Three years ago, the Celtics had gone through one of the biggest turnovers in NBA history. A total of twenty-two players played for the franchise, including forgettable cameos by Jameer Nelson, Brandan Wright, and Gerald Wallace. But something happened after the trade deadline. In the closing weeks of the regular season, Boston finished 20-11 and eked into the playoffs. It was only Brad Stevens’ second year as head coach, but you could already see his fingerprints on what has defined his stint in Boston so far: putting his players in a position to succeed and fielding a team that is never outworked or outhustled.
Season after season, the Celtics have consistently finished better than the sum of their parts. Evan Turner revived his career in green, Isaiah Thomas became an MVP candidate, and the Celtics have made two consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference Finals without their best players to get them over the hump (read: LeBron). They’ve exceeded expectations as the underdog.
But this year is different.
We’ve heard all the superlatives since the start of October. The roster has been touted as the preseason favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals because of its versatility and depth. More so, the franchise is in the advantageous position of having a fairly young Big Three of Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, and Gordon Hayward paired with the even younger core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and (for now) Terry Rozier (and potentially four first round picks in next summer’s draft).
However, training camp and the quick slate of preseason games that quickly came and went have been more mystery than hype machine. The final preseason games wrapped up on October 12th, but the Celtics completed their exhibition schedule over a week before the rest of the league. Since then, we’ve seen few glimpses. Those rare peeks of end-of-practice scrimmages have dried up. It’s as if Brad Stevens has pulled the curtain over this grand experiment as he continues to tinker with the most talented roster he’s ever had. This time last year, fans were drooling over the possibilities of a Irving-Hayward-Brown-Tatum-Horford starting lineup. Instead, that lineup shot a combined 52-of-139 from the field this month and enthusiasm has been tempered.
There are qualifiers for Boston’s slow start: 1) it’s the preseason, 2) Hayward and Irving (and Daniel Theis) are recovering from season-ending injuries and slowly rounding back into form, and 3) with its depth of talent, there will be growing pains with players trying to figure out their roles. How the Celtics perform in meaningless exhibitions might be just that, but there does seem to be something missing so far. They have been a team that moves the ball until it finds the right player in the right spot and played their tails off on the defensive end; we haven’t exactly seen that yet. With hours left heading into Game #1, who are these Boston Celtics?
The focus could shift squarely on to Kyrie. After months of speculation on whether he would re-sign with the Celtics, he quashed those doubts with a surprise announcement that he would return next summer. There’s comfort in that assurance, but for him, that only makes the spotlight burn brighter this year. There will undoubtedly be breathtaking Kyrie moments in the regular season, but we’ll have to wait seven months until we really know whether or not Irving is worth max money.
With switching defenses counteracting versatile offenses, last year’s playoffs morphed into which superstar could take advantage of his mismatch best. The Western Conference Finals looked like a one-on-one battle with Kevin Durant and James Harden mowing down defenders. Can Kyrie be that player and unfortunately for him, be an adequate defender on the other side of the ball?
And what about everybody else? The Celtics arguably have at least half a dozen players that could be franchise-building pieces in other cities. While Boston’s MO has been team basketball under Stevens, as the roster has constantly improved, the ball movement has conversely decreased. Check out the recent trend lines over the last four years:
Celtics Passing 2014-2018
|Season||Passes Made||Rank||Potential Assists||Rank|
|Season||Passes Made||Rank||Potential Assists||Rank|
Adding playmakers like Irving and Hayward could potentially help those numbers, but that could inversely affect the development we saw last season from Rozier, Brown, and Tatum. Hayward’s methodical return will leave the door open in the first half of the season for the young core to pick up where they left off in last year’s playoffs, but looking at the numbers, this is still a team that plays less and less like a team.
As aforementioned, part of that is a product of talent level. Both Tatum and Brown could create for themselves on the wing and much of Stevens’ offense last year relied heavily on off ball action and dribble hand offs. Without the creativity of Irving or the versatility of Hayward, the Celtics’ 18th-ranked offense was made up largely of athletes being athletes, beating defenders off the dribble or getting a step on them coming off a pick.
The biggest concern could be stunting the trajectory of Boston’s dynamic duo. In another situation, Brown and Tatum would be thrust in a position to be the offensive engine for a bad team in the hopes that they become franchise players. This year with the Celtics, they might be asked to be the ultimate role players and that may not be all that bad. As plus perimeter shooters and improving finishers around the rim, they’re perfect complements to Irving, Hayward, and Horford. For now, we don’t know what the symbiosis between the players will be because the preseason featured a lot of “can you beat your man off the dribble” and “let’s get the jump shot right for the regular season.”
And don’t get me started on the defense.
Admittedly, much of this is early worry and irrelevant narrative-setting. Last season, the buzz around the Celtics continuously changed after the first game, after the 16-game winning streak, after Kyrie went down, and after the playoff run. After this year’s training camp, things are already in flux. Hayward is healthy, but will have to be eased into playing time. Rozier is still a Celtic, but wants to be a starting point guard and won’t sign an extension. Smart showed some fire against J.R. Smith in a preseason game, but Smart showed some fire against J.R. Smith in a preseason game. Only time will tell how all this plays out and who these Celtics are.
Opening Night is here. Chapter 1, page 1. Let’s go, Celtics!