By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Heading into the 2020-21 season, expectations are slightly tempered for the Boston Celtics. In a way, that is great news.
The Celtics have made it to the Eastern Conference Finals in three of the last four seasons, but have come up short each time. After an offseason that saw Gordon Hayward leave for Charlotte and Boston’s competition in the East get better, making it to the NBA’s final four is no longer the expectation for the Celtics. While players are focused on bringing Banner 18 to the TD Garden, fans and pundits aren’t expecting too much in the way of championship chatter.
But isn’t that right where the Celtics want to be? Under Brad Stevens, the Celtics have succeeded the most when they’ve been counted out. When a trip to the Finals was the expectation, that’s when the Celtics read a little too much of their preseason press clippings and ultimately came up well short. Heck, even heading into last season, a trip to the Conference Finals was not the expectation. It was only when the Celtics exceeded their preseason prognostications that they were elevated to “true contender” status.
The Celtics are going to be underdogs throughout the 2020-21 season. The expectations for them are tempered around the league, with Boston an afterthought in the Eastern Conference pecking order. That makes them a dangerous team heading into the new season, and if a few things fall their way, they should be in the mix for a trip to the NBA Finals once again.
Here are 12 non-COVID Celtics storylines that we’ll be following throughout the upcoming campaign:
The Rise Of The Jays
Boston’s success this season hinges on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown taking another leap. In Tatum’s case, it’s his rise to superstardom.
The forever 19-year-old Tatum took his game to new levels last season, earning his first All-Star nod and All-NBA Third Team honors. He scored a truckload of points for the Celtics and showed that he can indeed handle the pressures of being a team’s top dog. He improved on the defensive end, both as a one-on-one defender and a disruptor, getting those long arms of his into a lot of passing lanes. His stretch in February when he dropped 30 on a nightly basis without batting an eye was downright epic.
Now he’s got a max contract waiting to kick in, and the pressure to perform in Boston is even greater with Gordon Hayward no longer around. There is still a lot of room for improvement to Tatum’s game, with his shot selection at the top of the list, but he’s going to keep getting better. The next time he goes up for a game-tying dunk at the end of a game, maybe he’ll have a little more oomph and not get rejected at the rim. (Based on the swole look he’s sporting in training camp, there’s good reason to believe he’ll have that extra oomph next time.)
He’s already pretty darn good, but Tatum’s goal isn’t to be pretty darn good — it’s to be one of the greats of the game. If that is his motivation, and he can improve on his efficiency, then Tatum will continue that spectacular rise of last season.
The same goes for Jaylen Brown, who became a legit two-way beast in his third NBA season. He just missed out on his first All-Star nod, something he should be able to lock down this season if he continues to advance his two-way game. (More on his offensive prowess later.)
While we’re putting a lot on the shoulders of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, it’s important to remember that they are still just 22 and 24, respectively. They are both locked up long-term. They may not win it all this season, but the Jays are the future of Boston basketball. That is a good thing.
Here we go again… Kemba Walker’s knee is still acting up, which will force the 30-year-old to miss the first few weeks of the season. Hopefully that’s all he misses, but we have our doubts.
Walker was given a stem cell injection that he said made his balky left knee feel better. But the fact that a 30-year-old undersized point guard who depends on using his speed to get into the paint is still dealing with a knee injury from last season is quite worrisome. Forget about the max contract, and just think about what the Celtics are losing when they don’t have Walker in the lineup. He’s a sure-handed floor general who was happy to sacrifice his own point total to make the offense go. He was happy to see Tatum and Brown do the heavy lifting, providing that veteran presence — you know, a happy one — that the team sorely needed.
The cautious approach to start the season is the right one for Boston. Walker is a lot more important to the team come April, May and June than he is in December and January. Let’s just hope his knee is back to full strength — or something close to that — by that time.
Big Man Rotation
This is the big one, and not just because it involves big humans. The Celtics got absolutely hosed by Bam Adebayo in the Eastern Conference Finals, and Stevens had no answers for it.
It didn’t help that the head coach had an eclectic big man rotation. Playing well didn’t seem to matter, since Stevens constantly shied away from playing Robert Williams III even after some impressive stretches from the Timelord. It seemed as though Stevens put Daniel Thies’, Williams’ and Enes Kanter’s names in a hat and just picked a name to decide who would get to play.
This year should be a lot easier with Tristan Thompson added to the mix. As much as we love Theis for his attitude and ability to turn into a seal in the paint, Thompson should be the starter (if healthy, of course). Chemistry shemistry, we want some more toughness and a lot more solid defense out of the center position. Theis could even play alongside Thompson if Stevens wants to send out bigger lineups.
Juggling the three bigs is going to be an interesting practice for Stevens. Williams has to play to improve, but he has to play well in practice in order to earn playing time. It’s quite the conundrum, and it’ll be interesting to see it all play out.
What About Grant?
