This is the third in a three-part series of individual evaluations of the Celtics. This section includes the regular starters and the coach.
Kemba Walker: The first-year Celtic averaged 20.4 points, 4.8 assists, and 3.9 rebounds per game and was named an All-Star starter for a team that came within two wins of the NBA Finals. But Walker would be the first to admit that he is capable of more.
He was slowed by left knee pain throughout the second half of the year, and even when he claimed to be fine, it was clear that the burst he displayed last fall was not the same. Walker is not expected to require surgery, but this will be an important offseason for him and Boston’s training staff to get him back to full speed.
But his arrival after the Kyrie Irving saga was a breath of fresh air for the organization, and the impact that it had on his teammates was clear. Walker never raised an issue about a player like Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown taking a final shot instead of him, and his praise for his teammates was constant. Walker seems comfortable with ceding the No. 1 spot to Tatum, and if he is healthy, he will be an incredibly dangerous second weapon. Walker’s main limitation is his defense, and his defensive rating of 108.1 was the worst among Boston’s regular rotation players. But his effort never waned and he led the team in charges drawn.
Jayson Tatum: When the Celtics signed Kemba Walker, it appeared Tatum would have another year or two serving as a powerful second scoring option before cementing himself as the go-to guy. But it quickly became clear that it would not take that long.
Tatum, who turned 22 in March, vaulted toward the upper tier of stardom and was a third-team All-NBA performer. He averaged 23.4 points and 7 rebounds during the regular season and took his game to a new level after the All-Star break, when he connected on a blistering 46 percent of shots beyond the arc.
The Celtics outscored opponents by 10.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, a net rating that was more than 3 points better than those of Jaylen Brown and Walker. His scoring bursts received most of the attention, but Tatum also has emerged as a very good defender, and his passing skills have improved. That will be important as he faces more frequent blitzes and double teams in the coming years.
There were some games when Tatum did not truly assert himself and blended in with players he should dominate. True stars don’t let that happen, but Tatum is aware of this minor issue.
Jaylen Brown: Brown was probably the most improved player on Boston’s roster. His drives to the basket that were once an adventure now appear more under control. His 3-point and free-throw shooting improved.
It has reached the point where Brown deserves a bigger say in Boston’s offense. It’s a challenge with prolific scorers like Walker and Tatum, not to mention Marcus Smart’s interest in hoisting 3-pointers. But Boston needs to find ways to get him more involved.
It felt like Brown routinely had powerful opening quarters only to fade away later in games. Also, there were times when he appeared in a haze on random plays, particularly on defense, like in the Game 3 conference semifinals loss to the Raptors, when he allowed OG Anunoby to stray to the corner and drill a game-winning 3-pointer. But even on that play, where Brown nearly recovered to make a game-saving block, his athleticism was evident. The logical next step for Brown would be to become an All-Star next season for the first time. He also has become an important voice for the franchise, leading its fight for social justice.
Gordon Hayward: The Celtics had such high hopes for Hayward when he signed a four-year maximum-salary deal three seasons ago. It’s little fault of his own, but the first three years have been a disappointment. He missed all of his first year after suffering a gruesome ankle injury, and last season dealt with lingering pain and rarely appeared comfortable.
This season he flashed his All-Star form for the first time as a Celtic before being sidelined by a broken hand in November and an ankle sprain in the opening game of the playoffs. He returned in Game 3 of the conference finals but was never fully healthy.
When he was actually on the floor and able, he was excellent, averaging 17.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 4.1 assists while connecting on 50 percent of his shots. The offense runs noticeably smoother when he is on the court firing quick passes or gashing into the paint with strong drives. But due to injuries it’s impossible not to view his Celtics tenure as a missed opportunity.
Daniel Theis: After last season, Theis appeared in position to remain a reliable option off the bench. Then Al Horford decided to sign with the 76ers and Aron Baynes was traded to the Suns, suddenly pushing Theis into a substantial role.
He was a very good fit among Boston’s fleet of high-volume scorers. He does not require post-up chances, but he has an essential duty setting screens and seals to free up Boston’s shooters, and coach Brad Stevens loves that Theis has such an accurate feel for Boston’s offensive and defensive schemes. He found a rhythm after the All-Star break, averaging 11.5 points and 7.5 rebounds while connecting on 60.8 percent of his shots.
At 6-8, Theis certainly faces size differentials against bigger centers, but he makes up for it with his mobility, wingspan, and defensive versatility. Theis made a respectable 33.3 percent of his 3-pointers, but teams consistently gave him that shot without any resistance, so it would be impactful if he’s able to raise that figure a few percentage points.
Brad Stevens: Stevens seems to be in a somewhat odd spot among the fan base. He has helped turn the Celtics into an Eastern Conference power, he has guided the team to the conference finals in three of the last four years, and he is widely viewed as one of the game’s brightest minds. Nevertheless, some seem to be getting restless about Boston’s inability to take the next step. While it’s true that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra got the better of Stevens in this year’s Eastern Conference finals, one scan of the NBA coaching landscape reveals how fortunate Boston is to have Stevens.
The Celtics have generally been viewed as a team on the rise, in large part because perhaps their two best players, Tatum and Brown, are so young. Having said that, this is now a veteran-laden squad. Brown will be entering his fifth year and Tatum his fourth, not to mention Walker and Hayward, if he returns. Over the next few seasons, Stevens and the Celtics rightly will be judged on NBA Finals appearances.