Celtics beat writer Adam Himmelsbach and NBA columnist Gary Washburn had an email exchange to discuss the 2023-24 season, from the pressure on coach Joe Mazzulla to star Jayson Tatum’s next step.
Himmelsbach: Gary, I’m glad we’re back for what promises to be another entertaining season. President of basketball operations Brad Stevens has been quite active since taking over in this post, but this is the first offseason in which he’s truly reshaped the team’s identity. This franchise has never had a player quite like the 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis, and coach Joe Mazzulla has acknowledged that his presence will change their entire approach. Also, the addition of Jrue Holiday should certainly fill the void created by Marcus Smart’s departure. How do you think this duo will impact the title quest?
Washburn: I think the acquisition of Porzingis gives the Celtics something they haven’t had in more than a decade: a really offensively-skilled center who can stretch defenses and create more scoring opportunities for his teammates. Porzingis seems to be fitting right in and his teammates are making efforts to get him the ball in his scoring spots. He has also shown the ability to defend legitimate centers and provide resistance in the paint. As for Holiday, I think he’s an upgrade from Smart, who does so many other things but score. He can defend, pass, and play a complementary role to Tatum and Jaylen Brown. I think Brad has made all the right moves here to boost the roster to championship level.
Himmelsbach: It certainly appears that they’ve upgraded their top six. I think it’s the best in the NBA. But I still have a sneaky suspicion that Smart’s absence is going to be felt more than most realize. Who is going to light a fire under this team when it loses three games in a row? Who is going to ignite the comeback from a 15-point deficit by sprawling across the floor on a night others appear content to move on to the next game? Maybe the sheer talent level will offset these potential issues, or maybe someone will step into Smart’s role. But for now it still feels like something to monitor. It’s only been a few weeks, but Mazzulla certainly seems more at ease this season. What are your expectations for him?
Washburn: I think Mazzulla is comfortable in his own skin this year and he’s been able to reshape their coaching staff with guys he’s comfortable with. I think people didn’t realize last year that most of Joe’s staff was made up of Ime Udoka guys who were worried about where they were going to coach next year. So it was hard for them to fully concentrate on the season. That’s no longer an issue, and I think last year’s playoffs humbled Mazzulla, because he saw how difficult it is to coach in this league and how good tacticians such as Miami’s Erik Spoelstra operate. Now with a full offseason and training camp, and with an invested roster, it should be a smoother ride. I also think it was critical that Tatum publicly supported Mazzulla and said he sees growth and is excited about playing for him this season.
Himmelsbach: That’s a good point about Tatum’s support. I know there were questions after the conference finals loss to the Heat about whether Mazzulla would be brought back this year, but everyone I’ve spoken to around the organization said there was never a thought of moving on from him. In the end, he won more regular-season games than Stevens or Udoka ever did, and he might have been a Tatum sprained ankle away from having a title team. Having said that, all of those built-in justifications for the missteps are gone. He has been given a championship-ready roster, so there will be more pressure. Speaking of Tatum, what are you expecting from him this year? He was an MVP favorite early last season before trailing off a bit. He’s obviously a superstar, but it still feels like he’s one step below the very top. How can he make another leap?
Washburn: I think this is the year Tatum has to seize the moment and take the mentality that he’s the best player in the world. He’s a top 10 player and maybe top 5. But he needs to put the Celtics on his back at times and will this team to win. Play with a meaner streak. He can jersey swap after the season is over. But this is his time and he has to play like it. All the players who are ranked in front of him have won MVP awards. He has to play like he’s on a mission, because there’s still doubt after he was shut down by Andrew Wiggins in the 2022 Finals, and then had an uneven performance in the Miami series. It’s his team now, so he has to play like the unquestioned leader.
Himmelsbach: Tatum’s minutes per game have increased after every season, to a career-high 36.9 last year. He’s been so durable, but at some point the mileage will add up, especially with all of the long playoff runs. His 3-point percentage has also fallen for three consecutive seasons, to a career-low 35 percent last year. Mazzulla recently admitted that he was too focused on securing the No. 1 seed last season, so I’ll be curious to see if the team tries to reduce Tatum’s regular-season workload to potentially give him a powerful closing kick in the playoffs. The one potential issue with this approach is that the Celtics seem to be more top-heavy than they’ve been in the past. Do you have concerns about their depth? After their top six, the rest of the roster looks sort of average, although they are expecting significant contributions from Payton Pritchard.
Washburn: Yeah, the depth is a concern, but I also think they have a better bench than in years past. Stevens and Danny Ainge used to load the bench with a bunch of nice guys, but many weren’t legitimate NBA players. Oshae Brissett, Lamar Stevens, and Svi Mykhailiuk are legit bench players and I’ve been impressed with two-way center Neemias Queta, who could get some quality minutes. I think the bench is young and energetic, which should help if they can capitalize on their opportunities to play. But I do agree that depth could be an issue and I do think Stevens could look for more help at the trade deadline. I think the roster is as talented from 1 to 15 as it has been in years.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @adamhimmelsbach. Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @GwashburnGlobe.