By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The buzz around the Celtics heading into the 2017-18 resembles that of Kevin Garnett’s first season in Boston.
The hope is Danny Ainge’s flurry of offseason moves will lead to the same result as that magical summer in 2007. Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, under Brad Stevens, will become the “The Big 3 III” and bring the Celtics another banner, as Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen did 10 years ago.
But this team has a whole lot to prove heading into their first season together.
The magic number at Causeway Street is 18 and has been for a decade. While there’s loads of excitement for these new-look Celtics, and rightfully so, chances are they’ll still be gunning for “Banner 18” a year from now thanks to the stranglehold the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers have over the NBA Finals. Ainge’s offseason binge certainly puts the Celtics in a better position to compete this season, but the NBA’s top dogs still have their grasp of the league’s top-tier.
Boston is in a great position to pounce should the injury bug strike either of the two teams that have made up the NBA Finals matchup in each of the last three years, but really, Ainge’s blockbuster acquisition of Irving was with an eye toward the future. It’s next season when the Celtics will really have a chance to take over the East, especially if LeBron James takes his talents out west. Once they take over, Boston may not relinquish that spot atop to East’s totem pole for some time.
But that doesn’t mean the 2017-18 Celtics aren’t going to make plenty of noise and battle for the top spot in the East, and likely, a deep postseason run. There should be lots of hype for a team that added a pair of all-stars in their prime, not to mention the third-overall pick in the draft. Add in the fact they have a mad scientist in Stevens figuring it all out, and it’s going to be a phenomenal season of Boston basketball.
Here are 18 storylines we’ll be following from the moment the season tips off in Cleveland to when the last buzzer sounds hopefully sometime in late June.
Kyrie The Leader?
He wanted out of Cleveland because of the large shadow LeBron casts over all who enter his domain. Irving wants to show the world he can lead his own team, and he’ll have that opportunity in Boston. Gordon Hayward is a great player, Al Horford is the glue, but make no mistake, the Celtics are Kyrie Irving’s team.
He’s the face of the franchise and he’s going to be expected to be the leader both on and off of the court. So far he’s handled everything pretty well, referring to Tuesday night’s return to Cleveland as “just hoops.” We’ll see if that lasts throughout the season, with each meeting with the Cavaliers likely getting a little more important along the way.
This is what he wanted when he asked to be traded from a perennial contender, and he’s been given a great opportunity to show he can be a true leader.
You don’t have to watch too much of Irving to know he’s a ridiculously talented basketball player. His offense is simply incredible, and no moment is too big for the guard. He has a smooth jumper and a knack for hitting big shots, and can attack the basket like few other guards in the NBA.
Putting the ball in the basket is always fun to watch, but watching Irving dribble and wizard his way through opposing defenses is going to be just as entertaining. Yes, this is from a preseason game against a team that decided not to play defense in their final tune up (cough, Dwight Howard), but look at this hardwood sorcery:
Filthy. Now imagine what he has in his bag of tricks for opening night and the 81-plus game nights to follow.
Mr. Everything, Gordon Hayward
Hayward is also an extremely talented player, one who enjoyed a career year in Utah last season. But playing on the west coast, you may not know just how good Hayward is.
He’s your typical Brad Stevens kind of guy, one who can do just about everything on the floor. He’s going to score plenty of points with his arsenal of moves and will get a ton of open looks off the give-and-go with Irving. He’s also going to pull down his share of rebounds for Boston, and could end up leading the team on the glass come season’s end.
As stated before, he’s the glue for this team. Horford isn’t going to put up big numbers, but his impact will be there. We all saw what he did for Isaiah Thomas last season, drawing some of the big bodies out of the paint and letting the little guy do his thing, and he’ll do the same for Irving.
The haters will scream that he doesn’t score enough, or pull down enough rebounds, or isn’t tough enough in big moments. There are times when all of that rings true with the C’s big man. But watch the game and you’ll know that Horford is making a difference out there, whether it shows up in the box score or not.
Jaylen’s Breakout Season
The Celtics now have a wonderful mix of established players and promising youth (they have the third-youngest roster in the NBA). That second segment begins with 20-year-old Jaylen Brown, who looks primed for a breakout year in his sophomore season.
He spent all preseason attacking the basket, and will be thrust into an expanded role with Jae Crowder now in Cleveland. That means he’ll also draw some difficult defensive assignments throughout the season.
