In his first interview as a Celtic, Kemba Walker told SportsCenter’s Scott Van Pelt, “I wanted to be part of something really special as far as really being able to compete at the highest level and give myself the best opportunity to make a run in the playoffs.” Walker should fit in perfectly into Brad Stevens’ system that turned Isaiah Thomas into a MVP candidate and helped Kyrie Irving turn in his most efficient offensive season ever. However, that just won’t be enough if Boston wants to make any noise next year.
Even with the signing of Kemba Walker, the Celtics are still on the Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown timeline. Walker signed a four-year deal, but there won’t be any pressure to “win one for Kemba,” at least not next season. In retrospect with Al Horford now heading to Philadelphia, that should have been the team’s mindset during the three years he was in Boston, but alas, we all know how that turned out. Gordon Hayward has one more guaranteed year on his max contract with a player option for 2020-2021. Hayward was trending towards Utah Hayward by the end of the year, but even if he regains near All-Star form, the Celtics will most likely be in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack with the 76ers loading up, Milwaukee retaining much of its core, and Indiana retooling their roster. Any real success hinges on Brown and Tatum making star turns next year.
It’s not like there’s a lot of sand in the hourglass for Brown and Tatum. Brown is eligible for a rookie extension this summer, a contract that could be upwards to five years, $170 million. For the sake of comparison, only five players received extensions last summer; Devin Booker cashed in for a max $158.1 million over five years and Justise Winslow stayed in Miami for three years, $39 million. And next summer, it’ll be Tatum’s number that comes up.
But that’s down the road. Next season is crucial in their development and right now, there are still several holes in the Celtics’ roster. Without a reliable, playmaking big man on the roster (yet), next season could be rough on Boston’s dynamic duo. Horford played such a key role on both ends of the floor and made the wings’ jobs so much easier. He’s one of the best passing and shooting big men in the league and a skilled drop defender in the pick-and-roll. His absence will put an onus on the young wings to do more on their own.
There are still vet 4’s and 5’s on the market. Noah Vonleh is an option. The Celtics have been rumored to be interested in Kevon Looney and Enes Kanter with the room mid-level to sign them. They’ll have Robert Williams III entering his second year, Daniel Theis is still restricted, and rookie Grant Williams, an inexperienced twenty-year-old Horford clone, in the wings. However, none of those guys are the Swiss army knife of an Al Horford.
But these are necessary growing pains and we’ve seen how quickly these guys can make that jump. Thrust into the spotlight of the 2018 playoffs, Brown and Tatum spearheaded a Celtics’ charge to the Eastern Conference Finals. What made that run so special was that nobody could have expected it. They were playing with house money after Irving and Hayward were lost with injuries. Now, they just won’t have the pressure of a single season on their shoulders; Brown and Tatum will be expected to relied on as foundational building blocks for the franchise.