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Where should we expect the Celtics to finish? And other key story lines as the season arrives

Our team believes Dennis Schröder could be a surprise for the Celtics.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

With the Celtics season set to tip off Wednesday, beat writer Adam Himmelsbach and NBA writer Gary Washburn had an email exchange about what to expect this year.

Himmelsbach: Well, Gary, a new season is here, and the Celtics have a new coach, a new general manager, new players, and even a new TD Garden scoreboard. And fans are back, so that should be fun. But the Eastern Conference should be as strong as it’s been in years. What do you think are realistic expectations for this Celtics team?

Washburn: I think they can make a run for that fourth seed and home-court advantage in the first round, or maybe better. I like the moves new president of basketball operations Brad Stevens has made, getting some rugged players with attitudes like Dennis Schröder and Josh Richardson.

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I think Al Horford will be productive because the Celtics will ask him to do less and he’s taken care of his body. The fortunate news is that Jaylen Brown is ready to start the season, so they’ll enter this year with no injury issues and a chance to get wins early.

This team needs to make an early statement. No 4-8 starts. Coach Ime Udoka seems to have the players’ attention, and the chemistry appears to be stronger than last season.

Himmelsbach: I have them slotted in the No. 5 seed. I think they’re a step behind the Nets and Bucks, a tiny step behind the Heat and 76ers, and then slightly ahead of teams such as the Hawks, Knicks, and Pacers.

This should be one of Boston’s deeper teams in years. Last season the weakness at the end of their bench was obvious when those players were called into duty because of injuries and COVID-19 absences. Now they can turn to Schröder and Richardson as well as up-and-coming young players such as Aaron Nesmith, Romeo Langford, and Payton Pritchard.

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Ime Udoka is an NBA head coach for the first time.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

But if they are to vault toward the top of the East, I think they’ll need a breakout year from Robert Williams. Is there a player on the roster you think could surprise some people?

Washburn: I’m going to go with Schröder. He’s capable of playing at a high level and has played in big games. I think he’ll push Udoka for more minutes and a bigger role down the stretch. He wants to start, but he flourished in Oklahoma City as a sixth man and I think he could do that again in Boston.

Also, I think he has plenty of motivation after failing to get his money in free agency, so I think he’ll be productive and a key player in the fourth quarter.

Himmelsbach: The Celtics got Schröder for one of the best bargains of this offseason. He’ll certainly be trying to earn that big contract he was hoping to get this year. The Celtics just have to hope that he plays within himself while also trying to prove himself.

Udoka will also have something to prove. He’s interviewed for multiple head coaching openings over the past few years before landing this one, and this is his first time as a head coach at any level. He’s already shown his no-nonsense approach, and he seems to have the full respect of his team. What do you think will be his biggest challenge this season?

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Washburn: I think the biggest challenge is maximizing his talent and finding that reliable third scorer behind Jayson Tatum and Brown. Multiple people could fill that role, but Tatum and Brown need consistent support.

Also, Udoka needs to get the best of Marcus Smart. Can he be a reliable point guard? Can he stop shooting needless 3-pointers? If it all works, the Celtics have a chance to be really good. But again, everything has to go right.

Himmelsbach: It feels like this will be an important year for Tatum, too, as he enters the first season of his max contract extension. Udoka has emphasized unlocking other parts of Tatum’s game, such as his playmaking and his ability to draw fouls on post-ups. He’ll turn 24 during the season and it’s unclear how close he is to his ceiling.

To become a true title contender someday, the Celtics will probably need him to become a top-five player. Do you think that could be in his future?

There could be big things ahead for Jayson Tatum.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

Washburn: Yeah, I definitely think Tatum is destined to be a top five player. I have heard great things about his work ethic and he wants to win. I think the Team USA experience will help him greatly and you can see the drastic change in his physical appearance over the years.

Now he needs to become a more efficient scorer, make things easier on himself and teammates by taking the more quality shot or making the right pass when he’s blitzed defensively. I think he understands now that Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Kemba Walker are gone, the franchise is in his hands, and he’ll rise to the occasion.

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Himmelsbach: It certainly seems like taking that next step in his ascension is meaningful to him. And he seems as confident as ever. Those are both good things for the Celtics.

It should be an interesting season. I’m just looking forward to seeing 82 games again in arenas packed with fans. See you at tipoff, Gary.


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach. Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.