“...for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” - Hamlet
The Celtics headed into last season with Championship dreams and exited it with 49 regular season wins and a 2nd round exit. This summer they lost 5 key rotation players and may be counting on several rookies to fill in some of those gaps. So it is reasonable to conclude that they took yet another step back ...on paper.
The Celtics now head into the new season with lowered expectations. How will they exit it? That has to be determined on the court, not on paper. This is still a league where talent generally wins out in the aggregate. However, as we found out last season, putting a lot of talent on the court together doesn’t always add up to wins in a particular game or season.
Kemba Walker is a great player, but Kyrie Irving probably has more pure on-court talent. Enes Kanter only replaces Al Horford’s production on one side of the court. Brad Wannamaker has a lower ceiling than Terry Rozier. Grant Williams lacks Marcus Morris’ years of grizzled experience. It remains to be seen if any combination of the younger centers can approximate the contributions of Aron Baynes.
So if we accept for the moment that this team took a step back in terms of proven NBA talent, why are most Celtics fans excited for next season? A lot of intangibles and the benefit of lowered expectations.
Here are three reasons why the Celtics could actually be better this year than they were last year.
When discussing last year’s team chemistry, the repeated company line we’ve been hearing is that everyone had the right intentions but they couldn’t all get on the same page. Nobody is singled out for being a bad person, but the mix of personalities didn’t exactly mesh well. Jackie MacMullan and others have reminded us repeatedly, that the issues went well beyond one man’s quirky and inscrutable mood swings.
Still, with that disclaimer aside, it is hard not to put the lion’s share of blame at the feet of Kyrie Irving. He signed up to be the face of the franchise. He made unprompted promises at the start of the season. He misfired on public criticisms and singled out the young players on the team. By the end of the year it seemed like Kyrie was on his own flat planet, alienating himself from the round-earthers on his team.
Regardless of what percent of the blame you choose to assign to Irving, that element is gone this season. He’s replaced by a guy who might as well be Irving’s polar opposite personality-wise. Kemba Walker is widely respected and lauded as being a phenomenal leader and teammate. He has Al Horford’s wisdom and Isaiah Thomas’ infectious smile. He’s the kind of guy that will squash an issue with a few quiet words instead of a public shaming. You need your leader to set a tone and example that everyone can get behind and Walker has shown that he has what it takes to be that guy in Boston.
Clearly Defined Roles
When everyone was picking the Celtics to be the hands-down favorites to come out of the East last season, the one Achilles Heel that people could point to was “how will some of the players react to a reduced role?” Now we know the frustrating answer to that question was simply “not well.”
In another circumstance Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown likely would have flourished with larger usage rates and additional touches. Both seemed to struggle with consistency and while both made progress on aspects of their games, it seemed like a step back based on heightened expectations. Terry Rozier, on the other hand, never found that groove and took a significant step backwards.
Complicating matters was the whole Gordon Hayward situation. It has been reported that players thought that he was being force-fed a larger role that he wasn’t ready for yet. That might have been ok in some situations but with so many hungry mouths to feed, there wasn’t enough food to go around.
Now the Celtics have slimmed down the roster. While Kemba could pick up much of Iriving’s usage, the rest of the team has been greened. Gone are Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris, and Al Horford. While the latter two carried the Celtics for much of last year, they now transfer most of that heavy lifting to Tatum, Brown, and a hopefully healthier Gordon Hayward.
Enes Kanter’s superpower is offensive rebounding, which would have been especially welcome last year with all the errant shots careening off the rims. He also serves as a good release valve option in the post.
The rookies will each have opportunities to shine, but as rookies they likely will understand their place in the ecosystem and bloom where they are planted. Each seems to have a great attitude and work ethic and each seems to be eager to prove their worth to their new coach.
There’s no ambiguity this year. The team runs through Kemba, and he will make sure that Tatum, Brown, and Hayward eat their full with plenty of leftovers available for the support team.
We’ve covered this in the past, but expectations can be a dangerous thing. Take away that run at the Eastern Conference Finals and last year’s team isn’t nearly as disappointing as it turned out to be. Now the script has been flipped and few expect much more than “the old college try” from this squad.
Oddly enough, that seems to be where Brad Stevens thrives and where recent Boston teams have connected best with fans. Championships are still the only true measure of success in this town. Still, there was more connection to and pride in the Isaiah Thomas teams that never had a shot against the Cavs than the team that underachieved last season.
In theory, this squad will have better chemistry, clearly defined roles, and buy into the team-first us-against-the-world attitude that Brad Stevens led teams have rallied around in the past.
Will that be enough? To jump into the championship contender conversation we’ll probably need a big leap forward by at least one of Tatum, Brown, or Hayward. Or perhaps they could swing a trade mid season to put them over the top.
Still, even if they progress at a normal rate and make no significant changes, don’t sleep on the intangibles that could propel this team to at least 49 wins and a 2nd round appearance. Which would be an accomplishment considering the on-paper step back the team took this summer.