By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Basketball is back, and it’s hard not to feel pretty darn great about the 2018-19 Boston Celtics.

We felt pretty good about the team when they tipped off the season last year, but that quickly changed when Gordon Hayward was lost for the season before Brad Stevens could even draw his first after timeout play of the new campaign. But after watching the Hayward-less Celtics cruise to a 55-win regular season, and the Hayward & Kyrie-less Celtics come within one win of a trip to the finals, the expectations are sky high for the 2018-19 Celtics squad.

And for good reason. The band is back together, and LeBron James no longer in the Eastern Conference, leaving it up for grabs for a handful of teams. At the top of that list is the Celtics, who head into the new year the favorites to win the conference. Heck, they’re even given a puncher’s chance at dethroning the Warriors in the NBA Finals.

But there is a long, long way to go before we can even think about the Finals, and the Celtics have a whole lot to accomplish — and prove — in the regular season. Here are some of the most fascinating storylines we’ll be following over the next six months as we gear up for what could (and should) be a very special Celtics season.

Welcome Back, Gordon

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Gordon Hayward (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

We’ve spent the last year following every step of Gordon Hayward’s recovery. Whether he was shooting from a chair, picking up marbles with his feet or, finally, throwing down dunks again, we got a glimpse of it.

Now we’ll finally see the culmination of all that hard work, and actually get to see Hayward play some meaningful basketball for the Celtics. It will no doubt take some time to knock off the rust, as evident from Hayward’s play in the preseason, and the team will be monitoring his minutes to start the season. It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes Hayward to return to form, if he does indeed return to form.

But when that happens, look out. This guy is great, and with him back in the mix, the Celtics are the biggest threat out of the Eastern Conference.

Kyrie Too!

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Kyrie Irving (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)

Not to be forgotten is Kyrie Irving, who is also coming back from season-ending surgery late last season. Irving looked explosive throughout the preseason and those around him are saying he’s set to take his game to a whole new level. That’s a terrifying thought for the rest of the NBA.

Irving is healthy, he’s happy and he’s committed to winning with the Celtics (and he’s got a sweet new hairdo). It will be great to see him dazzle everyone with his variety of moves once again, and there’s a good chance Kyrie is even better than what we saw last season.

Tatum: Year 2

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Jayson Tatum (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The 20-year-old worked out with Kobe in the offseason and is brimming with confidence after an unreal rookie campaign. With Hayward returning, there’s a chance Tatum’s output may take a dip overall, but he’s still going to be a threat for some explosive points whenever he gets the ball in his hands.

It’s going to be a lot of fun watching for the improvements that Tatum made to his game during the offseason. And just remember, this is only Year 2.

How Many Wins?

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Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford pose together during Celtics Media Day. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

After notching 55 regular season wins last year, most are predicting the Celtics to be around the 60-win mark this season. Given their roster, some are even thinking the C’s can win upwards of 65 games.

But those are pretty high numbers, especially for a team that is working an All-Star back into the mix after he missed all but five minutes of last season. Every team will be gearing up to play the Celtics, so there are going to be a few of those surprising losses sprinkled throughout.

The Celtics are going to be good. Real good. But don’t be surprised if they win fewer games than last season. As long as they win from mid-April to late-June, that shouldn’t be a problem.

How Will They Handle The Expectations?

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Boston Celtics championship banners (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

It’s Banner 18 or bust, and the biggest question surrounding these Celtics is how they’ll now respond to the lofty expectations placed on the team. They got kind of a free pass last season when Hayward was lost on opening night, and again just ahead of the playoffs when Irving went down. The team thrived in the face of that adversity, but now they are expected to go to the NBA Finals.

There are no longer any excuses for not making it to the last series of the season. There will be bumps along the way, and there will absolutely be more adversity. Not everything is going to be sunshine and lollipops throughout the 82-game schedule, and even more so when the playoffs arrive. How the Celtics handle all of this, and the expectations right from the jump, is going to be one of their toughest battles of the season.

