Staff Roundtable: Who or what is the biggest X-Factor for the Celtics this season?
This one could go many different directions, but I’ll say Derrick White. When he’s playing to his potential, the Celtics are almost unbeatable. He was streaky last year but showed his ability and versatility in stretches. This year, his shot looks more fluid, and he has a chance to emerge as a more consistent player. He’s going to get open 3’s over and over again, and has to be able to knock them down with regularity. I expect him to have a strong season and live up to expectations.
It’s gotta be Rob Williams. When healthy, his vertical spacing and defensive prowess make him the most unique piece to this roster. Also, let’s not forget about his underrated passing, which should only improve with the addition of Brogdon, another great passer who will promote ball movement. Rob’s threat at the rim opens up space for guards/wings in the lane, and he saves teammates’ behinds time and time again at the other end.
A bit of a curveball, but I’ll go with Al Horford. Last season, he was sort of the backbone of Boston’s gameplan. His defense was crucial in allowing Robert Williams to play the free safety role, and his playoff offense carried them at times. A regression should be expected at the ripe age of 36 years old, but if he can play even close to as well as he did last year, the Celtics will be in phenomenal shape.
Digging a bit deeper into the bench here, I think there’s a real opportunity for Sam Hauser to have an impact this season. The unfortunate loss of Danilo Gallinari, coupled with the need for a wing to soak up some minutes behind Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown (a role Gallo wasn’t well-suited to fill to begin with, as more of a frontcourt player at this point in his career), have put a genuine rotation spot within the 24-year-old’s grasp. The formula’s pretty simple: Hauser is 6-foot-7 with a lightning-fast release, one of the most gifted shooters on the team. If he can cash in from deep at a high rate, it could be genuinely transformative for this offense.
There are two definitions of the term “X-Factor”. The first, and most popular, is “a noteworthy special talent or quality.” The second is “a variable in a given situation that could have the most significant impact on the outcome”. With the latter in mind, give me Joe Mazzulla. The Celtics’ turnaround after January 1 last season was most often attributed to the change in style and emphasis on game management implemented by Ime Udoka. His shoes aren’t easy to fill after leading Boston to its first NBA Finals appearance since 2008 in his first year at the helm. No one expects Mazzulla to step in and reinvent the wheel here, but I don’t know that anyone expects him to be Udoka either. Depending on how you look at it, that’s either a blessing or a burden. The Celtics should be fine if Mazzulla can stay the course for a season. But if an ill-advised culture shift occurs, problems are bound to arise. Problems beyond injuries and missed floaters.
The x-factor is health. The Celtics can survive (and actually still be quite good) without Robert Williams for a couple of months as the end of last year proved. They probably can’t handle another major injury at the same time, though. The rest of the core needs to stay as healthy as possible, and Robert Williams needs to be healthy in April, May and June. If those boxes are checked, we could be watching something special this season.
Will the Jays continue to ascend among the NBA’s elite? Jayson Tatum, snubbed for All-NBA in 2021, came back strong, earned first-team all-league honors, and now is solidly ranked as a top-10 star. Can he progress to become a legitimate MVP candidate? Jaylen Brown, an all-star in 2021, was left out in 2022. Can he get back to that level, and perhaps even garner some All-NBA votes? The Celtics will go as far as the Jays can take them, so if the talented duo both jump to the next level, that ride could go all the way to the championship parade.
While I could say Robert Williams or Jayson Tatum, part of my gut feeling is Malcolm Brogdon is the Celtics X-Factor. When the team added Derrick White into the fold at the trade deadline last season, it made a huge difference with how the team could navigate their rotations as well as adding another player capable of handling the play and playing good defense. Now, by adding Brogdon on top of that, the Celtics arguably have the best defensive backcourt in the NBA, and the deepest three guard rotation. The best part is, because of their depth, they have the luxury of having Brogdon be the sixth man off the bench and the primary ballhandler for the second unit, a position that he is going to absolutely thrive in. Bench stability had been a concern for Boston, but now with Brogdon leading that group, there’s going to be little to no fall-off at the guard spot if they have to sub either Smart or White out. I’m really excited to see what impact Brogdon has as he gets more acclimated to his role, since I think he has the ability to make a difference on both sides of the ball.
Grant Williams. His minutes per game will increase from 24 last year to between 30 and 35 minutes until Timelord returns. Grant made strides as a shooter and multi-positional defender, and while he played most of his minutes at power forward last season, he’ll have to hold it down as the sole big, and I think that can happen within this team’s switching scheme. The Celtics have a fabulously versatile backcourt and a devastating pair of all-star wings, but the bigs are the obvious question. He’s gotta make sure centers don’t overpower him on the boards. If Grant maintains his 40 percent three-point shooting and adds some off-the-dribble playmaking as his workload increases, he’ll undoubtedly earn that $14-16 million/year deal he’s supposedly been asking for.
It’s a tie between Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. X-factors aren’t normally known stars, but for the Celtics to be what everyone hopes they will, Tatum and Brown have to lead them there. Both Tatum and Brown took major steps forward last year as playmakers and leaders. Now, it’s time to take those final steps to be champions. Can Tatum put himself in the MVP mix? Can Brown make All-NBA? Both are very possible. If either one happens, the Celtics are very good shape. If both happen, the Celtics will likely raise Banner 18. (A more traditional X-factor is Al Horford. Boston has to keep him rested and healthy to make a title run. That’s a challenge Joe Mazzulla has to balance, especially while pursuing regular season success.)
Malcolm Brogdon was acquired with this specific moniker in mind. When healthy, Brogdon is a starting-caliber player with elite offensive skills, the problem is, he struggles to stay healthy throughout a full season. Still, if Boston can manage his minutes, limit the workload on his plate, and consistently put him in positions to succeed, his addition to the team is going to add new layers to their core rotation and elevate them to greater heights. It’s no secret that Brogdon’s best years came while occupying an off-ball role with the Milwaukee Bucks, so, if he can carve out a similar role in a Celtics jersey, he can help propel this team to the moon.
If it’s all about 18 — it’s all about Robert Williams III. The Celtics demolished the league with him available next to Al Horford, roving defensively and cementing one of the best defenses in league history. Even at a small percentage of his full form, Boston outscored the Warriors in the Finals by 30 points in his minutes while he sent numerous shots around the rim off target. His injury wasn’t disappointing because of big man depth or regular season challenges, Williams’ ability to take a step in his career would’ve put the Celtics ahead of the rest of the league entering this season. Now, with his short and long-term status unclear, they’re in a larger group of fellow contenders and not necessarily the favorite with Golden State defending champions, the Nuggets and Clippers returning multiple stars and Milwaukee hungry for revenge. Boston is better than those teams with Williams.