By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — If the NBA held a party for the serious title contenders around the league, the Boston Celtics would be on the outside looking in. Or if they managed to sneak into the raucous affair, they’d be immediately relegated to the kid’s table.
It’s a fitting spot for Boston. As much as they remain a promising team on the rise, they will not be winning a title this year. And until they do that, or at least break through and make an NBA Finals, the kid’s table is where they belong.
That doesn’t mean that the Celtics themselves aren’t setting their sights on raising a banner come next October.
“When you coach in Boston and you play in Boston, there’s one goal that never changes year to year,” Brad Stevens said Tuesday. “Each team is different, and we’ll see if we get good enough to be in that conversation.”
The Celtics took a step back since their last game. They lost Gordon Hayward to free agency and Kemba Walker will start the season sidelined with his lingering knee issue. While other teams around the East made moves to improve their shot at a title, the Celtics did not. Adding Tristian Thompson and Jeff Teague will help in some areas, but the Celtics are starting the new season a few steps behind.
That doesn’t mean the Celtics aren’t going to make it interesting this year. They always do. And when it’s all said and done, there’s a good chance they’ll probably surprise us all in the end and be right back in the Eastern Conference Finals. And once again, if a few breaks fall their way throughout the season, the Celtics could even sneak into their first Finals appearance in over a decade.
But the fact that the season won’t end in a championship is always seen as a disappointment around these parts, so it will be another “successful” disappointment for Boston’s basketball team. They aren’t in “Championship or Bust” mode just yet, but it’s close. That makes this season a massive one in determining a path for the future.
Perhaps a mid-season move could open Boston’s championship window a little bit wider to include this season. But it’ll be up to the current roster to convince Danny Ainge that this year’s squad is worth moving his chips to the middle.
With the C’s set to tip off their 2020-21 campaign tonight against the Milwaukee Bucks, here are some predictions for what’s ahead over 72 regular season games and — hopefully — another lengthy playoff run.
1. Celtics Will Finish 4th In East, Lose In ECF Again
Some folks still have the Celtics among the favorites to win it all, though the C’s are atop that second tier below the Lakers, Clippers, Bucks and Nets (again, the kid’s table, if you will). It’s a great spot for them, not only a fitting placement, but it also seems like this is when the C’s are dangerous.
It’s when everyone was counting them out as plucky underdogs that the Celtics have surprised us the most under Stevens.
As currently constructed, the Celtics have two promising rising stars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, a max point guard with a bad knee in Walker and questions everywhere else up and down the roster. That doesn’t really paint the picture of a title contender, so this is going to be one heck of a challenge for Stevens. But he’s a master motivator of underdogs, and he can now fall back onto that “Everyone is counting us out!” charge.
Overall, the Celtics took a step back over the offseason. They’ll finish behind the Bucks, Nets and likely Heat in the regular season, but should be able to figure it out during the 72-game slate to stay ahead of the Sixers, the Raptors, the Pacers and anyone else who wants to make some noise in the East. Boston should still be set up a run come the postseason, depending on Walker’s health.
If Boston plays to its potential — and IF Walker is healthy come the playoffs — the team will be back in the Conference Finals where they’ll lose to either the Bucks or the Nets. Of course, folks will move the goal posts throughout the season when the C’s start to play well, and when they come up short of a title, they’ll once again be raked through the coals. Such is life for a Boston sports team.
But when the dust settles, this should be another building block of a season, and don’t be surprised if the Celtics are seated at the big boy’s table heading into the 2021-22 season.
2. It’s Going To Be A Bumpier Ride
The first month may not be much fun for the Celtics. In their two preseason games, they looked like a team that could use another month or two of training camp. Instead, they get the Bucks and the Nets right off the bat.
At least those are both “home” games in an empty TD Garden. After that, the Celtics play six of their next seven on the road, with two in Indiana, two in Detroit and back-to-back Florida games against the Heat and the Tampa Bay Raptors. A home game against Memphis is the only game at TD Garden over that two-week span.
When the C’s do return home, they get the Russell Westbrook-led Wizards and the Heat. Eight of Boston’s first 11 games are against projected playoff teams. All of that will come as the Celtics try to figure out how to deal with their own issues.
With Walker out, and with Stevens trying to find his best starting unit and bench rotation, it could be a bumpy start for the Celtics. But things will get better, and with Marcus Smart and Teague, the C’s have enough guard depth to survive without Walker during the regular season.
3. Jayson Tatum Will Get More MVP Votes
Tatum’s rise to superstardom will continue, and the 22-year-old will be even better this season than he was last season. That’s no grand prediction, really. And neither is saying that Tatum will snag some more MVP votes this season, but that will also happen. Expect him to finish in the Top 5 of MVP voting this season.
Tatum put up his best and biggest numbers when he was The Guy in February, averaging 33 points for the month. That just so happened to come when Kemba was experiencing the early days of his knee issues.
