchise takes. If he lives up to the hype, the sky’s the limit. Anything less, and big changes may come.