The Boston Celtics made it to the Eastern Conference Finals in three of the last five years. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they didn’t actually make The Finals and the other two years were spectacular disasters. One of which just ended and still feels raw.
So it feel like a good time to go through some reasons for optimism (my specialty) without completely ignoring some of the reasons to not get ahead of ourselves.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are still getting better
It sounds weird to say that about two All-Stars but they’re still in the infancy of their primes. We now know that they can score with the best in the league. Now I’m pretty well convinced that the next step in their progression is being better playmakers. Ime Udoka has laid down the challenge for this team to be better at moving the ball and that starts with the two stars.
Both guys are well known for putting in the work and adding elements to their game over the offseason. Coaches rave about how Tatum is given something to work on and he adds it to his game the next day. Brown came into camp last year with better handles than anyone could have expected from him prior to that. Tatum just spent several weeks rubbing elbows with the guys on Team USA and likely picked up a thing or two from the likes of Kevin Durant and Dame Lillard. What’s next for these guys? I can’t wait to find out.
There’s a new sheriff in town (Ime Udoka)
Brad Stevens was the head coach for the last eight years. Every player on the current roster that was drafted by the Celtics has only had one coach. In some respects that was a good thing. Consistency and a unified voice is better than the alternative of having a revolving door of coaches in a player’s formative years. On the other hand, the same message coming from the same messenger can get a little static and dull after a while.
Enter Ime Udoka, a former player and well respected assistant coach that learned from one of the best coaches in the history of the game. He was part of the Spurs team that won the championship in 2014 dubbed “The Beautiful Game.”
Even if he preached the same message that Brad Stevens has, it would be coming from a new voice that should have the players respect and attention. But he’s already putting his own spin on what he wants to see from the team with more emphasis on defense and ball movement.
The roster seems more well balanced now
Last season the Celtics rotation had too many centers in an era the has largely deemphasized the position and not enough of everything else. Stevens tried to compensate by playing double-big lineups that went over like blimps lined with iron.
This year’s team still has 3 centers, but the roles are well defined and don’t necessarily overlap. There’s more depth at the guard positions and good options on the wing as well.
There are a lot more guys on the team known for their defense than last year’s squad had. Plus, the pecking order is no longer muddied by the former All-Star who’s injuries limited him to a lesser impact than his name might have suggested.
The kids might just be alright
As many have pointed out, Summer League can be fool’s gold. Guys that look good against that level of competition don’t always translate into productive NBA players (ask Carsen Edwards). However, playing poorly in the Summer League can be a large red flag. Thankfully it doesn’t seem like any of the younger players has looked overwhelmed or overmatched in the last week.
Last season proved that Payton Pritchard and Robert Williams were ready for larger roles. Aaron Nesmith showed growth last season and has looked more well rounded and polished this summer than I had thought he would be. Langford remains a bit of a mystery man and Grant Williams needs to be more consistent, but there’s reason enough to think that both could thrive in limited roles when called upon.
There’s always next year
If all else fails the team can still sell us hope. Financial flexibility heading into next summer means that there’s a whole wide range of possibilities that the team could take for the future. That might mean Bradley Beal teaming up with his bestest St. Louis buddy ever. Or maybe it means some other unsatisfied star will decide that Boston looks like it has a clearer path to the title than his current team.
Brad still has all of his first round picks going forward and the team might even have found some potential future depth stashed overseas in Yam Madar and Juhann Begarin.
With all that said, here are some reasons to pump the proverbial breaks.
Where is the offense coming from beyond the Jays?
We know Jaylen and Jayson can score with the best players in the world. We know that Marcus Smart will be happy to shoot and Dennis Schröder will drive that ball into the lane. Beyond that you are hoping for long bombs from Payton Pritchard, lobs to Robert Williams, and a whole lot of ball movement.
If there’s not enough spacing or if the ball sticks, the offense could look like it is stuck in the mud. That puts a lot of pressure on the Jays to make something out of nothing and that could lead to even more forced isolation ball. No wonder Ime is preaching ball movement already.
A lot depends on health and development
Last year got derailed quickly in part due to health (both COVID and injuries). Injuries can happen to any team any year, but the Celtics could really use a few breaks (pun intended) to go their way this year.
Al Horford is no spring chicken and Robert Williams is still a fragile chick. Weird stuff seems to happen to Marcus Smart and Romeo Langford every 9 months or so. Kris Dunn hardly played last year due to injury and Jaylen Brown had his season cut short. Things happen and the best teams have to overcome.
This is why you need to have a deep roster and the Celtics are once again depending on a young bench. So we better hope that the stars of Summer League can step up in the big dance when their numbers are called.
A lot of uncertainty heading into next summer
The flipside to fans knowing that Bradley Beal (or insert another star player’s name) could be on the way next year is that the players also know that their place on the Celtics could be very temporary. With so many players on expiring deals, it will be interesting to see who buys into what Ime is preaching (counting on a rising tide to raise all ships) and who decides that they need to bump up their counting stats for next year’s free agency, regardless of what that means to the team.
On the whole, I’m finding it easier to be optimistic than not for next year. In part because the bar has inherently been lowered. The team didn’t just make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, so there’s no immediate expectation for them to take the next logical step to title contention. The competition keeps getting better in the East as well. Still, I think the Celtics can be in the thick of things next year and at the very least make progress towards the end goal of raising a banner (in the not too distant future).