That’s a lot for a 20-year-old to digest in just his second NBA season, but the Celtics are expecting some big things from Brown.
Jayson Tatum — Stretch 4?
It’s hard not to be excited for the 19-year-old, especially when there are Paul Pierce comparisons being thrown out once a week.
Tatum could find himself playing some extremely meaningful minutes for the Celtics as a rookie, and in this new position-less NBA he’ll see plenty of time as a stretch-4. He has a high shot release and insane wingspan, so Tatum shouldn’t have much trouble getting his shot off over bigger defenders. His offense looks NBA-ready, and the Celtics are banking on him making a difference from the jump.
With Marcus Morris sidelined to start the season, all signs point to Tatum in Boston’s starting lineup on opening night. No pressure, rookie. No pressure at all.
The Celtics are one of the few teams in the NBA that can feel confident that no matter who pulls down a rebound (if they can pull down rebounds, but more on that in a bit), they’re going to start a race down the floor. Some are concerned that Irving’s iso-centric play will slow things down, and it may at times, but they seemed like a pretty unselfish bunch during preseason, willing to make that extra pass to get the open shot.
Smart’s Improved Offense
We all know what Marcus Smart brings on the defensive end of the floor, and he’ll be a nightmare for opposing offenses even with the 20 lbs he lost over the offseason. He’s going to have to be, because the team’s defense is going to suffer with Avery Bradley gone from the mix.
Smart’s offense has been the most frustrating part of his game, whether it was him hoisting up those ugly jumpers at rapid pace (despite them not falling) or what seemed like his refusal to attack the basket, but it looks like he’s turned a corner on that side of the floor. It’s always dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions based on preseason play, but dare we say it: Smart’s jumper actually looks decent. Not just “decent for a Marcus Smart jumper,” but like a real, actual jump shot. Smart shot a team-high 57.1 percent from the floor during the exhibition season, averaging 10.3 points per game. His shots from downtown were even better, with Smart hitting 58.3 percent of those bids.
This is all great news for the Celtics and Smart himself, who will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season. Having a motivated Smart with a much-improved jumper should mean big thing for the C’s bench.
Bigger Role For Rozier
There are some high hopes that Rozier and Smart will be the leaders of Boston’s second unit. Though Rozier never lived up to the high expectations last season, when he was supposed to take over for Evan Turner, he looks poised to take that next step (or in his case, freakishly long leap) following a strong showing in the preseason.
The kid is lightning quick, can snag a rebound among the trees, and it looks like the game has slowed down for Rozier heading into his third NBA season.
The Rest Of The Bench
Boston’s got loads of talent on the front-end of their roster, and their bench is in good hands if it’s Smart and Rozier can lead the way. And Tatum will likely join that bunch when Morris gets healthy, further strengthening the group.
But from there it’s a great unknown of more players who have yet to hit the floor in a meaningful NBA game (minus Shane Larkin, of course). Guerschon Yabusele has an awesome nickname and a lot of hype, but we’ll see what the Dancing Bear can do when it matters. Semi Ojeleye looks like he could be a steal as a second-round pick and certainly has an admiring in Stevens, but we’ve felt that way about a lot of Ainge’s late selections (granted, none of them had the guns that Ojeleye impressively shows off, but we’ll see). Maybe Daniel Theis, a 6-foot-9 import from Germany, can help with Boston’s inevitable rebounding woes. And if Boston needs someone to hit a shot off the bench, perhaps they’ll be able to turn to last year’s Development League Rookie of the Year, Abdel Nader.
Those are a lot of maybes on the back-end of the roster, and while that shouldn’t make or break the season, it could come back to hurt them if injuries require the C’s to rely on the bottom of their depth chart.
Short On Bigs?
Size and rebounding has been an issue for the Celtics for quite some time, and they didn’t do too much to address that area over the offseason. Aron Baynes is a nice addition who will bring some size and toughness to the Boston frontcourt, but the Celtics will once again be relying on their guards to chip in on the glass.
The Wild, Wild East?
The Eastern Conference is still the minor leagues compared to the Western Conference, and it appears it will be a two-team race between the Celtics and Cavaliers for who will lose to the Warriors in the end. But there are still a handful of talented teams looking to join that conversation.
