Snowed in with no place else to go, Celtics beat writer Adam Himmelsbach and national NBA writer Gary Washburn had an e-mail exchange about the upcoming Celtics season.
Adam: Gary, it’s hard to believe that a new season is already here. Have you even unpacked from the Orlando bubble yet? The Celtics came within two wins of the NBA Finals, but there was still a sense that they remained a big step away from being true title contenders. It’s been an interesting and abbreviated offseason. Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, Brad Wanamaker, and Vincent Poirier are gone. Tristan Thompson, Jeff Teague, Aaron Nesmith, and Payton Pritchard have arrived. It’s actually a minor facelift compared to some previous years, but where do you think it leaves Boston in the East?
Gary: I think the Celtics are third or fourth in the East, which is exactly where they were entering last season. Brooklyn replaces Toronto as the No. 2 seed behind Milwaukee. I don’t think the Celtics took a step back, but I’m not sure whether they took a step forward. A lot is going to depend on how the newcomers look, whether the current players improve, and how they bounce back from the quick offseason. A lot of things have to go right for the Celtics to win the East.
Adam: I have them in the No. 4 slot. It will be interesting to see how much seeding matters, as it’s still unclear whether fans will be in attendance at all this season. I think the Celtics’ success ultimately hinges on the health of Kemba Walker. They need him to be at an All-Star level when it matters, but that balky left knee is certainly not cooperating yet. If you were Danny Ainge, what would be your level of concern regarding Walker’s health?
Gary: I would definitely be concerned. Knee issues have derailed many careers, and not everybody is LeBron or Kobe and can play until 38. Kemba is 30 and may have arthritis or other chronic conditions, so it’s best to bring him back slower. I think he will be fine, but it may be until February. Until then, the Celtics will have to cope or pick up another point guard.
Adam: I agree that even when he returns, he’ll have his playing time limited considerably, especially with games packed so tightly together this year. Teague is a solid replacement for Brad Wanamaker and will have no problem seizing a larger role with Walker out, and it certainly looks like Marcus Smart will open the season in the starting lineup in place of Walker.
But there are legitimate questions about this team’s depth even if Walker returns fully healthy. The lack of scoring pop off the bench was noticeable last year, and it remains to be seen if that issue has been addressed. Do you see rookies Aaron Nesmith or Payton Pritchard making an impact this year?
Gary: I do see Nesmith making an impact. He appears poised and mature. He already has an NBA body to deal with the rigors, and he can shoot. I am familiar with Pritchard because I watched him punish my Cal Bears for the past four years while at Oregon. I think he will make an impact, too. It’s all about playing with confidence and adjusting. I think both rookies will have a chance to play, and they may have already passed up a couple of second-year guys in the rotation.
Adam: Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you relive Cal trauma there. It’s tough being a fan sometimes. Speaking of fans, there seems to be a segment of the Celtics fan base that is getting a bit antsy about the fact that Brad Stevens has yet to guide a team to the Finals. It’s worth pointing out that Boston has reached the conference finals in three of the last four years despite several injuries to key players. Also, Celtics management could hardly be more pleased with the job Stevens has done. He’s certainly not on any hot seat, but at what point do you think it could become an issue if Boston is unable to take the next step on his watch?
Gary: I think it begins to become an issue in a year or two if the Celtics lose in the first or second round of the playoffs. It also depends on health. If Boston goes into the playoffs fully healthy and still gets knocked off by a lower seed in an upset, Celtics faithful will definitely begin to question whether Stevens is the right coach to lead the Celtics to the next level. But I do think we will see a different Stevens this season. He got outcoached by Erik Spoelstra in the conference finals and I think he understands he probably needs to do a better job of putting his players in positions to succeed.
Adam: Well, if things go poorly this year at least Stevens and the Celtics probably won’t hear any boos for a while. You were in the Orlando bubble, which was a completely sealed operation that really went quite well. Now the NBA is restarting without a bubble. There are plenty of measures in place, from daily testing of players to the lack of fans. But there will be considerably more risk, and although a vaccine is being distributed to very small pockets of the population already, the virus is raging. How do you feel about the NBA’s plan to return now?
Gary: I feel like the NBA is doing the best it can to keep players safe, but you have to hope the players cooperate with social distancing when they are away from the arena. We all saw James Harden partying before he reported for training camp. You have to hope the players stay safe and the testing is effective, but I do think it will work because the players have so much money on the line.
Adam: Hopefully it all works out, and hopefully fans are able to return safely in some capacity this season. It’s certainly going to be a year unlike any other.