Mr. Manager

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Celtics head coach Brad Stevens (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Brad Stevens will have his hands full trying to keep everyone happy this season. The different rotations and, potentially, different starting lineups he uses throughout the regular season will be fascinating to watch. We may see a different starting five from night to night based on matchups. What will be really interesting is who he sends out in the closing minutes.

Making sure everyone is happy with their PT, and happy with the number of shots they get during games, is quite the task for Stevens this season. If he can handle that, then he absolutely deserves to be the NBA’s Coach of the Year.

How Good (Or Great) Will The Bench Be?

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Celtics guard Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Boston’s starters are awesome, and their bench isn’t far off either. Some are even saying a group of Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis could beat some NBA teams, to which I say that’s crazy. The only team we should consider a possibility is the Sacramento Kings, and it’s a stretch to even consider them an NBA team.

Alas, the bench is going to be good. Real good. They will win the Celtics a handful of games this season, and give Stevens the opportunity to rest his stars at times, whether it’s for long stretches of a game or just giving them a night off altogether.

Who Takes The Last Shot?

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Kyrie Irving takes a shot against Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The Celtics are down two with just 20 seconds left. Who does Stevens draw up the final play for? Kyrie? Hayward? A sneaky Al play? Tatum in the corner? Whoever has the hot hand?

He has plenty of options, and they’ll all be on the table (except for a Marcus Smart three — ANYTHING but a Marcus Smart three). It’s not a bad problem to have, as long as everyone is happy.

Who Will Lead The Team In Scoring?

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Jayson Tatum reacts after making a shot in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Individual statistics really don’t matter, but someone has to lead the team in scoring. It’s just the way the numbers game works.

Irving is the safe bet, but Tatum is a dark horse.

Who Will Be The Team’s MVP?

Al Horford #42 of the Boston Celtics celebrates after scoring against the Philadelphia 76ers during the second quarter of Game One of Round Two of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden on April 30, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Al Horford (Photo Credit: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

This one is a little more complicated. Irving is their leader on offense, but Celtics fans enjoyed (for the most part) arguing about Al Horford’s importance to the team as a whole.

Big Al will be back to doing everything and anything for the team, rarely dazzling on the score sheet. But his impact will be evident each and every night, and he’ll likely be the team’s MVP again.

All About The Defense

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Celtics guard Marcus Smart corrals a loose ball away from Giannis Antetokounmpo and Thon Maker of the Milwaukee Bucks in the finale minutes of Game 5. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The offense will be entertaining and dazzle us all on a nightly basis. But the Celtics’ success will ride on their defense.

They need to be the gritty team that makes life difficult for every opponent on every trip down the floor. That must be their identity if they want to be considered legit title contenders, and not just contenders for the East. If they get lazy on defense on a given night, chances are they will not be winning that game.

Look for Jaylen Brown to take his defensive game to a new level this season.

What Will Be The Marcus Smart Moment Of The Year?

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Marcus Smart (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

He’s either going to win a game by drawing a charge or lose a game by taking a terrible shot at the buzzer. Heck, both will probably happen. But which one will be the signature play of Smart’s season? You just never know, and that’s part of the beauty of Marcus Smart.

How Many Fines, Suspensions For Smart?

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Marcus Smart  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Smart is going to get fined. At least once, probably twice, and likely more. He’s already been fined $25,000, and that was for an altercation in the preseason. He seems to have a new chip on his shoulder after signing a four-year extension with the C’s, and unless he can reign that in just a little bit, it’s probably going to cost him a little more cheddar by the end of the season.

But what he cannot do is get suspended during a key stretch in the season because of some random hissy-fit. And he can’t go punching picture frames because of a missed shot. Smart needs to play with his edge, but he also needs to make sure it doesn’t end up hurting the team in the end. He can only be an impact player when he’s on the floor.