The Toronto Raptors are always sniffing atop the conference and Atlantic Division, the Washington Wizards are a pesky bunch, and the Milwaukee Bucks could take a giant leap forward on the lengthy frame of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Of course, the Celtics have to prove it on the floor and will likely need some time to gel. Mix in their tough schedule over the first few months it could be a difficult first few weeks for the new squad, making the East standings a crowded place. Obviously, it would be in Boston’s best interest to get their act together early and try to take advantage of the Cavaliers not being at full strength, with LeBron dealing with an apparent ankle injury. It would go a long way in creating some early season space between themselves and the teams that will give chase throughout the year. How the C’s finish will be more important, but it’s also key that they get off to a good start.
Feud With The Wizards
The Celtics roster looks nothing like it did when the two teams went seven rounds in their heavyweight bout during the playoffs, but the Wizards are still fuming. Isaiah Thomas and Kelly Olynyk, the heroes of that series, are both gone, but Marcus Smart is still on the C’s and that’s really all the Wizards need to fuel their feud.
After they looked gassed in Game 7, John Wall and Bradley Beal are ready to prove the Wizards are better than the Celtics. Their four regular season matchups are going to get wild and chippy, especially now that the Celtics have Marcus Morris. He’ll be guarding his twin brother, Markieff, when the two teams square off. That should be a joy, and tempers certainly won’t flair when the two well-adjusted brothers take the floor against each other.
Christmas At The Garden
The first of those four matchups with the Wizards will come on Christmas Day, when the Celtics play host on the holiday for the first time in franchise history. Their tilt will be featured smack in the middle the NBA’s big day.
The two foes will likely forget all of that ill will towards each other and enjoy a wonderful holiday matchup, free of any animosity or anger. Or they won’t, because it’ll be too late for any of them to get coal in their stockings, and it’ll resemble last season’s playoffs. Nothing says holiday cheer like a fake NBA fight!
We won’t get to enjoy the Nets losing another 60+ games this season. Instead, our focus will shift to the Lakers. It’s always fun to watch the Lakers lose, though we should kind of hope they don’t lose too much over the next seven months.
Thanks to Ainge’s pre-draft swap with Philadelphia, Boston will either land LA’s pick next June if it’s between No. 2-5, or the Sixers or Kings pick in 2019, as long as the more favorable of the two isn’t the top overall pick. If that happens, the Celtics will get the least favorable of the two picks. Yes, it’s confusing, and we’re all hoping they land the No. 2 pick next year so the Popsicle headache comes to an end.
So hope the Lakers rack up the losses during the regular season, and then don’t have the Ping Pong balls bounce their way completely at the lottery.
Trader Danny & The NBA’s Bargain Bin
He’s dealt away most of his assets, but this is Danny Ainge we’re talking about. You can never rest with Ainge in charge.
Ainge’s biggest deals are done, though that won’t stop those silly Anthony Davis rumors from clogging up your timeline. Boston has an open roster spot heading into the season and some second-round picks at their disposal, so Ainge will be looking to add at some point, likely in the form of some veteran depth.
Maybe after dominating the G League, Kendrick Perkins will be asked to come in and grab some rebounds for his former team? That’d be awesome, if for nothing else than adding another scowl to the roster.
Pierce Goes Into Rafters
No. 34 will be raised to the TD Garden rafters after the C’s host the Cavaliers at the TD Garden on February 11. Pierce is so special, he gets his own event for his jersey retirement.
Plenty Of Returns
That special day for Pierce could also be Isaiah Thomas’ long-awaited return to the Garden, unless he returns in time to play in Cleveland’s first visit to Boston on January 3. If not, that will be Jae Crowder’s return to Boston, and he’ll likely have a differing opinion of C’s fans cheering on opposing players that evening.
Given all the roster turnover, there will be a handful of other special returns that C’s fans will circle on their schedule. Avery Bradley comes back to Boston as a member of the Pistons on November 27, and Kelly Olynyk will make his return with the Heat on December 20. He’ll probably get a few cheers for his Game 7 performance against the Wizards, and plenty of jeers for everything else he did — or rather, didn’t do — during his four years in green.
But most importantly, Jonas Jerebko returns with the Jazz on December 15. Brad Stevens already has the party all planned out, and the guest list is filling up.