Now Tatum will start the season as The Guy, and the Celtics are going to need him to be every bit as great without Walker in the lineup. He’s going to be playing some big minutes — and likely putting up big numbers — early on, which should give his overall numbers a boost.
This season, Tatum is focused on being more efficient and using all of those double teams (and sometimes, triple teams) that he sees as an opportunity to get his teammates better looks. If he can improve his shooting numbers and increase his assists, Tatum will be in the MVP conversation all season.
After making an All-NBA for the first time last season, landing on the Third Team, I like Tatum to make the Second Team this time around.
4. Jaylen Brown Is Getting Snubbed Again
Technically, there won’t be an All-Star game this year. But the NBA would be silly not to go through the process of picking All-Stars from the East and the West. (We can skip the phony fantasy draft part.)
And with that, Jaylen Brown will get snubbed again. He just missed out on his first All-Star nod last year, and it’ll happen again. We love Jaylen in Boston, but that doesn’t seem to permeate around the league. If fans voted for reserves, Brown would be in. But that is left to East coaches, who left a deserving Brown off the squad last year.
Brown is going to play like an All-Star this season, too. He’s gotten better every year and there’s no reason to believe that trend won’t continue. Last year’s snub probably still serves as a little bit of motivation for the 23-year-old.
But with Kyrie Irving back in the mix and Russell Westbrook joining the Eastern Conference this year, Brown should brace for it to happen again. If the Celtics do struggle and the team is hovering around .500 when the fake All-Star teams are selected, Boston likely won’t get a second All-Star to Tatum.
5. Danny Will Use The TPE
Danny Ainge gets dragged for hanging on to “potential” for too long, leaving the C’s president of basketball ops. with nothing to show for it. This year, he has the NBA’s biggest Traded Player Exception at his disposal, which gives him the freedom to add a pretty big contract to the books without having to send back anything in return.
Ainge isn’t going to use the TPE just to use it. But if this year’s Celtics show that they’re worth investing in as a title contender, Ainge has that luxury in his back pocket. It’s a $28 million chip that he can cash in when he sees fit.
I expect he will use it at some point, and am hoping that it’s to bring Harrison Barnes to Boston from Sacramento. Barnes is a 28-year-old vet with plenty experience over his eight-year career, and he’d add some much-needed depth at wing. Barnes averaged 14.5 points off 46 percent shooting (and 38 percent from three-point range) over 72 games for Sacramento last season. He’d be a great addition to a Boston bench that could use some scoring punch.
6. The C’s Are Going To Be A Lot Tougher
The Bucks got better by adding Jrue Holiday to Giannis and Kris Middleton. The Nets got better thanks to the return of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, not to mention the pickup of Landry Shamet. The 76ers are better because they replaced Brett Brown with Doc Rivers, plus their addition of veteran shooter Danny Green.
The Celtics didn’t get better. They’re a little worse because of Hayward’s departure and Walker’s knee. But one thing is certain: The Celtics will be a lot tougher this year.
The addition of Thompson alone adds more of a certain fortitude to the C’s. He’s gonna do the dirty work in the paint, he’s going to talk some smack on the floor, and he’s going to keep guys focused in the locker room. That should go a long way to making the Celtics a much tougher team than last season.
With Thompson down low, the Celtics shouldn’t get bullied in the paint like they did against the Heat just a few months ago.
More Quick Hits
– Marcus Smart will actually shoot fewer threes than he did last season. Yes, there are more shots to go around, but Smart is focused on his shot selection this year. He knows that he needs to be more of a distributor in place of Walker, and he knows that he can’t be jacking up 20 or so ill-advised threes a game.
I trust you, Marcus. Don’t make me look stupid. I do that enough on my own.
He’s still going to take bad shots, because he is still Marcus Smart. And it’s never a matter of where the shots come from with Smart, but when they occur. If he can cut out those heaves early in the shot clock or the ones he takes with a much better shooter open in the corner, the Marcus Smart experience will be a lot less frustrating throughout the season.
– Grant Williams will play a big role.
He carved out an important spot in Boston’s small-ball lineup throughout his rookie season, and was in Stevens’ closing lineup at times during the playoffs. Williams is a bright kid with four years of college ball and now a season of NBA action under his belt. He’ll never be a star, but he is going to play an important role for Stevens and the Celtics for years to come.
– A big will get traded.
With Thompson added to the frontcourt, the Celtics could look to move either Daniel Theis or Robert Williams during the season. The preference would be to have all three playing at a high level, especially in Williams’ case, but Ainge may be forced to make a decision with one of them around the trade deadline. If Thompson is as good of a fit as we’re all expecting, Theis or Williams could be sent packing.
– The Lakers will repeat.
And it’s going to reallllllllllly suck.