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21 things to watch for with the Celtics in 2021

The Celtics are 3-2 as they head into the new year.
The Celtics are 3-2 as they head into the new year.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Well, now that 2020 is over, let’s take a look back at the year that was. Just kidding. No one wants to look back at that mess. It’s time to look forward. So here are 21 Celtics-related things to watch for in 2021.

1. Kemba’s return: Kemba Walker remains sidelined as he works to strengthen his left knee. The first notable update is expected in the next week or two, but he is not expected back soon, and even when he returns, he will have a strict minutes restriction.

Much like in the Orlando bubble, the Celtics are working to have Walker at full strength in time for the playoffs. They remain optimistic, but any other setback would ignite considerable concern.

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Nevertheless, even 20 minutes of Walker per night would provide a significant boost to this offense.

2. The big trade exception: When the Celtics and Hornets agreed to a sign-and-trade involving Gordon Hayward, Boston received a $28.5 million trade exception, the largest in league history.

The exception will allow the Celtics to take in a player making as much as $28.5 million without having to send out matching salary in return. This is especially useful with a roster that does not have aging veterans on big-money, expiring deals.

3. The trade deadline: The NBA trade deadline is March 25. There is always plenty of buzz around the Celtics at that time, although they have not made a notable deadline deal since acquiring Isaiah Thomas from the Suns in 2015.

Now they have the juicy trade exception to dangle, though they don’t need to use it right away. It won’t expire until after free agency begins next summer.

4. Fans at TD Garden: The Celtics brass remains hopeful that fans will be allowed in the building at some point this season. The vaccine distribution and advances in testing could make it possible, but health and government agencies will have the final say.

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5. Tatum’s adjustments: Even after Walker comes back, Jayson Tatum will remain the focus of opposing defenses. He is already being trapped and blitzed more frequently than he was last season. He needs to continue balancing necessary scoring with making the right play and finding open teammates. His skills as a passer are obvious.

6. The rise of Pritchard: The Celtics have had many draft picks over the last five years, but aside from the highest ones such as Jaylen Brown and Tatum, there haven’t been many hits. And even though just five games have been played, rookie Payton Pritchard, the 26th pick, appears to be a steal.

He is averaging 22 minutes per game and has earned coach Brad Stevens’s trust in high-pressure situations. His shooting numbers will regress, but his confidence and comfort should only grow.

Payton Pritchard has gotten off to an impressive start.
Payton Pritchard has gotten off to an impressive start.Darron Cummings/Associated Press

7. The other trade exceptions: Yes, the Hayward exception generated the attention because it is colossal, but the Celtics created two others this offseason. They have a $5 million exception from the deal that sent Enes Kanter to the Trail Blazers and a $2.5 million exception from the deal that sent Vincent Poirier to the Thunder.

8. All-Star selections: There will be no All-Star Game, but it remains likely that teams will be chosen anyway. Walker is unlikely to have a shot, but his absence and Hayward’s departure have led to an explosion in opportunities for Tatum and Brown, who both rank in the top 10 in the NBA in shots per game.

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Tatum is a known quantity now and is probably a lock, and Brown would be chosen if the selections were made today.

9. The champs are here: LeBron James and the Lakers come to TD Garden for a nationally televised Saturday night game Jan. 30.

10. Romeo Langford’s return: The Celtics remain high on Langford, the 14th pick of the 2019 draft. His NBA career thus far has been marred by injuries, and he’s currently working his way back after undergoing wrist surgery in September.

But Stevens showed trust in him as a defender during last season’s playoffs, and he should reenter the rotation when healthy, perhaps sometime in February.

11. A Robert Williams breakout? The third-year forward continues to show flashes of what he could one day become. He is Boston’s most athletic big man, and his passing and mid-range jump shot have improved. There are still moments when he struggles with positioning, but if he can fix those issues, he could become a force by year’s end.

12. Can Nesmith contribute? The Celtics drafted Aaron Nesmith 14th overall to provide some much-needed scoring pop off the bench. But even with Walker and Langford out, he is not a part of the rotation, and he has appeared to struggle with awareness during his rare stints.

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He played just two years in college, though, and did not have the benefit of summer league to become familiar with Boston’s scheme.

Aaron Nesmith (right) has some work to do on his game.
Aaron Nesmith (right) has some work to do on his game.Maddie Meyer/Getty

13. The importance of seeding: The end of the regular season is usually an important time to jostle for positioning to secure home-court advantage. But if fans are still not allowed in most arenas this spring, that won’t really matter much, and it could lead teams to value rest more.

14. The other games: The schedule has been released only through March 4 because the league wants wiggle room for makeup games in the event of COVID-19-related postponements. Look for the second half of the schedule to come out in late February.

15. Absences: Javonte Green missed Wednesday’s game against the Grizzlies because of health and safety protocols, the first Celtic to be sidelined for that reason. The true challenge will arise if multiple players are sidelined at once.

16. The West Coast trip: The Celtics will begin a five-game road trip when they face the Warriors Feb. 2. In addition to some tough games in different time zones, this will be a lengthy stretch of travel amid the pandemic.

17. Future draft picks: Wait, for the first time in forever, the Celtics actually don’t own the first-round picks of any other teams. This feels weird.

18. Garden returns: On Christmas, Kyrie Irving played his first game in TD Garden since leaving the Celtics. But there were no fans there, so it didn’t really count. The Nets’ second Boston game will be in the second half of the season, so maybe there will be fans then. Also, Hayward and the Hornets will come to Boston at some point in the second half.

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19. Green’s contract: The second-year wing’s contract does not become fully guaranteed until Feb. 27. He has shown value as a defensive-minded wing, but the Celtics could decide to open up that roster spot.

20. The defense: Through five games, the Celtics own the NBA’s 22nd-ranked defense. They’ve faced some high-powered offenses, and their 17-steal game against the Grizzlies offered some hope, but they will have to be in the top 10 if they hope to be a true contender.

21. The buyout market: If the Celtics don’t use any of their trade exceptions, they could look to add a veteran in the buyout market after the trade deadline. They last dipped a toe in the buyout market when they signed Greg Monroe in March 2019.


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.