A new Celtics season is here, so let’s make some predictions that are just as likely to be wrong as they are to be right.
▪ Jayson Tatum will have four 50-point games.
Tatum hit the 50-point mark twice last season, including a sparkling 60-point night in a win over the Spurs. Both of those games required overtime, but Tatum reached 50 in regulation against the Spurs and then did the same in an opening-round playoff game against the Nets.
Now, Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier are gone, which should result in even more shot attempts for Tatum — in addition to more attention from defenses. Also, he’s determined to become a more efficient scorer by getting to the free throw line more often. And last year, he played in only 64 games.
▪ Aaron Nesmith and Romeo Langford will emerge as key contributors.
Nesmith acknowledged that he battled confidence issues at the start of his rookie season. When his shots weren’t falling, he earned opportunities with his hustle and defense, and then gradually found a rhythm beyond the arc.
He had a different swagger at summer league this year, and he looked poised and confident during the preseason, when he shot 53.3 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond the arc.
Langford’s first two years were dented by one injury after another, and his struggles during scattered opportunities hurt his confidence, too. Like Nesmith, he received a boost in summer league and then sparkled this preseason, making 9 of 15 3-pointers over four exhibition games. He said it was all ignited by his game-winning shot in the opener against the Magic.
Of course, summer league and preseason are quite different from, say, a Christmas game in Milwaukee against the defending champion Bucks. But it appears these two players will take significant steps as long as their confidence continues to swell.
▪ The Celtics will finish fifth in the Eastern Conference and lose in the conference semifinals.
They finished a frustrating 2020-21 season with a 36-36 record. But the roster was ravaged by COVID-19 absences, and when the end of the bench was pushed into duty, it became clear that it was a weak link.
This summer, first-year president of basketball operations Brad Stevens fortified the roster with sturdy, reliable veterans such as Josh Richardson, Dennis Schröder, and Al Horford, and the younger returning players appear to be in position to meaningfully contribute.
Still, as currently constructed, this team remains a level below the Bucks and Nets, and most likely will tussle for position with a strong group of teams including the Heat, Hawks, 76ers, and Knicks.
The Celtics should be able to withstand injuries and absences better as long as Tatum and Jaylen Brown stay healthy.
▪ The Celtics once again will have a top 10 defense after slipping last year.
The Celtics mostly had excellent defenses during Stevens’s eight-year tenure as coach, but they took a considerable step back last year, when they surrendered 106.4 points per 100 possessions, ranking just 18th in the NBA.
During the preseason, first-year coach Ime Udoka consistently emphasized the importance of a gritty defensive unit, and he has favored versatile, switch-heavy lineups. Walker and Fournier were below-average defenders, and Schröder and Richardson will provide an upgrade there.
▪ Enes Kanter often will be the odd man out.
Udoka’s defensive scheme will be centered on versatility, and Kanter simply isn’t versatile. He remains a liability defensively, and as long as Robert Williams is healthy, he should get a significant bump from the 18.9 minutes per game he averaged last season.
A rejuvenated Horford will fill some minutes at center, too, and Boston will deploy some small-ball lineups.
▪ Schröder will not start many games, but he will finish plenty of them.
The Celtics got one of the better bargains of the summer when they inked Schröder to a one-year, $5.9 million deal. The starting point guard slot belongs to Marcus Smart, but Schröder is a skilled, savvy veteran who can pester opposing ball-handlers and make plays in key spots, and he will get that chance, either in place of Smart or alongside him in smaller lineups.
▪ Horford will attempt more than five 3-pointers per game.
After Horford was shut down midway through his lone season with the Thunder last year, he focused on skill development, including a quicker release on his 3-point shots. Now, he will serve as an important floor-stretching safety valve for the Celtics, as he clears out to create space for Tatum and Brown to get to the rim.