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Where do the Celtics stand in the East?

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No more boo-hooing over last season. With the outlook of the entire league being vastly different, it’s time to adjust expectations accordingly.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Brooklyn Nets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics are now a team of x-factors. Is Gordon Hayward back to being himself? Do either of the Jays take a big leap? Can the rookies contribute right away? The trajectory of this team is still positive, but the potential for stagnation still exists. If every returning player is exactly as good as they were last year, the Celtics might not be one of the five best teams in the conference. Progress is not linear, and as we’ve learned from last year, things can take a turn for the worst out of nowhere. With so much player movement, it’s time to take inventory again. Where do the Celtics stand in the East? Did they get better or worse?

2019 NBA Playoffs: Milwaukee Bucks Vs Boston Celtics At TD Garden Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

49 wins, but more fun?

It’s amazing how narratives can shape the perception of results. Sure, the Celtics might be just lucky enough to scrape the surface of 50 wins. And, yes, our two best players left in free agency with “only” one All-Star coming back as an immediate replacement. The East is supposedly wide open again as well, perhaps even more so with Kawhi Leonard going West, making a potential playoff exit that much more devastating.

Philly is loaded, Milwaukee has the MVP, and Indiana is going to give it another shot with Victor Oladipo, and I admittedly have no idea what Brooklyn is right now. The Raptors, without Leonard, are likely leaning towards a rebuild. Where does that leave Boston? Are we sure they’re a 49 win team again?

I’m starting to talk myself into thinking they’ll be better than that. Remember, the competition didn’t necessarily get much better because…

  1. The 76ers stand in a similar position as before: fantastic starting lineup, but lacking depth. Joel Embiid is going to be a huge problem though.
  2. The Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard.
  3. Brooklyn is better with Kyrie, but still has to wait for Durant.
  4. My hottest take of all: Malcolm Brogdon was Milwaukee’s most important free agent this year, who they lost to Indiana.

Boston won 49 games last year while Kyrie played with one foot out the door. And as I’ve already described, the path to The Finals did not necessarily get tougher this summer. Is it too much to think this team could win… 54 games? Is that crazy?

Addition by subtraction

The popular opinion right now is that the Celtics will be better with Kemba Walker (and without Kyrie Irving) because of who he is, and not what he does. This could very well be the case, but I tend to think the Celtics’ ceiling moves as high as the young core of Smart, Brown, and Tatum can take it with Gordon Hayward and the rookies as wild cards. Still, there’s some untapped potential in Kemba. I respect the guys he had around him in Charlotte, but the Hornets were historically bad at building around him. The Hornets went 7-59 in 2011-12 with rookie Kemba, and only made the playoffs twice in eight years. While I’m not sure how much the power of friendship can boost the Celtics, Kemba’s new situation could empower him to be the best version of himself like Kyrie (temporarily) or Isaiah before him.

And not to come off as negative, but I want to stress that the magic of the Hospital Celtics ECF run is not something that can simply be replicated. But with the new wave of talent - from Carsen to Kemba - the Celtics can effectively hit the reset button and play basketball the right way again. Basketball in Boston can be fun again.

The most underrated subtraction to the team this off-season is age. The oldest player on the team right now is Brad Wanamaker, 30, entering his sophomore NBA season. Every season has its hurdles, so when the Celtics hit one, who will they lean on for stability? Marcus Smart has been there the longest and has survived three rebuilds (of varying degrees) in six seasons. Smart is already recognized by the fans as the de facto team captain, and deservedly so. I’ll just note that this is the first year where they need him to be the team’s anchor with the absence of Al Horford and, potentially, the weight of high playoff expectations.

The rookies

I’m doing it. I’m overreacting to Summer League games and you can’t stop me. Carsen Edwards, Grant Williams, and Tremont Waters all have a great feel for the game, and I fully anticipate the former two contributing right away (Waters is on a two-way deal so he’ll have to wait his turn).

Grant taking the Aron Baynes role of “beefy guy who willingly gets hit by other players” is a fantastic development. Some of Carsen’s shots scare me, but I do admire his confidence. He’s got that little-guy, chip-on-his-shoulder energy that we’ve missed since Isaiah. (I’m just now realizing Isaiah held a team together than he got credit for - and that’s after giving him a lot of credit to begin with). I’ve always been fine with Danny Ainge’s draft selections, but this does feel like the first time in a while that we’ve had rookies coming into fill the team’s most immediate needs, namely ball movement and shot creation.

Final thoughts

There are no ‘super teams’ right now. It’s an odd feeling to look at it that way, to feel so much uncertainty about the league’s power structure for the first time in a few years. One more word of caution, though: the league won’t feel so wide open when a few teams inevitably pull away in the standings. The East was open last year too, remember? I mean, as open as it could be for a Boston team clinging to the fourth seed. Kemba will have a steep learning curve to overcome, as did the guards before him, before the team can win consistently. But if the Celtics can form an identity around winning by mid-season, I think they’ll be dangerous.