The Celtics begin training camp in three weeks, embarking on what they hope is a resurgent season after last year’s debacle.
The roster has been reformed. Players have matured. Some have gotten healthier and others are embracing new roles. Coach Brad Stevens can’t help but devise new plans for how to maximize his talent and lead a team that’s dramatically different from last season.
Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, and Aron Baynes are gone, leaving major voids in the middle and with experience. Replacing Irving with fellow All-Star Kemba Walker is the easy part. Stevens will have to guide a team without its two best defensive big men from last season.
Baynes and Horford have been supplanted by Enes Kanter and rookie Vincent Poirier, and neither is expected to have the same defensive presence.
“Our [centers] have to play differently. There’s no doubt about that,” Stevens said. “We’re not going to ask our [centers] to be Al Horford. There’s not a volume 3-point shooter in that group. We’ve got a lot of rollers, a lot of rim threats, guys that can do a lot of different things. We just have to play to their strengths. It will be more of a burden on some of our guys and wings to score, but that’s OK. We’ve got a lot of guys who can do that.”
Stevens has never emphasized his starting lineup, and the question a few weeks into camp will be whether Gordon Hayward starts or come off the bench. And what happens to Jaylen Brown?
Brown came off the bench most of last season but may be ready to assume a starting role.
Marcus Smart was effective as the starting shooting guard with Irving in the backcourt. Will he have that same type of success with Walker?
“We’re obviously going to have to figure out lineups that work best together,” Stevens said. “Everybody is going to make a big deal over who starts, but we all know who the five guys are that are going to play the very most on our team, and everybody can probably write that down right now, and then it’s a matter of who fits best. They’re not all in the same position, but we’ve got to figure out who’s going to play the big spot and with which groups.”
Stevens’s primary focus is on the frontcourt. Kanter is not considered a good defender. Daniel Theis struggled with bigger centers. Poirier is the wild card as a 25-year-old rookie from overseas, while Robert Williams is a second-year player who offered little as a rookie.
“We’ve got a lot of good candidates,” Stevens said. “Kanter is the most accomplished of any of those guys, but I think with Theis, Williams, and Poirier, we have guys who can really add a huge amount of pressure at the rim on rolls.”
Williams, 21, could play a more pivotal role because of his athleticism and newfound maturity. He impressed the coaching staff with his summer league work and should get a chance to compete for backup minutes.
“I think Rob Williams has put in as good of a summer as anybody,” Stevens said. “He’s been here a lot of and he’s really worked hard. Kara Lawson said something to me in Vegas that really stuck with me. She said, ‘Man, I wish everybody communicated on the court like Rob does.’ Last year, at this time you wouldn’t have said that. That may be the great leadership impact of Baynes and Al.”
The Celtics can’t hold formal workouts until Oct. 1 or even run organized five-on-five games.
But players have been funneling into the Brighton practice facility in preparation for training camp. Stevens has been heartened by their presence.
Hayward, who has remained in Boston all summer, has been the catalyst for these informal workouts. He is now nearly two years removed from his horrific leg injury that cost him the 2017-18 season. Hayward says he’s completely healthy.
“We had a lot of guys in the last two weeks, young, a couple of old,” Stevens said. “They’re really working and it’s been fun. In the past we’ve had a lot of guys all over the country. This year it seems like more people have made Boston the central location for where they want to be, and I think Gordon had a lot to do with that.
“He sat down with our strength [and conditioning coaches] and said, ‘This is what I want to do this summer and I’m going to stay here.’ When some of your older guys do that, it sets a standard for everybody.”
Jones recalls epic Celtics-76ers tilts
A Celtics nemesis was inducted into the Hall of Fame on Friday. 76ers swingman Bobby Jones, one of Larry Bird’s toughest defenders, received the honor 33 years after his final NBA game.
Jones also played for the Nuggets but always will be known for being the key sixth man for those standout Philadelphia teams that reached three NBA Finals in four years during the height of the rivalry between the Celtics and 76ers.
Jones was a five-time All-Star, the 1982-83 Sixth Man of the Year, and an eight-time All-Defensive first-team member. Of course, those epic games at Boston Garden and the Spectrum were among the highlights of the NBA’s growth and expansion in the 1980s, which isn’t lost on Jones.
Like many former visiting players to the old Garden, Jones described the not-so-luxurious facilities.
And it’s been revealed that Celtics president Red Auerbach would instruct team employees to turn up the heat or turn off the heat in the visiting locker room.
“I remember a brick going into the window of our bus as we were leaving [the Garden after a game],” Jones said. “The locker rooms were either freezing cold or hot. I remember when it rained, the baseline [of the Garden] would be wet so you wouldn’t drive baseline because you were going to slip and break your hip or something.”
In a six-year span, the 76ers and Celtics played four times for the right to go to the NBA Finals.
The Celtics won in 1981, rallying from a 3-1 deficit to win Game 7 in one of the most compelling series in Boston history.
The 76ers then returned the favor by beating the Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals to reach the title series in 1982.
“Their intensity level was like that of the Lakers,” Jones said of the Celtics. “You just had to raise your game. If you played against them like you played against the Mavericks, you’re going to get your hat taken off. I really felt like playing them took a lot out of us in playing the Lakers.”
The 1982-83 season was a special one. The 76ers formed one of the greatest teams in league history when they acquired Moses Malone from the Rockets.
“Moses and I had the same agent,” Jones said. “That summer before he joined the team, we actually went to Europe and played a series of games, and I got to play with him and I knew then we were going to win [the championship]. I just knew it because of the way he played, his intensity level on both ends, that we didn’t have that at that position. I just knew, barring injuries that year, it was going to be our year.”
