The courts sit more empty at Auerbach Center than they did over one year ago, when the Celtics started training camp for the 2019-20 season. Not only is Boston contending with COVID-19 protocols that limit the number of team personnel on the floor together, they’re missing three important contributors to begin practice — plus a starter lost in free agency.
Brad Stevens opened camp today addressing more injuries and uncertainty than additions, while picking up the pieces on Gordon Hayward’s departure. Danny Ainge and Hayward, who spoke today in Charlotte, attributed his signing with the Charlotte Hornets to wanting a larger role. Stevens continued to emphasize that he respects any free agent’s decision and that this year’s team will be defined early by how younger players step up.
“(Hayward) was good for us,” Stevens said. “He didn’t use as many possessions here as he did during his time in Utah. Obviously, he had some unfortunate things happen here. But he made every effort to help us win and we wish him well in the future.”
The Celtics project to rebuild their rotations entirely with Hayward gone, Kemba Walker expected to be out into January and Romeo Langford’s surgery recovery stretching longer. Jeff Teague, Payton Pritchard, Carsen Edwards and Tremont Waters — with no 45 day limit for two-way players this year — all potentially fill guard minutes alongside Marcus Smart.
Tristan Thompson, Boston’s prized free agent acquisition, will also slowly ramp up into training camp after an offseason hamstring injury. That’s Boston’s general approach too, only 65 days removed from a Game 6 loss to the Heat that capped a four-month run in the NBA Bubble. Stevens expects less intensity early in camp than usual.
Daniel Theis returns after knee surgery. Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard got drafted two weeks ago, without the benefit of Summer League or extended offseason work with teammates. The first month of the season in Boston could be strictly experimental.
“You hope to start healthy, but obviously we’re not,” Stevens said. “As to how we adjust, once we start practicing, we’ll figure all that stuff out.”
It’s a stark step back to start 2020-21 for a team that powered within two wins of the NBA Finals in September. The Celtics emerged as championship contenders last year, with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ascending from helpful contributors in 2019 to a pair that can score 50-60 points every night. They’re ready to win a title.
Stevens spoke of the Jays and Marcus Smart as a definitive core. With uncertainty around them, the hope is only the first two months will be a chance for Boston’s supporting cast to find itself instead of an entirely lost season of the trio’s prime years.
Thompson and Teague will help. The former already discussed his diving role in Boston’s offense with Stevens, who pressed him to break quickly off the defense’s point of attack in the pick-and-roll this week. Teague, likely filling Walker’s early-season minutes at the point, brings scoring, transition and defensive abilities even at this late stage in his career.
They’re role players, though, where Hayward could have stepped in and immediately assumed both play-making and scoring responsibilities at a high level for Walker. Stevens struck an acceptive tone toward the loss, following Kyrie Irving and Al Horford’s the offseason before.
“Everybody left for different reasons,” he said. “We’ve had a unique situation with older players and younger players we are building around. Each situation is a little bit different.”