The Celtics enter 2023 with the best record in the NBA and as clear favorites to win the franchise’s first championship since 2008. It’s been a somewhat remarkable start for a team that was pummeled with bad news in September, from coach Ime Udoka’s suspension, to forward Danilo Gallinari’s ACL tear, to Robert Williams’s knee surgery.
But the Celtics have not missed a beat under interim coach Joe Mazzulla, Williams is back, and a skilled bench group has made up for Gallinari’s absence. And it hasn’t hurt that Jayson Tatum has emerged as a leading MVP candidate.
Here are 11 things to watch as this promise-filled season flips to 2023.
1. Grant Williams’s production
The Celtics and Williams were unable to agree on a contract extension prior to the October deadline, so at season’s end Williams will become a restricted free agent, allowing Boston to match any offer he receives from another team. The fourth-year forward’s bet on himself appears to be paying off. He is shooting a career-best 44.3 percent from the 3-point line and continues to show value as a versatile defender and a good teammate. Robert Williams’s return will likely reduce Grant’s opportunities a bit, but a championship run could make his value soar.
2. The end of Udoka’s suspension
Although Udoka received a one-year suspension in September for violations of organizational policies, it actually ends June 30, at the conclusion of the league year. At that point, look for Udoka and the Celtics to agree on some kind of settlement as the sides officially part ways. Udoka was nearly hired by the Nets after Steve Nash’s firing, and there will surely be several new openings in the coming months. If Udoka fills one, it will simplify the process.
3. Tatum’s freshness
Tatum is averaging 36.9 minutes per game, third in the NBA. He appeared worn down in the Finals last season, and over the second half of this season the Celtics should prioritize keeping him fresh for when games truly matter. Tatum will push back, because he wants to play and wants to win the MVP award, but Mazzulla has to become more comfortable finding longer rests for Tatum and pulling him out of blowouts earlier.
4. The Feb. 9 trade deadline
It’s hard to envision a trade the Celtics could make that would truly upgrade their rotation. Also, they traded their 2023 first-round pick in the Malcolm Brogdon deal. There’s been some suggestion that the team should consider dealing Payton Pritchard, a valuable piece late last season who has fallen back out of the rotation. But Pritchard is just 24 and Boston is just one injury away from needing him. For the Celtics, the biggest part of deadline day will be seeing if fellow contenders meaningfully fortify their rosters.
5. Noah Vonleh’s Jan. 7 guarantee date
The veteran big man’s deal will become fully guaranteed if he is not waived before Jan. 7. After getting a few opportunities early in the season he was passed on the depth chart by Luke Kornet, and now Robert Williams’s return has reduced his value even more. Look for Vonleh to be waived to give the Celtics extra flexibility at the trade deadline and in the ensuing buyout market.
6. Robert Williams’s health and role
Mazzulla raised some eyebrows this past week when he suggested that Williams, who made his debut Dec. 16 after missing the start of the season following September knee surgery, could come off the bench for the rest of the season. Then assistant coach Damon Stoudamire let it slip that Williams remains on a minutes restriction. The Celtics are clearly focused on ensuring that Williams is healthy and ready for the playoffs, and that’s the proper approach for the talented but oft-injured big man. And Derrick White has been excellent as a starter. But if the Celtics slide into another rut it will be interesting to see whether Williams reclaims his starting spot.
7. The jumbled standings
The Celtics are well-positioned to finish with one of the top two records in the East. But there are some potentially dangerous, underachieving teams lurking in the 7-10 play-in tournament slots. The group currently includes the Heat, Knicks, Hawks, and Bulls, with the Raptors just a half-game out of the 10 seed. In last season’s conference finals, the Heat battled the Celtics in an intense seven-game series, and they essentially have the same roster. The playoff path in the East could be bumpy.
8. The Nets
In case you haven’t noticed, the Nets are actually good. Kevin Durant is playing at an MVP level, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons have been available, and Brooklyn is rallying behind coach Jacque Vaughn following the firing of Nash. Brooklyn entered Saturday night’s game against the Hornets riding a 10-game winning streak. A conference finals matchup between the Nets and Celtics would be about as juicy as it gets.
9. The Feb. 19 All-Star Game
Tatum will be an All-Star, likely voted in as a starter. Jaylen Brown will almost certainly be selected as a reserve by the Eastern Conference’s coaches. There’s been some buzz about Marcus Smart’s candidacy because of the Celtics’ sparkling record, but there just aren’t enough spots to make that a realistic possibility. Also, the Celtics do not own a top-five defense, and that’s Smart’s calling card.
10. Postseason awards
Tatum is one of the top MVP contenders, but the guess here is that the Celtics would have to roar through the second half and win about 65 games for him to have a legitimate chance. Most advanced metrics put him in the lower half of the top 10 among candidates, he’s shooting just a tick above his career low from the 3-point line, his four assists per game are his fewest since 2019-20, and on many nights Brown shines brighter.
But Tatum will be named first-team All-NBA for the second year in a row, and that’s not too shabby. Brown should also be in contention for a third-team All-NBA slot. The Celtics’ defensive slippage will cost Smart a chance at winning a second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award. Brogdon should get consideration for Sixth Man of the Year.
11. The second Bill Russell tribute game
The Celtics honored the legendary center, who died July 31 at the age of 88, in their season opener against the 76ers. And they will honor him again when they face the Grizzlies Feb. 12, Russell’s birthday.