The NBA season is nearly upon us, but before we can enjoy 82 games of meaningful(ish) competition, we must first endure the slog of preseason basketball. The Boston Celtics will play four tune-up games before their regular season campaign begins on October 20th, contests that will undoubtedly be marked by rust, lack of focus, and too many minutes allocated to end-of-the-bench types to make for a particularly beautiful product.
But fear not. While the preseason isn’t the highest form of the sport, there is still plenty to be enjoyed about it. We’ve outlined a few tips to make your viewing experience a bit more fun. Let’s dive right in.
Tip #1: Keep an eye on the coach
No one has ever seen Ime Udoka as a head coach before. He’s got a ton of respect throughout the league, but there is a big difference between being a great assistant and being the man in charge. Getting a first look at how Udoka handles rotations, in-game strategy, team morale, and every little detail associated with being a head coach will probably be the most interesting subplot of the Celtics preseason.
Boston’s offensive and defensive philosophies will be of particular interest. Udoka cut his teeth under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, who has traditionally leaned on fairly conservative defensive principles and in recent years has embraced the mid-range as a core offensive tenant. The Celtics’ roster doesn’t really profile as a group that makes sense to follow a similar blueprint, so it will be interesting to see how Udoka approaches his systems now that he’s calling the shots.
Tip #2 – Check out the starting lineups
Udoka has yet to signal who will get the starting nods next to Boston’s trio of locks in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart, though he has hinted that there is likely to be just one starting group. The Celtics may go big and start both of Al Horford and Robert Williams, or could opt for a smaller more versatile look, featuring just one of Horford or Williams with Dennis Schröder, Josh Richardson, or Aaron Nesmith in the starting group.
This topic has been covered extensively elsewhere this offseason, so we won’t dive too deep at the moment. Just note that Udoka may experiment with a number of different options throughout the preseason. The fun of this storyline will likely come with having a bit of evidence to support or negate theoretical starting units rather than a clear picture of what to expect throughout the year.
Tip #3 - Enjoy the battle for the mantel of top backup stretch big
The Celtics have a glut of below-average stretch bigs competing for a spot at the end of the team’s rotation. Grant Williams, Jabari Parker, and Juancho Hernangomez are all vying for a small number of minutes that could blossom into a more meaningful role should any of them prove to be more useful players than in recent seasons.
Williams is the best defensive option. He’s got great instincts, good physical strength, and fairly quick feet. He doesn’t do much offensively beyond serving as a strong screener and occasional threat from beyond the arc, and it’s not clear whether or not his gifts can be utilized as anything other than a small-ball five.
Williams turns 23 in November, and has the most potential for growth among this particular trio of options thanks to his relative youth. In that sense may have the greatest hope of exceeding expectations and grabbing a significant share of playing time, but he’s got a lot to prove after a shaky sophomore season.
Parker is a scoring savant whose career has been derailed by serious injuries. His defense leaves a lot to be desired (to put it nicely). Hernangomez is theoretically a decent two-way player, but he’s never been able to hold onto a consistent role in any of his past stops prior to landing in Boston.
The most likely outcome of this competition is that all three players ultimately serve as specialists that Udoka can deploy based on matchups and tether to the bench when they’re not needed, but there are minutes to be had if any of Williams, Parker, or Hernangomez can distance himself from the others positively. The preseason will be our first chance to assess the likelihood of that happening.
Tip #4 – Get to know the new guys
The Celtics shook up their personnel this offseason. Gone are Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, Semi Ojeleye, Jeff Teague, Tristan Thompson, Daniel Theis, Carsen Edwards, Tremont Waters, and Tacko Fall. In are the aforementioned Horford, Schröder, Richardson, and Hernangomez along with old friend Enes Kanter and some combination of Sam Hauser, Theo Pinson, Bruno Fernando, Garrison Matthews, and Ryan Arcidiacono.
That’s quite a bit of change. The preseason will be a chance for us to all get acquainted. Did you know that Hernangomez has a brother who plays in the NBA? Or that Schröder will continue the legacy of German hoopers to play on the Celtics, following in the footsteps of Theis and Moritz Wagner before him? Did you know that Josh Richardson is the godson of former NBA star Jason Richardson?
That last one isn’t true, but the point is it could have been. There’s lots to learn.
Tip #5 – Watch a couple of lottery picks
The Celtics may have only had a second-round pick this year, but two of Boston’s preseason opponents snagged talents in the top-five of the most recent NBA Draft. The Orlando Magic – whom the Celtics will take on twice - selected Jalen Suggs fifth overall, while the Toronto Raptors opted to pick Scottie Barnes just one pick before.
Most draft prognosticators expected the reverse to occur, which should only make the viewing experience more enjoyable. Suggs is an athletic, two-way point guard with a knack for hitting big shots. Barnes is a big, long Swiss Army knife who can do just about everything but shoot.
The preseason is no place to pass rational judgement on whether or not the Raptors made the right choice in selecting Barnes over Suggs, but the preseason is also a great place to abandon the rational. Feel free to make bold, dramatic proclamations about the future of both organizations once you’ve had the chance to watch them both square off against Boston.
Tip #6 – Enjoy a fully healthy roster
Can you remember the last time the Celtics weren’t missing someone due to injury or COVID-related absence? Me neither. Let’s celebrate good health while we’ve got it.