The Celtics’ 2019-20 season ended 79 days ago with a suspense-free, 125-113 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sept. 27. It was a memorable run, despite what the banner-or-bust crowd might yowl at you.
Sixty-five days ago, the Disney bubble came to a close when Rajon Rondo won his second NBA title, and yes, that is the only appropriate prism for a Boston fan to view the outcome of last season’s Finals.
Seriously, though: Seventy-nine days ago? Sixty-five? The end of the last Celtics’ season and the NBA season overall feels like it just happened about two weeks ago. It’s hard to believe they’re ready to fire it up.
It’s nice to have them back. The Celtics, with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown now at the forefront and Gordon Hayward having headed off in his quest to score a lot of points for a lot of money for a lousy team, should make a run at a fourth Eastern Conference finals appearance in five years. But this feels . . . soon.
NBA players as a whole are so savvy about their conditioning these days that they don’t really get out of shape. There isn’t a Billy Paultz in the league these days, you know? But this short offseason and the heavy immediate workload is almost certainly going to lead to an abundance of injuries.
The Celtics are already dealing with a couple ailments of note. Tristan Thompson, a free agent pickup who should fill the role of tough rebounding/defending big man that old-school Celtics fans have coveted since Kendrick Perkins was traded — let’s see — 3,582 days ago, is already dealing with a hamstring injury.
More troubling, Kemba Walker is out through at least early January with a knee injury that just won’t relent. Walker was an absolute joy to watch during his first couple of months with the Celtics last season, an All-Star level player who seemed more pleased with teammates’ success than his own. But the knee began barking before the All-Star break, the problem lingered, and the Walker we saw in the bubble was compromised. His familiar burst did not accompany him to Disney.
His status, and exactly what he will be capable of once he returns, hovers over this season. It’s also a reminder of how much lousy luck the Celtics have had with their greatest plans over the last half-dozen seasons. Isaiah Thomas injured his hip and altered his career by playing through it. Hayward snapped his ankle in the first quarter of his first game as a Celtic. Kyrie Irving, acquired in a no-brainer deal that included sending Thomas to Cleveland, was a blast when engaged, but fluctuated between insouciance and insubordination at the end.
My daughter has a poster in her room of the star-crossed 2018-19 team that includes Irving, Hayward, Tatum, Brown, Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, and Aron Baynes. Just two years later, it’s amazing how much talent they had, and how their pathetic lack of chemistry led to squandering that opportunity. You’ll know what we mean soon, Nets fans.
For all of the frustrations of best-laid big pictures gone haywire, the most important requirements to sustaining an excellent team have worked out in their favor: Tatum and Brown have done everything and then some to validate their selections as No. 3 overall picks.
This is their team, and if they improve at anything close to the rate they did a season ago, another deep playoff run is a certainty. Even if they improve incrementally, the Celtics should excel and emerge as an elite team in the East.
To his credit last season, Tatum eradicated many of the bad habits that infiltrated his game during his second season, turning into a legitimate go-to scorer for a winning team. Brown improved every last aspect of his game, becoming a more reliable shooter, tightening his dribble, and never failing to give maximum defensive effort.
Tatum’s ceiling is probably a top-10 NBA player, with Brown in the top 20. Their skills aren’t entirely complementary, but they do play well together, they like each other — we’ve come to learn how important that is — and they are both signed long term. Underestimate them at your peril.
Walker — should the knee cooperate, of course — is an excellent third option, and one who has the maturity to be accepting of his role. Smart, the heart (and guts) of it all, and Daniel Theis, whose versatility and skill seemed to be news to every NBA color analyst that saw him play in the postseason, will be especially essential early on. Thompson gives them a physical and rebounding presence they’ve lacked.
Hayward’s playmaking will be missed. The injury robbed him of some of the skills and daring that made him an All-Star with the Jazz, but a player who averages 17.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 4.1 assists, and does everything pretty well is not easily replaced. It’s too bad raw but skilled sophomore Romeo Langford is still recovering from his wrist surgery, because there is an opportunity there to be seized.
I’d say I hope coach Brad Stevens gives an opportunity to some of the more raw talents on the roster, such as third-year big Robert Williams and rookie shooter Aaron Nesmith. But the better way to phrase it is to say they should be prepared to seize whatever chances are presented to them. Stevens might have to let them suffer more growing pains than he normally allows with young players.
I’m somewhat skeptical Nesmith and Payton Pritchard will contribute right away, just because there was no summer ball and the degree of difficulty in learning what they need to learn is much higher for this year’s crop of rookies. If Nesmith can become trustworthy as a designated shooter, that would be enough for now.
I’m more curious whether any second-year players — excluding Grant Williams, already locked in as a steady rotation piece — emerge. It wouldn’t shock me if Tremont Waters outperformed veteran Jeff Teague in Walker’s absence. Carsen Edwards has to start making a few long ones now, or his future will be in Europe. Tacko Fall remains enticingly . . . well, tall. That they brought him back is indicator enough of his progress.
It’s funny. Last season didn’t end that long ago, but the Celtics do look a little different than the last time we saw them. They’ll go as far as a couple of familiar kids — Tatum and Brown, now 22 and 24, and everything they were supposed to be — can take them.