A key contributor to those elite teams is a player who is rarely talked about 35 years later but has one of the more memorable nicknames in sports history. Andrew Toney became known as the “Boston Strangler” for his clutch playoff games against the Celtics.
Toney dropped 34 on Boston in the clinching Game 7 at Boston Garden in 1982.
Toney was felled by ankle injuries and eventually retired at age 30.
“Andrew was like a security blanket,” Jones said. “Whenever we needed shots or points, we just gave the ball to Andrew. When Andrew got the ball, I would immediately position myself to try to get the offensive rebound because I knew he was going to shoot it, and I wanted him to shoot it. It wasn’t that he was selfish, he could score, and we all knew he could score. That was the fun part of it. Great teammate to be around.”
Weatherspoon: Work to be done
Teresa Weatherspoon was also inducted into the Hall of Fame, an easy decision for the committee as she was one of the most accomplished players in women’s basketball history.
Weatherspoon was an original member of the New York Liberty, and 22 years later, the WNBA has become a summer sports staple.
Players such as Weatherspoon, Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, and Cynthia Cooper not only had the responsibility of being franchise players for their respective teams, they also had to help popularize the sport.
While NBA superstars carry plenty of pressure, they don’t have to deal with helping popularize the sport, or in the case of the WNBA during the 1990s, help the sport survive when many predicted it wouldn’t last five years.
Weatherspoon said she accepted that challenge, as did the other stars.
“It wasn’t too much to bear at all because we understood the magnitude of this,” she said. “To have this league in America, we knew once we came from overseas what our job was, every one of us. The eight teams that were a part of this, every player that was a part of it, we knew what our job was, and that was to perform, perform well, entertain, entertain well, and to make sure that this league would last for those who were dreaming like me.”
Weatherspoon joined the WNBA in 1997 at age 31 and became an All-Star five times in her eight seasons. She said players like her, who had spent many post-college years playing overseas, were thrilled to play in a professional league in the United States, so promotion became part of their responsibility.
“We wanted to carry that responsibility; we wanted that game to be here in America,” she said. “Where girls didn’t have to go overseas like we did and play the game and find ourselves as professional athletes. They have it here. They can visualize their dream. They can turn the television on and instead of always watching NBA guys, they can actually say, ‘I want to be like that young lady. I like how she plays.’
“That was the difference. We wanted that to happen. And our young women have that today. If you remember, ‘Ah, [the WNBA] will last about two or three years. They are going to have to [close off] all the arenas and put those black curtains [in the seats].’ That didn’t happen at Madison Square Garden for us. They filled the arena. I think that league is still going on 20-plus years later.”
Just because the league has lasted more than two decades doesn’t mean the job of the players is easier. Current WNBA players have expressed displeasure over the scheduling, travel accommodations, and pay scales. The league’s collective bargaining agreement is up for renegotiation and talks could become contentious.
“They have to do the same thing [we did], it never dies,” Weatherspoon said. “If you begin to think it’s over with, we’re in trouble. There’s other things they have to fight for as well right now. You have to fight the fight. You can’t stop. The NBA isn’t stopping. We’re not going to stop fighting either.”
The WNBA is facing a dilemma. Reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart has sat out the season for the Seattle Storm because of a torn Achilles’ tendon sustained while playing overseas.
Some standout players such as Skylar Diggins-Smith have complained about player salaries compared with their NBA counterparts. Phoenix center Brittney Griner has said she pays more in league fines because of suspensions and other misdoings than the total of her league salary and has threatened to leave the league.
“What you don’t want is [players] constantly going overseas and coming back,” Weatherspoon said. “But they know what they have to fight for. It’s a fight. It’s a process. Everything is a process. I know that everybody wants this to be successful. So they’re going to have to sit at the table, and you don’t leave the table until there’s a solution to keep this league alive.”
The Hall of Fame class of 2020 could be the most prestigious in history with Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and former Celtic Kevin Garnett up for induction. That’s been known for years. Another inductee, however, could be Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who has refused to be placed on the ballot in previous years. It’s believed Popovich told Duncan, one of his favorite players, that he would wait until Duncan was eligible for induction before he would approve being considered. Popovich, who has won five NBA titles, is a cinch Hall of Famer . . . The FIBA World Cup is filled with former NBA players representing other countries, such as ex-Wizard Andray Blatche, who is registered as a citizen of the Philippines and plays for the national team. Blatche was born in Syracuse, N.Y., but became a naturalized citizen in 2014. Former Celtics fan favorite Luigi Datome is playing for his native Italy; ex-Celtics second-round pick Semih Erden is playing for Turkey . . . One major international disappointment is Team Canada, which failed to qualify for the knockout round and will now have to try to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games through the qualifying tournaments. Seven teams from the FIBA World Cup will qualify for Tokyo along with host Japan, making eight qualifiers. The other four teams for the 12-team field will come from four qualifying tournaments in different regions. Six teams will compete for one spot in each region. After the top seven teams from the World Cup qualify, the next 16 ranked teams will automatically be placed in qualifying tournaments along with two additional teams from each of the four regions. That Japan, ranked 48th, automatically gets an Olympic slot will cost another more qualified team a chance at Tokyo. Meanwhile, there are some surprise qualifiers for the knockout round of the World Cup, such as the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. Turkey, which pushed the United States to the brink before losing, 92-91, in overtime, did not qualify, and neither did Germany, with the Celtics’ Daniel Theis along with Oklahoma City’s Dennis Schroder and Dallas’s Max Kleber . . . TD Garden will have more improvements this season after a summer of renovations. The most distinct change is black seating to replace the black-and-gold-patterned seats.