I hate to be the buzzkill here, but the “better vibe” everybody has been talking about is at least 80% caused by proper roster balance. Boston now has a clear starting five, in which they put their four best players on the court who they really rely on, plus whichever center gets the starting role (probably Daniel Theis). The bench has a clear sixth man - Marcus Smart - and a group of role players ready to step in and get their hands bloody.
And yes, I’ll admit: there is a very real and tangible attitude shift among the Celtics. Still, I would attribute that to the peace of mind of having clearly defined roles on a roster that wants to play together. As much as I love him, I don’t think Grant Williams’ giant smiling head would have fixed last year’s problems.
Kemba Walker’s stat-chasing, franchise-carrying days are behind him. When asked about his new role, he was not only content, but looking forward to his new teammates taking on some of the workload that he grew accustomed to:
“It takes a lot of pressure off me,” Walker said after the team’s practice on Tuesday. “I’m getting a lot of different shots as well, but I’m loving it, not having not do so much all the time. Hopefully my usage rate might be going down a little bit. It allows other guys to make plays and I can appreciate that for sure.” - via MassLive
One might argue that Kemba’s unselfishness and Boston’s roster shakeup added a lot of new opportunity, but let’s be real: it mostly benefits the chosen few. This puts the ball squarely in Jayson Tatum’s hands, where frankly, everybody wants it. It also gives plenty of opportunity for Brown to shine in a contract year, and some room for Gordon Hayward to take over as one of Boston’s key facilitators.
Speaking of which, Gordon Hayward’s maximum contract is about to get the “Average Al Horford” treatment if the preseason is any indication of how the Celtics are going to play this season. And let’s be clear - preseason is definitely an indicator of how teams are going to play. Note: I didn’t say it’ll show how how well they’ll play, but simply how they’re going to play. If you find yourself in the verge of a sternly-worded tweet about how Hayward should be putting up way more counting stats as a max contract guy, be careful what you wish for. Or else you might tweet re-run of last year into existence, where Tatum was frozen out of games by players who might not be on the team next season. (Reminder: none of them are on the team this season.)
Assuming we’ve already seen Hayward’s ceiling in Utah, the Celtics probably don’t want peak Hayward to be their best player if they’re going to contend for a championship in the next decade. But as a complementary piece, he can fill the ‘playmaking big man’ role from the forward position, who can create his own offense as a second or third option.
This puts Jaylen Brown in a position to grow as well, albeit a different one. For him, it’s not just about how well he plays, but if he can co-exist with Tatum and Walker. Tatum and Brown have already shown they can play well together, but this is the first we’ll see them work with more money at stake. In his FIBA and preseason games, Brown showed vast improvement in running fast breaks, most notably in his ability to pass out of them if necessary.
When Tatum was Boston’s best scorer in the 2017 playoffs, it felt like it was time for him to take over the franchise. And when he struggled last year with the returns of Kyrie Irving and Hayward, it still made sense to get him as many reps as possible to fight through the adversity. But with so many players working towards their next contract like Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier, it was impossible to keep everyone happy.
This season, the path is clearer. Tatum took the most shots among Boston’s starters by far in their first three games: 39 in total, including 16 three-point attempts; for the sake of comparison, Hayward has taken 23. The hesitation against smaller defenders, ball-stopping isolation plays with fifteen seconds on the shot clock, and the unnecessary pump-fakes before shooting are mostly gone. He’s taking less contested mid-range shots in favor of more threes and layups. His defensive instincts have reached another level too, making him a strong influence on both ends of the floor.
Tatum's had some bad misses, but 8 FGA, 2 3PA, 1 non-paint 2PA pic.twitter.com/DWlR40iiQP— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) October 13, 2019
Handing the keys to Tatum makes sense in the present with potential to carry the team into the future. Such has been the blueprint in Danny’s tenure as general manager - to be competitive in the short term, while simultaneously looking to build for the long term.
The Celtics have only deliberately tanked twice since Ainge has taken over, and even then they couldn’t help themselves from winning 24 games in 2006-07 and 25 in 2013-14. By no choice of their own, the Celtics are in the early ‘rebuild on the fly’ stages again. That means playing the young guys, anchoring the team with veterans, and seeing what happens.
But as much as we love the idea of team building, the NBA is propped up by its stars and it would be wise for Boston to groom arguably its best talent since Paul Pierce as soon as possible. The uncertainty is unsettling, but that’s what makes sports so great, right? I don’t want to know the end result ahead of time, but I know how I want to get there, and that’s by forcing Tatum to shoot seven threes a game, or else we zap him with those weird robot shoes he was wearing last year.