With the departures of major free agents Kyrie Irving and Al Horford coupled with Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, and Aron Baynes on new teams, the common belief is that the Celtics took a few steps back in their rebuild. Two trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and last year’s disappointment are the obituary of a three-year span riddled with injury, expectations exceeded, and goals not reached.
But how far back did this off season put them? With such a large roster turnover to key contributors and an incoming class of up to five rookies, you’d think that this press of the reset button could set the team back half a decade. However, if you’ve been watching the Celtics in the Brad Stevens era, you know that anything is possible.
Back in the summer of 2016, Al Horford signed with the Celtics in large part to play with Isaiah Thomas. Both had been All-Stars the prior year. Horford had seen first hand how plucky Boston was in a six-game first round series with the Hawks and saw an opportunity to be the vet of a rising young team. This summer, it’s Kemba Walker in that role.
Like Horford, Walker played out his rookie extension with the team that drafted him, but was looking for a place to win while still in his prime. He joins Gordon Hayward with the Celtics which is a reunion of sorts. Back in 2014, Hayward entered restricted free agency at the end of his rookie contract and signed an offer sheet with the Hornets to join Walker in Charlotte. Utah eventually matched it, but now, the two are together five years later.
In both cases, they were joining young-ish cores. Three years ago, Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, and Jae Crowder were in their mid-20’s. The trio had become integral parts to Brad Stevens’ system and team mindset. Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown had also carved out roles with the team, but expectations were tempered. None of them had spent more than two years at the college level and were, for the most part, pretty raw.
Heading into 2019-2020, the Celtics might actually be in better shape with their youth movement. Jayson Tatum and Brown could be stars in the near future, if they aren’t already. And Smart is still a fixture for the franchise. What makes next season so much more intriguing is Boston’s rookie class, particularly Grant Williams and Carsen Edwards. Both come in as polished, three-year players out of Tennessee and Purdue respectively and seem to have a keen sense of how they can already impact games at the professional level. Throw in the wildcard of Robert Williams’ development and next year could have some serious potential.
Over the last four seasons, Stevens has built a ten-man rotation where every player averages over 15 minutes per game. Walker, Smart, Brown, Tatum, Hayward, and veteran big man Enes Kanter are shoe-ins for significant playing time. That leaves four slots for the four rookies (including Vincent Poirier), the sophomore Williams, and hold overs from last season that include Daniel Theis, Brad Wanamaker, and Semi Ojeleye.
Back in 2016, Stevens did not hesitate to play then rookie Brown and second-year man Terry Rozier. Both players were a little rough around the edges, but found roles coming off the bench. The following year, Tatum started in his “he’s only 19” freshman season. With how good Williams and Edwards look in Summer League, don’t be surprised if they’re garnering playing time on Day One. It won’t just be out of necessity either. They’re young, but like Tatum in 2017, they can play right away. And entering their third seasons with the Celtics, Theis and Ojeleye have enough corporate memory between them to earn consideration for the rotation.
Of course, what we don’t know going into next season is what will spark Boston. There might be a (super)star turn for Tatum or Brown. IT made an MVP run for the ages three years ago and that’s just too much to put on the shoulders of Kemba right now. Horford unlocked so much of what has made the Celtics special over this mini-era and there doesn’t seem to be anybody on the roster right now that can duplicate his production, but there is a likely candidate. The NBPA recently named Hayward the Comeback Player of the Year and by the end of the season, he started to look like Utah Hayward. Technically, last season was his comeback season, but many believe that after a year of gaining confidence in his body, it’s in the second year that we’ll see a full return.
The bottom line is that the Celtics need players to make individual strides next season. With a flatter Eastern Conference landscape, there’s certainly room to run. The Bucks and 76ers will be favorites with not much distance between their floors and ceilings. For the Celtics, the range is huge. At worst, they struggle with growing pains. Ten players are under the age of 25. At best, this could still be a Finals team if everything breaks right.