Philosophy From Jaylen

Jaylen Brown is kind of the forgotten man in Boston’s starting five. But he’s going to have a huge impact with his two-way play, and what looks like an improved offensive game.

He’s also going to drop a lot of philosophy during the season. Here’s a look at what he was up to during the offseason:

Keep ’em coming, Jaylen. And if this basketball thing doesn’t work out, he’s definitely got a career writing some deep-thought fortune cookies.

The Great Unknown Of Robert Williams III

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Celtics rookie Robert Williams (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The rookie is a fascinating project for the Celtics. He has the talent to be a solid big man and give Boston some much-needed rim protection, but there was a reason he dropped on draft night. His commitment level was questioned in college, and he didn’t help matters by missing his first conference call the day after the draft. And then again when he missed the team’s flight to summer league in Vegas.

But that appears to be behind Williams, who now lives a hop, skip and a jump away from the C’s new practice facility (that is, as long as that hop, skip and jump are by a 7-footer). He’s in good hands, learning from Horford and Boston’s other veterans.

Williams will likely spend a good chunk of his rookie season in Maine, but gives C’s fans an intriguing rookie to monitor while their stars do their thing. And if he’s stuck in Maine all year, Celtics fans can continue their obsession with Semi Ojeleye’s muscles.

Who Is Their Biggest Threat In The East?

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76ers big man Joel Embiid and Celtics guard Terry Rozier tussle during the 2018 NBA playoffs (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

LeBron James’ stranglehold on the East is over, and the conference is ripe for the taking. It could be the Celtics’ for years to come, but they will certainly have some stiff competition.

Really, this should be asking who is the biggest threat in the Atlantic. The Eastern Conference’s top three teams will come from the division, with the Raptors and 76ers not far from the C’s.

Toronto appears to be the biggest threat after bringing in Kahwi Leonard in the offseason. Philly shouldn’t be too far off either as long as Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid stay healthy, and Markelle Fultz has righted his shooting woes. It appears Fultz has, which should make things interesting as the Boston-Philadelphia rivalry returns to form.

Don’t sleep on the Bucks, either. They have the biggest star in the conference in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and an actual coach in Mike Budenholzer.

(And we can’t forget the Washington Wizards, who have spent the offseason shouting about how good they are to anyone who will listen. It’s kind of cute, if it wasn’t so sad. Have fun with Dwight Howard.)

Boston may be the clear-cut favorite heading into the season, but they have a handful of teams that would like to prove otherwise.

Trader Danny

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Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Ainge has done his work building a contender, but he isn’t done. He’s always looking to make his team better, and he has a few trade chips to work with.

He has four potential first-round picks next year, but the most intriguing chip is guard Terry Rozier. The two sides did not agree on an extension ahead of Monday’s deadline, so Rozier will be a restricted free agent after the season. He wants to be a starter, and he wants to be paid like a starter ($20 million per season). That isn’t going to happen on the Celtics, unless the team decides they would rather have Rozier than Irving, which is highly unlikely.

Rozier is going to be a big part of the Boston bench, but he may also get the Celtics a missing piece around the trade deadline. A Rozier trade is unlikely, considering the insurance he provides in case Irving goes down again, but you never know with Ainge.

Marcus Morris is the more likely candidate to be dealt, but he too will have a big role off the Boston bench. Whether he’s happy in that role will determine if he sticks around all season.

Kings Pick

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NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum announces the Boston Celtics as the No. 3 pick during the 2016 NBA Draft Lottery. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

Ainge’s bevy of Nets picks are gone, but at least Celtics fans can keep tabs on the #KingsPick this season. Boston will get Sacramento’s pick as long as it’s not the No. 1 overall selection. The Kings are going to be bad; but the Celtics are hoping they aren’t too bad that they miss out on a top selection. If the Kings do land the No. 1 pick in the lottery, then Boston will receive Philadelphia’s pick. So, yeah, that pick could lose a lot of luster by June.

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