The Celtics were close this season, beating the second-seeded Raptors in the Eastern Conference semifinals before playing poorly in the opening two games against the Heat to cost them a shot in the NBA Finals.
It was apparent from that Miami series that the Celtics had definitive weaknesses. They lacked an impact center. Their bench lacked scoring. They had a lot of players on their bench who didn’t serve a purpose.
The challenge is for the Celtics to reach an elite level, and it won’t be easy. The Eastern Conference will be treacherous. The Bucks will be out for revenge. The Heat have some impending free agents but still have a strong young core. The Raptors are well coached. The Nets are coming back with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and new coach Steve Nash.
The Celtics are over the salary cap, and even if Gordon Hayward opts out of the final year of his contract, they don’t have many options to bring in an impact player.
So, what can the Celtics do?
They still have three first-round picks, some young potential on the bench, and three of the league’s top 30 players who will return healthy and ready to build on their first season together.
Former Suns general manager and Celtics executive Ryan McDonough, the man responsible for nabbing Devin Booker in the first round five years ago, thinks the Celtics can compete for a championship with minor adjustments.
“It’s important to realize they had a very good year,” McDonough said. "The good news for Celtics fans is they’re led by two young studs in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who are going to be two of the better players for a long, long time. They’re good for the short term and well positioned for the long term.
“The negatives were somewhat circumstantial in the bubble. It seemed like Kemba Walker was a little bit limited physically. The wild card that could help vault the Celtics with internal improvement is Gordon Hayward. The poor guy, I feel like he’s been snake-bitten since he’s arrived in Boston."
McDonough speculated, considering the NBA financial landscape, that Hayward will opt in to the final year of his contract at $34 million. The Hawks, Pistons, Kings, and Hornets have significant salary-cap space, but none of those teams would be likely to offer Hayward a lucrative deal since all are lottery teams with a younger core.
“It’s not a great year to be a free agent player, especially if you want to play for a contending team,” McDonough said. “If you are a veteran player who wants to play for a contending team, to get to one of those teams, you are looking at maybe taking an exception or a minimum contract.”
McDonough said the Celtics do not need major changes. They are limited by the cap, and there are also roster restrictions with most of the reserves returning besides Semi Ojeleye (team option), Daniel Theis (team option), and Enes Kanter (player option).
The big question is third-year center Robert Williams, who made improvements but not enough for coach Brad Stevens to trust him in crucial moments against Miami’s Bam Adebayo.
Can Williams improve enough to become a primary option at center? Or should the Celtics pursue veterans such as Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein, or Aron Baynes.
“For the Celtics, it’s coming up with a structured tiered development plan where they have specific goals for each offseason,” McDonough said. “When you have a talented young player like Robert Williams, it’s easy to get too far ahead of yourselves or ask organizationally to try to do too many different things. ‘What can we do to get him to master a role that helps him grow and develop individually and also helps our team win?’ ”
In other words, according to McDonough, implore Williams to improve on fundamentals such as setting screens, getting to the rim for lobs, mastering the pick-and-roll game, defending without fouling, and taking charges.
McDonough said the Celtics don’t need Williams to become another Adebayo because with their perimeter threats they don’t need to run offense through him or take opposing centers off the dribble. But they do need him to improve.
“A limited role on a talented Celtics team with their perimeter players is what he should focus on,” McDonough said. “If you don’t have a rim protector in today’s NBA with a lack of physicality, you have to be so good and so consistent on the perimeter defensively that you can afford very few mistakes if you don’t have somebody to clean them up.”
McDonough said what Celtics officials believed for weeks, that the Game 3 ending against Toronto, in which OG Anunoby’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer transformed a 3-0 Celtics lead into a strenuous seven-game series, led to their exhaustion for the next series.
“I know the expectations in Boston are so high. In a 30-team league, they are in the final four,” McDonough said. “I do feel the combination of [Game 3] and the physical limitations of Walker and Hayward, Miami was the better team. Tatum and Brown are only going to get better. Hayward should be better. They’re not far away. Somehow they are going to try to upgrade the center position, that’s my guess. That’s the main thing they need and I think if they upgrade there they can be right there in the mix.”
