The 2021-22 Boston Celtics are a team looking to shed some baggage. In the wake of last season’s unrest, the team has been retooling. Danny Ainge has stepped away, and in his place, Brad Stevens moved from the sideline to the front office to take on the responsibility of guiding the team forward. The upcoming season feels like a transitionary one — more about taking stock of what they have than making a real push for immediate success — and as a result, expectations for this team have been set a little lower than they have in recent seasons.
The hardest part of retooling is already out of the way. The Celtics have an undeniable superstar in Jayson Tatum who is just a few small steps away from the MVP conversation, and a complementary All-Star in Jaylen Brown who could make a challenge for All-NBA consideration in the very near future. Every great NBA team is built around talent like this. When we look at the season in front of us, though, the question is whether the remaining pieces are in place to make it possible for the team to find immediate success and ideally Banner 18. What kind of circumstances would be necessary to enable the 2021-22 Celtics to surpass what most currently believe they’re capable of and contending for a championship?
The case for the Celtics exceeding their expectations this year starts with a look back at last season, and this is the easiest part of the equation. Just about everything that could have gone wrong for last year’s Celtics did go wrong. They led the league by a sizeable margin in games missed by players on their roster, and those missed games were often important ones, too. There were COVID scares for Tatum, Robert Williams, Tristan Thompson, Evan Fournier and Romeo Langford, as well as significant injury issues for Williams, Brown, Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker. For the season, the player to log the most game appearances was rookie Payton Pritchard.
The Celtics aren’t going to be completely healthy next season. With a season as long as the NBA’s, every team will struggle with injuries at some point or another. That’s just part of the game. Last season’s health issues were particularly extreme, however, and things might have looked quite a bit more optimistic with even average injury luck. You could reasonably argue that even if the Celtics simply brought back last year’s roster with minimal changes, they’d still be a decent bet to outperform their 2020-21 record just based on health alone.
The Celtics did not run back the same roster from last season, however. Brad Stevens has hit the ground running in his new role as the team’s President of Basketball Operations, making a number of deals aimed at ushering the Celtics into a new era. While most of his decisions have been made with an eye on future financial flexibility, there is some potential upside to the roster as it stands right now, and that’s where our evaluation of the 2021-22 Celtics really gets moving.
The discussion begins with Al Horford’s return to Boston, two seasons after departing for Philadelphia in the summer of 2019. The Celtics brought the former All-Star back in a trade with Oklahoma City in exchange for Kemba Walker and his burdensome contract. It’s a move meant to unclutter the team’s books — Horford is cheaper than Walker, and his contract ends a year sooner — but it’s one that could also pay some dividends this season if things break just right.
In a vacuum, Horford isn’t as valuable of a player as Walker. The ability to self-create scoring opportunities and lead an offense will always be a premium skill in the NBA, and that’s something that Horford doesn’t offer. His performance in Philadelphia also did little to inspire, though his fit on that roster was awkward, to say the last. While he seemed reinvigorated in his brief stint with the Thunder last season — spry enough for the team to shut him down for the year to assist their tanking efforts — when he takes the court for the Celtics this October, he’ll be 35 years old and not have appeared in an NBA game in nearly seven months.
That said, there is a discussion to be had about whether Horford — or at least, the idealized version of Horford — might be a better fit for this roster than what we saw from Walker last year. As Walker continued to struggle with a nagging knee injury and Tatum and Brown continued to blossom into top-tier volume scorers in their own right, his purpose on the roster became somewhat unclear.
Horford may fill some gaps that Walker could not. While what he has left in the tank defensively remains to be seen, his offensive skillset is one that shouldn’t diminish too harshly due to age. He provides legitimate floor spacing at the center position that the Celtics haven’t quite found since he left, having knocked down threes at an effective clip for the past six season of his career. Horford is also an excellent passer, still among the best at his position, and the Boston offense has traditionally looked much more streamlined with an effective passer like Horford or Robert Williams manning the five.
The acquisition with the more clear-cut impact on the upcoming season is their most recent one: former Lakers guard Dennis Schröder. It’s been a tumultuous summer for the 27-year-old since turning down a now-infamous, four-year, $84 million extension at the end of March. Due to uninspiring play in the Western Conference Playoffs and, more substantially, a particularly busy free agency market that saw cap space evaporate rapidly, Schröder found himself the odd man out among notable free agent names before inking a one-year deal with Boston for just $5.9 million.
Schröder isn’t a perfect player, but the league’s indifference towards him this offseason was too extreme. He’s a 6’3” playmaking guard who can pressure the rim, create his own shot (though the three-ball will need to improve) and provide steady defense. To acquire his skillset for just the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception of $5.9 million is an absolute bargain. Now, he and the Celtics have a mutually beneficial relationship. Schröder gets an opportunity to rebuild his value on a visible stage with a likely playoff team, while the Celtics fill a major hole at guard for a remarkably low price, without compromising their prized financial flexibility next summer.
Their other reclamation project, Josh Richardson, will factor in as well. Richardson has a collection of skills that, taken all together, seem highly intriguing in theory. He’s a long, rangy combo guard/forward who can handle the ball a bit, create a little bit of offense, knock down threes at a decent clip and — most importantly — provide versatile and impactful defense. The problem is that he’s never seemed to put all these skills together at the same time, and that’s the puzzle that Udoka will have to solve to unlock his ceiling on this team.
Then there’s the youth movement, fresh off of an invigorating Summer League run. Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith went to Las Vegas and largely played exactly as well as you hope to see from sophomore first round draft picks, and now both seem slotted in as important rotation contributors for the coming season. Nesmith’s growth is of particular interest; the Celtics don’t have an off-ball threat of the same caliber as his theoretical ceiling at the moment.
The case against Boston exceeding expectations this season may simply be the conference itself. This may be the strongest crop of Eastern Conference contenders in some time. With the exception of possibly Philadelphia, the top six seeds in the conference last season all have a reasonable case for coming back better this season, with a new playoff hopeful also emerging in Chicago. It’s going to be a difficult road to the top of the East this year.
In talking through all these variables, though, you can start to paint a picture of a 2021-22 Celtics roster that outperforms expectations. It may be something like an 80th percentile outcome, but the Celtics have a feasible pathway to home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, if not more. With two bona fide stars in Tatum and Brown, the window is always open; with some luck, this team could certainly climb through.