With the Celtics season set to tip off Tuesday against the 76ers (7:30 p.m., TNT), beat writer Adam Himmelsbach and NBA writer Gary Washburn had an e-mail exchange about what to expect this year.
Adam: Gary, it’s hard to believe a new season is already here. I think I just got over the jet lag from all of those San Francisco trips. It was a relatively quiet offseason for the Celtics until the very end. Coach Ime Udoka’s one-year suspension for violations of team policies really rattled the organization. But the players have seemed unaffected. The familiarity with interim coach Joe Mazzulla, who has been an assistant since 2019, definitely helps. And the front office absolutely raves about Mazzulla’s potential in the lead role. What will he have to do to keep this operation running smoothly?
Gary: I think Mazzulla has to be himself and kind of separate himself from Udoka. He has to gain their trust. Let’s remember, the players bought into Udoka’s philosophy, discipline, and high level of expectation, but he wasn’t following those same principles off the floor. So Mazzulla has to be a man of his word, lean on the players a little more since he is inexperienced, and use his basketball acumen to help the team move forward. It won’t be easy, but it’s very possible.
Adam: I’ll be curious to see how he handles the first losing streak, or the first time a player publicly complains about his role. For the most part, the assignments seem clear. I still think that at some point there could be some friction between Marcus Smart and Malcolm Brogdon, though. Brogdon hasn’t come off the bench since 2017-18, and while he’s embracing his sixth-man assignment, what happens when Smart has a bad shooting slump? Or when Mazzulla turns to Brogdon to close out a big game? They’ll probably finish games together quite often, but it’ll be worth keeping an eye on their dynamic, especially after Robert Williams comes back.
Speaking of Williams, how do you think the Celtics will be best positioned to thrive while he remains out following knee surgery? Should they truly embrace small-ball or lean on some backups such as Blake Griffin, Luke Kornet, and Noah Vonleh?
Gary: I think from the looks of the preseason, rebounding is going to be an issue. I am confused about the fascination with Kornet, who has proven to be nothing more than a third center so far in his career, yet apparently is going to be playing major minutes. Griffin, I think, is going to play more than expected and the one thing I would watch out for is a wall for 36-year-old Al Horford. I think he exceeded everybody’s expectations last year, but does Father Time pay a visit this season? Can Griffin fill that role? Who is going to block shots for the Celtics? Is it Kornet? I think this is the most unsettling position on the roster and there is no real comfortable answer at this point.
Adam: I think the comfortable answer is Williams returning healthy about 25 games into the season. The Celtics will miss him, but they shouldn’t collapse without him. And this team is now built for a championship, so ensuring that it’s in lockstep and ready to do that by late April will be a primary goal. What are you expecting from Jayson Tatum? His strong regular season was mostly forgotten after a tough Finals, and he hasn’t looked great in the preseason, even if it’s just the preseason.
Gary: You would think Tatum went into the lab all summer trying to work on the things Golden State exposed in the Finals. Instead, it seems like Tatum kind of brushed off the Finals loss, did some hanging out, and is hoping the same summer regimen is going to help him take the next step. That’s just an observation. He has to become a more vocal leader, stop complaining about the officiating and not settle for as many 3-pointers. I was a little disturbed he brushed off his preseason struggles as just being a “slow starter.” Jaylen Brown played this preseason like he had something to prove, like he’s been working. Tatum appeared like the Celtics won the Finals a few months ago. Maybe he’ll show the hunger and improvement during the regular season, but I didn’t see much in the preseason. They need a better Tatum in all facets.
Adam: There’s no question that this will be an important year for Tatum as he tries to show that his first-team All-NBA selection was no fluke, especially as so many stars who were injured last year return. And it’s hard to believe, but Brown suddenly has just two years remaining on his contract extension. This year could help determine whether he sees Boston as his long-term home or not. But for now, these Celtics are pretty loaded. How do you predict the season will unfold? And while we’re at it, give me one wacky prediction.
Gary: I think this season will be a special one. Something tells me they have learned from their NBA Finals experience and the painfully slow start of last season. They really seem to like Mazzulla and want to play hard for him, and that’s really important, so I think they return to the Finals. Also look for Brad Stevens to make some trade deadline moves in case they need help for the second half. This may not be the team right now that we see during the stretch run of March and April. I think the Celtics meet the Clippers in the Finals, and my wild prediction is Mazzulla wins Coach of the Year.
Adam: Yeah, there is a real sense that they’re focused on the ultimate goal now and are planning to use the regular season to prepare for that familiar stage. So much hinges on Williams being healthy. He still has plenty of room for growth and could become the third true star Tatum and Brown need to get to the top. Still, a lot went right for the Celtics at the end of last season while so much went wrong for other Eastern Conference powers. I think things level out a bit and Boston falls in the conference finals. My wacky prediction is that on a night the Celtics are resting some stars, Sam Hauser drills nine 3-pointers.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @adamhimmelsbach. Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @GwashburnGlobe.