The past two months have been an emotional rollercoaster for Celtics fans, to say the least.
Losing in such agonizing fashion was brutal enough, and ever since, they’ve had to endure a dizzying and never-ending game of NBA musical chairs.
It’s hard to remember a trade that’s yielded such a wide variety of emotions. You talk to one friend, he’s fired up. You talk to another, he’s devastated. Kristaps Porzingis is factually a star, and the Celtics factually became more talented, but he’s not Mahcus Smaht.
It’ll be strange to see Smart in a baby blue uniform next year. He was the ultimate Celtic, and he’ll be missed. But putting sentimentality aside for a moment, let’s look at this through a basketball lens.
The Celtics acquired Porzingis and signed Oshae Brissett and Dalano Banton and drafted Jordan Walsh. They lost Smart, Mike Muscala, Danilo Gallinari and Grant Williams. Let’s not worry about all the picks for now. That’ll just complicate things.
Let’s focus on the present. Are the Celtics better now than they were a month ago? Do the 2023-24 Celtics (assuming Jaylen Brown stays, of course) have a better chance of winning the NBA championship than the 2022-23 Celtics?
Honestly, it’s a tough question to answer. On the one hand, it’s a clear-cut and definitive yes. They have a legitimate Big Three for the first time since Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Seven-foot-three unicorns who can drain 3’s are quite rare. Actually, they’re unheard of.
Porzingis is coming off a career year. He played 65 games last year, which the Celtics would gladly take as long as he’s fully healthy for the playoffs. But, before that, he played just 51 in 2021-22 and 43 the year prior.
It’s a calculated risk from Brad Stevens. He’s not playing darts with a blindfold. Stevens knows what he’s getting himself into, and he’s willing to take a chance because of Porzingis’ highly unique skill set.
How about the hoops? Let’s say Porzingis stays relatively healthy, plays 60-70 games and hits his stride in the playoffs. That sounds rosy. But will he mesh well with the current and new pieces? Yes, he will.
In his press conference, Porzingis talked extensively about making life easier for Brown and Tatum. He’s at the point in his career where he simply wants to win and doesn’t care about how the stats shake out.
Guarding all three of them is going to be an awfully difficult task for opponents. You put your best defender on Tatum and Brown goes off. You start worrying about Brown and Porzingis feasts. You finally check all of them, and you’re exhausted, then Derrick White goes off.
Porzingis’ ability to score inside and out is crucial. If he can finish inside with efficiency and regularity, while also stepping out and shooting, that would go a long way for a team that didn’t have much of a post presence last year. We’ll need to actually see it in action for confirmation, but in theory, it’s a big three that works chemistry-wise.
Wait a minute, though. Porzingis is good at basketball. We all know that. But what about the supporting cast?
Well, the Celtics still have White, Malcolm Brogdon, Al Horford and Robert Williams. How’s that for a supporting cast? That’s a heck of a top-7 if everyone’s healthy. Mix in a little Payton Pritchard, a little Sam Hauser and a little Walsh, Brissett or Banton based on the matchups and you’ve got yourself an elite NBA team.
But hold on...What if Porzingis gets injured, Williams misses some games, Brogdon’s still out and Horford looks a year older? Can White run the point extensively? Can Hauser keep shooting at that clip? Is Pritchard ready for added responsibility? Will they miss Smart’s hustle and Grant Williams’ shooting and nosiness?
These are all legitimate questions and valid concerns. You’re allowed to have them.
We can all agree that the Celtics are absolutely still very good. They’re absolutely capable of winning it all. That’s not what’s up for debate. What’s up for debate is whether they have a better chance than they did last year.
Let’s look at their opponents for reference. Porzingis should help offensively against the Bucks, Heat and 76ers. Having him in Game 7 against Miami may have gone a long way. Can he guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bam Adebayo and Joel Embiid, though? No one’s asking him to shut them down, but is he able to keep them in check? We don’t know the answer to that one. We’ll have to wait and see.
Those teams, however, don’t have quite the same star power as the Celtics. The Bucks are the only other team with a legitimate Big 3.
Milwaukee is probably a little deeper, Miami is probably a little better defensively and Philly has Embiid. Boston is, and should, be the favorite to come out of the East, but it’s going to be a battle like it is every year. The Cavaliers and Knicks also can’t be taken lightly.
Some additional keys in this whole thing: Can Porzingis handle the pressure? Can Brown value the ball in key moments? Can Tatum embrace more of a vocal leadership role? Can Pritchard take advantage of the opportunity he’s desperately wanted? Brissett will hustle, but can he shoot like Grant Williams? Do they need another guard or big?
These are questions we don’t know the answer to, and that’s why this season is particularly intriguing in many ways. Each individual may end up removing any doubt, but it’s up to them to prove it.
Here’s a bit of a breakdown (one person’s opinion):
Star power: This year
Shooting: Last year
Scoring: This year
Defense: Last year
Depth: Last year
Rebounding: This year
Versatility: This year
Guts: Last year
It all kind of evens out in the end and ultimately comes down to health.
So, to answer the question, if the Celtics stay healthy, if Porzingis plays to his potential and if the role players rise to the occasion, then yes, the Celtics are better than they were a month ago.
This team has the potential to have even more firepower and an even higher ceiling than last year. Will it? We’ll have to wait and find out. That’s the fun of it, right?