BEST GIFT OF ALL
Can they deliver tipoff present?
The NBA knew it was going to face a difficult decision despite how well this bubble season ended. When the schedule was pushed back to mid-October, league officials were deliberating about when to begin the 2020-21 season.
There are a lot of elements involved that prevent the league from simply running it back with a March-to-October schedule for 2021.
First, the NBA does not want to play into the summer. As much as the bubble produced quality play, television ratings were disappointing at times. Why? Well, it appears professional leagues, including Major League Baseball, overestimated America’s thirst for sports during the pandemic.
Many casual viewers likely passed on basketball and baseball because there are more important issues in the world. The year 2020 has produced a hotbed of racial, social, and health issues, and sports took a backseat. Second, summer ratings are difficult because it’s not naturally basketball season. While the diehard fan had to be excited about the NHL, NFL, MLB, and NBA going on simultaneously, it didn’t generate the television excitement as expected.
NBA owners want to get the season back to its natural winter-to-early-summer schedule. And they have suggested a Dec. 22 start, which would give each team an opening game before a five-game schedule on Christmas featuring 10 top teams.
The Lakers, Clippers, Celtics, Warriors, Bucks, Heat, and Raptors would almost be guaranteed to play on Christmas, along with likes of the Pelicans, Rockets, Mavericks, and Nuggets.
But wait. There’s a problem. The Lakers beat the Heat in Game 6 of the Finals on Oct. 11, meaning those teams would have approximately 10 weeks after their final game before they begin a new season. During the pandemic, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts told the Globe the players would not be on board with a December start.
The owners have incentive for an earlier opening: They have estimated that more than $500 million in revenue could be earned with a Christmas inclusion. Also, the owners want to end the season before the Tokyo Olympics. Playing during the Olympics would be unprecedented and owners do not want to take the ratings risk. Also, several standouts, especially from countries where playing in international competition is also expected, would have to make a tough decision whether to leave their teams or skip the opportunity to play for their country.
Roberts told the Globe the NBPA’s concern is not the Olympics, it’s what’s best for the safety and health of the players, so the Olympics argument may not hold much influence in negotiations.
Eventually, the NBA is going to have to get back to its normal calendar. If the league decided to go to a March-to-October schedule for 2021, it would have the same issue for 2021-22. The league has to persuade the players that everyone involved is going to have to sacrifice one season to get back to normalcy, and the owners want it to be this coming season.
There is going to be an abbreviated schedule and perhaps less travel, emphasizing intra-conference matchups. Also, the NBA is not considering another bubble, especially since it would have to last an entire six-month season.
One final element is the potential reopening of the collective bargaining agreement, something the NBPA does not want. The owners could claim, because of financial losses, they want to renegotiate the CBA and likely forever change the agreement the players have been pleased with since the 2011 lockout.
The NBPA may have to meet ownership demands to prevent the CBA reopening. Many players would prefer an additional couple of weeks off, beginning the season on Martin Luther King Day, but that would make a 72-game schedule with playoffs that would end before the scheduled July 23 opening of the Tokyo Games.
Decisions will have to come soon, and the league has approved teams to begin group workouts at practice facilities and remember, eight teams haven’t played since March and six others played just eight games in the bubble before heading home, so essentially half the league is itching to get back to action. Superstars on the other 16 teams may have something to say about that.
The voice of the bubble
It reached a point where every time the home team dunked and Kyle Speller served as the public address announcer for that bubble game, the small crowd inside AdventHealth Arena expected Speller to go into full Aaron Hall with his call.
Only diehard R&B fans would know that reference unless you used Google. Whenever players such as LeBron James or even Alex Caruso of the Lakers would score on a dunk, Speller, one of four PR announcers brought into the bubble, would belt out, “Jam, oh jam, Alex jam for me.”
It’s a lyric from a song titled, “Teddy’s Jam,” by the group Guy, released in 1988. Speller would take the role of lead single Hall, who made the mostly instrumental one of the group’s signature songs with his booming voice.