You can lump Grant Williams into that big man rotation too, though he’s behind both Thompson and Theis on the depth chart. Still, the man without a position should log plenty of minutes in his sophomore campaign.
Whether Stevens asks him to play the four or the five, Williams said he’ll be ready. He turned himself into a serviceable three-point shooter throughout his rookie season, and will get plenty of small-ball minutes again this season. He should even find his way into Boston’s closing lineup in the near future.
Thompson is bringing a lot of toughness to the team. Going against both him and Marcus Smart is not going to be a fun endeavor for opposing teams.
The Celtics may have lost some talent overall, but they gained a whole lot of toughness with just one signing. We are a fan, and can’t wait to see the benefits that added toughness will bring to the floor.
Dunks are only worth two — occasionally three — points in the grand scheme of things. And these guys are tall, so they should be able to throw some some athletic slams.
But that Jaylen Brown sure does love putting guys on posters. And we sure love watching Jaylen Brown putting guys on posters.
If you’d like to see that dunk over LeBron in motion:
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) January 21, 2020
Do kids still buy and hang up posters? We need someone to make a Jaylen Brown one with that old school NBA font. Those would add a whole other level of awesome to JB jams.
Vets Have Arrived
We were begging for a veteran addition all last season, but Danny Ainge stuck with what he had. It may have cost the team a trip to the Finals.
So he went out and addressed two big needs — toughness and depth at point guard — by signing veterans Thompson and Jeff Teague. Had Hayward stuck around, it would have been a pretty great offseason for the Celtics. Alas, Hayward left, and the addition of Thompson and Teague don’t move the needle as much as people would have hoped.
But they are both fine additions, bringing years of experience — and in Thompson’s case, championship experience — to a team that has needed just that.
Grant Williams turned into a pretty solid role player by the end of his rookie season, thanks in large part to his newfound ability to hit threes. Romeo Langford never got a chance to get going because of injuries, but he could be an important player off the Boston bench this season.
The jury is still out on Carsen Edwards, who struggled to knock down shots (among other things) as a rookie. And with the Red Claws opting out of the G League bubble season, two-way players Waters and Tacko Fall will be spending their sophomore seasons exclusively with Boston.
All of those players will have to make strides in Year 2.
Also on Ainge’s to-do list this offseason was adding some shooting to the roster. He did that in the draft by taking Vanderbilt’s Aaron Nesmith at 14th overall. Nesmith was one of college basketball’s most prolific three-point shooters last season, a trait that should translate to the next level. The kid is oozing confidence, which is what you want out of a shooter. He could be asked to knock down shots early and often.
Fellow rookie Payton Pritchard may even find his way into Boston’s point guard rotation.
Need Some Vintage Brad
Where are all those amazing ATO plays we grew so used to? Were those only for overachieving underdog teams? Can we get Gerald Wallace back specifically for inbound passes, please?!?!?
Stevens took a hit last season, given his odd rotations during the playoffs and Boston’s inability to make in-game adjustments. Those horrid third quarters still give us the occasional nightmare, though perhaps that’s all the candy I’m eating just before bedtime.
But this is a big year for Brad. The Celtics are back down in that second tier of contenders in the East, and not many are giving them a legit chance to do anything worthwhile this season. Isn’t that right where Brad Stevens usually likes his team?
Time for the Celtics to get back to being those plucky overachievers.
Danny Ainge has a gigantic Traded Player Exception (TPE) at his disposal, which could be worth up to $28.5 million if he does some roster clearing. But if he wants, he has a free pass to add roughly $22 million to the payroll without making any subsequent moves. That could be a biggy come trade deadline time.
Now, just because Ainge has that exception doesn’t mean he’s going to use it just to use it. He’s not going to add a massive contract to the books if it’s a “quick fix” solution that will lead to headaches next offseason, when he’d have to fit that massive contract on the books with Tatum’s max extension, Jaylen’s max contract, Kemba’s max contract and Smart’s deal (those four will count for upwards of $104 million next season).
It’s more likely that Ainge breaks it up and uses parts of the exception to add pieces along the way, should he see the need. He could even wait and use it next offseason.
But the TPE is there to fill the void that used to be taken up by future first-round picks. We don’t quite know what it will be — or if it will be anything — but it’s something Ainge and Celtics fans can overvalue throughout the season.
The Rest Of The East
The Celtics got a little worse over the offseason, while their competition in the East made steps to get better. The Bucks took a home run swing by adding Jrue Holiday, bringing in D.J. Augustine and Bobby Portis to address needs on the bench. Philadelphia subtracted Al Horford while adding Danny Green and sharp-shooter Seth Curry, not to mention brought in Doc Rivers to figure out the Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid mix. The Miami Heat lost Jae Crowder, but replaced him with Maurice Harkless and Avery Bradley.
Those are the three teams that the Celtics will be competing with in the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference, and all three made moves to separate themselves on paper. The Celtics should finish somewhere in the Top 4 in the East, but their direct competition made moves that will make finishing atop the conference a lot more difficult for Boston.