jim davis/globe staff file
The Celtics closed 2017 with a mostly ho-hum win over the Nets Sunday, but that was just about the only thing that was ho-hum about their year. Now Boston enters 2018 with a 30-10 record, once again atop the Eastern Conference, once again nearing a spring that is rife with hope and possibility. So here are 18 Celtics-related things to be aware of as the new year begins.
1. Gordon Hayward’s possible return.
Hayward suffered a gruesome fracture-dislocation of his left ankle Oct. 17. It was widely believed that he would be out for the season. And, to be clear, that still remains the most likely possibility.
But Hayward has made progress, and he said last month that he remains hopeful of returning this year. He no longer uses crutches or a walking boot, and he is again able to shoot baskets while standing up. And with 3½ months left in the regular season, there is still so much time for more progress.
Still, there are many boxes to check off, from jogging to sprinting to cutting. The guess here is that Hayward sticks with the original plan and returns fully healthy next year. But the fact that this is even a discussion shows how far he has come.
2. The disabled player exception.
After Hayward was injured, the NBA granted the Celtics an $8.4 million disabled player exception. This will allow the Celtics, who are over the salary cap, to sign a player to a one-year deal for up to $8.4 million, or trade for a player on an expiring contract worth $8.4 million or less.
There are other parameters. If Boston does not use the exception by March 10, it will expire. Also, the team can use the exception only on a trade for a single player. If the Celtics do not use the exception prior to the Feb. 8 trade deadline, they would target the buyout market. Even if the Celtics use the exception, though, it does not make Hayward ineligible to return this year.
3. Watch that Lakers pick.
Last June, the Celtics traded the rights to the No. 1 overall pick to the 76ers in exchange for the No. 3 pick as well as a future first-round choice. If the Lakers’ pick — which Philadelphia had previously acquired — ends up in the 2-5 range in this year’s draft, Boston will receive it. Los Angeles is currently 11-24, the second-worst record in the NBA. With a stacked 2018 draft, Celtics fans should keep one eye on their longtime rivals.
4. But don’t totally forget the Nets pick.
After drafting Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum with picks they received from the Nets in the 2013 Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett trade, the Celtics traded the last Brooklyn pick from that deal, the 2018 choice, to the Cavaliers as part of the package to acquire Kyrie Irving. The Nets are 13-23, and the Celtics would not like the Cavaliers to cash in with a high pick, especially since it could entice LeBron James to re-sign in Cleveland.
5. Tatum’s rookie wall?
Tatum has been magnificent, spending much of the year as the top 3-point shooter in the league. On the court, the adjustment has been easy. But he has often said how the grueling schedule has offered a challenge. So it will be worth monitoring whether he hits a wall.
Consider: In the seven games in which the Celtics were playing on no rest, Tatum made just 30.8 percent of his 3-pointers. In the 33 other games, he made 51.8 percent.
6. About that schedule . . .
The Celtics have played 40 games, the most in the NBA and six more than the Bucks and Raptors. Boston’s schedule was front-loaded because of the Jan. 11 game against the 76ers in London. That matchup will be bookended by a total of eight days off, and those days had to be made up somewhere. The good news is that the Celtics essentially get two All-Star breaks.
7. But All-Star weekend will not be a vacation for everyone.
The Celtics could be well-represented in Los Angeles in February. Irving is an All-Star lock, and Al Horford seems likely to make the team as a reserve. Tatum will be asked to take part in the Rising Stars game, and Brown could be, too. Tatum and Brown could also be options for the 3-point and slam-dunk contests. But the Celtics staff will get a breather, because the NBA does not allow coaches to guide the All-Star team in consecutive seasons.
8. Isaiah Thomas’s multiple returns.
The Cavaliers said Monday that the former Celtics star, who has been sidelined all season because of his hip injury, will make his debut Tuesday against the Blazers but will not play in Boston Wednesday. That means Thomas will likely make his on-court return in Boston when the Cavs return Feb. 11. But the Celtics would be smart to honor Thomas on Wednesday anyway, because Feb. 11 is already booked.
9. Paul Pierce’s number retirement ceremony.
The Truth’s No. 34 will be the 22nd number to be retired by the Celtics. The ceremony will take place about a half-hour after that Feb. 11 game against the Cavs. That event, combined with Thomas’s return and two teams jostling for playoff position, will make it the hottest TD Garden ticket in years.
10. An NBA Finals preview?
In the previous two seasons, the Warriors were 0-2 at home against the Celtics, and 75-5 against the rest of the NBA. In November, the Celtics stormed back from a 17-point deficit against Golden State at TD Garden and grabbed the signature victory of their 16-game winning streak. The rematch in Oakland Jan. 27 will be juicy.
11. Keep an eye on the Raptors.
The Raptors have somewhat quietly nudged into contention in the East. Toronto has played six fewer games than the Celtics, but the teams are equal in the loss column. Toronto also has a net rating of 7.6, considerably higher than Boston’s 4.9. The Raptors are 13-1 at home, and no team has played fewer home games, so even though they have had a light schedule, there will be an opportunity for them to make up ground.
12. Is the Celtics’ defense elite?
It sure seemed to be at the start of the year, although the unit has since taken steps backward. After a dominant 95.6 defensive rating in October, that slipped to 99.6 in November before falling to 104 in December. That dip has coincided with a gradual improvement in offensive numbers, but the Celtics need to steady themselves at the defensive end.
13. Kyrie for MVP?
There are so many outstanding candidates this year, from James Harden to James to Giannis Antetokounmpo, that Irving will need to dazzle in the second half to have a real shot. But if the Celtics finish atop the East despite Hayward’s injury, and Irving continues his career-best shooting year, he’ll be in the conversation.
14. Keep an eye on Marcus Morris’s knee.
Morris has missed 21 games because of knee soreness, but over the past six quarters he has shown how valuable he can be, making 6 of 7 3-point attempts and 9 of 13 shots overall, while also showing his defensive versatility guarding players such as Harden.
15. Playoff matchups.
The Celtics are all but certain to land one of the top three seeds in the Eastern Conference, and they must be considered favorites to be No. 1. But the bottom half of the conference is congested, and matchups will be important. The Celtics would not want to see a team like the Wizards fall to them in a first-round series.
16. Strength of schedule.
Although the Celtics’ schedule has been quite busy, it has not been the most difficult. They played the Cavs, Raptors, and Wizards just three times over those first 40 games, but will play a total of eight games against them over the final 42.
17. Earlier trade deadline.
The NBA moved the trade deadline up two weeks, to Feb. 8. The Celtics have been in the mix at the deadline the past two years but have come up empty. Their roster does not have as many holes as it once did, but they do have the disabled player exception. If they make a deal, it will likely be a minor one.
The Celtics have a blank banner hanging at their facility, as they wait for their 18th title. We’ll leave this No. 18 space blank, too, but mostly because we’re out of material. Happy new year.
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