So there was Speller, bringing us back to 1988, so much so that NBA officials working the game were singing along to Speller’s call. Speller is the Nuggets' PA announcer and he spent three months in the bubble, just like the players, league officials, and media.
It was a sacrifice, but Speller made an imprint. Bubble PA announcers were asked not only to call multiple games per day until deep into the playoffs, but also make calls with a flair for the home team. That meant Speller had to come up with hometown-like calls for players he has only mentioned as visiting players in Denver.
His calls for road players are quite distinctive. When James scores a basket in Denver, Speller simply says, “Basket, James.” But now he was asked to come up with colorful ways to describe every player in the league, “King James!” “It’s Dame Time!” “AD!” “Jimmy Buckets!” and “Oh yeah! Jayson Tatum!”
“I’m an NBA fan and this is my 15th season, and I know the league and a majority of the players, so that wasn’t much of a heavy lift,” Speller said. “The most challenging part of me is shifting from mind-set to mind-set. I wanted to be able to do it for the home team I’m doing it for. I’ll shift my mind-set between games. I want to be a blessing to that team and we’re all making a sacrifice to be down here.”
Speller was assigned multiple games during the seeding phase and early playoffs, and the NBA attempted to make the venues appear as much of an advantage for the home team as possible. But when the ball tipped off, it was up to Speller to attempt to make the home players feel at home.
“I’m here to serve, so I want to be able to provide the best home-court product I can give to that particular team,” he said.
Speller said he did not rehearse his calls for players who weren’t Nuggets. They were spur-of-the-moment creations.
“I say whatever comes to mind and whatever I’m feeling at that moment,” he said. “God blessed me with this and this is nothing I take for granted.”
Speller’s road to the scorer’s table at the Pepsi Center began in 1999 when he was a rookie free agent in Nuggets training camp. It was there he met Nuggets PR guy, and now Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard, and Speller joined the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and his team traveled around Colorado to play prison teams in basketball. Speller was anointed the official PA announcer for these games, adding excitement by giving the inmates nicknames and special introductions.
A few years later, the Nuggets' PA job opened up, and Speller’s wife told him, “Baby, that is your job.”
Since then, he has become the voice synonymous with the Nuggets, and this summer he became the voice synonymous with nearly all 22 teams in the bubble, including the Nuggets.
“I don’t take it for granted,” he said. “Every time I walk into the arena I think I’m one of only 30 people in the world to get to do this. I’m now one of four people that get to do this [in the bubble]. I don’t know why me, but I’m just going to do my best.”
The Rockets' hiring of longtime NBA assistant Stephen Silas, son of former Celtic Paul Silas, was a victory for assistants who did not play in the league. Silas has paid his dues with his many stops and he was credited for helping the Dallas offense become one of the more prolific in the NBA with star guard Luka Doncic. But Silas — like Wesley Unseld, David Vanterpool, Darvin Ham, and Phil Handy — was an assistant with limited playing success, if any, which perhaps hindered his chances at getting a job. Silas was an interesting choice for new Rockets GM Rafael Stone because there was apparently a split within the organization and players on the next coach between ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy and former NBA coach John Lucas. Management favored Van Gundy, while Lucas generated a groundswell of support from players such as James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Silas may not be the sexy hire because he has served as a behind-the-scenes assistant, but he has enough regard around the league to gain the immediate respect of the players as the Rockets attempt to move in a different direction following the Daryl Morey era . . . The Raptors are preparing for the likely possibility they won’t be playing in Toronto next season. Canada has banned US teams from coming entering the country because of COVID-19, and the Raptors responded to that by flying to Florida two weeks early to begin practicing. If the season begins and the rules aren’t adjusted, the Raptors will have to follow their MLB brethren, the Blue Jays, who had to play their home games in Buffalo. There are a handful of cities in the US willing to host the Raptors, such as Kansas City, Mo. (T-Mobile Center) and Newark, N.J. (Prudential Center). The NBA may prefer Newark because it would make travel to the New York area easier, and teams on Eastern Conference trips could play three games in the New York area without boarding a plane. The NBA is still attempting to devise a schedule that would reduce travel. But one thing is certain, players will not accept another bubble.