The Celtics’ defense ranked in the NBA’s top six in three of the last four seasons, and success on that end of the floor has been an essential part of coach Brad Stevens’s approach. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge has tended to build rosters around gritty, defensive-minded players.
But this year, there has been a bit of a shift. Al Horford and Aron Baynes, two of the best defensive big men in the NBA, are gone.
And while Kyrie Irving’s defense — and effort on that end — will not be missed, former backup Terry Rozier played an important role pestering opposing guards in the backcourt. Irving has been replaced by another average defender in Kemba Walker. Unlike Irving, Walker’s effort rarely wanes, but his stature poses challenges. And likely starting center Enes Kanter, while a powerful rebounder, has been known as a defensive liability throughout his career.
On Saturday morning, Ainge acknowledged that an area that has been a strength for so long could become a concern, and that it will be especially important for this group to be in lockstep.
“We’ve been good defensively over the last few years, so I worry about our defense taking a step backward,” Ainge said. “We need to have everybody step up on defense. Defense starts at every position. You need five guys committed. We need five guys committed to rebounding.
“As you know, the last few years we’ve also gone through stretches of being good rebounding and not so good rebounding when we’ve been small. But Brad’s emphasizing that a great deal, and we can rebound when playing small. But you’ve got to be able to get stops, too.”
It is nothing new to have questions about a team’s potential at this point in the year. Last year, Ainge said, the questions were centered on whether such a deep, talented roster could find a way to jell. The answer ended up being no.
“This year the question is, ‘Are we good enough?’ ” Ainge said. “And can players step up and take advantage of the opportunities that they’re given to become more elite?”
New challenges will await Stevens, although last year was filled with other ones. Stevens attempted to shoulder most of the blame after last season’s second-round playoff exit against the Bucks, and really for the first time in his career he began to face some outside criticism. But on Saturday, Ainge made it clear that his support of Stevens and the job he has done has never wavered.
“If 49 wins is the worst season in your coaching career, you’re probably going to be OK,” Ainge said. “But Brad just keeps getting better. These experiences, he’s a young coach, works harder than anybody, very bright. I have all the confidence in the world that last year was a learning experience for him, just like all of our young players. Like I said many, many times before and I’ll continue to say, he’s the least of our worries. He’s prepared, and I think these experiences are going to make him a great coach.”
The progress of Gordon Hayward, who struggled to regain his rhythm for much of last season after missing the previous year with an ankle injury, has been noted frequently over the first week of training camp. Kanter even declared that Hayward would “shock the world” this season.
Ainge said he is excited about what Hayward could be capable of this season, but he also wants to temper expectations a bit.
“I think right now there’s been a lot of buzz about Gordon and his comeback, and I’m worried that it’s getting a little out of hand,” Ainge said. “Like, ‘I think he’s Gordon. He’s back to being Gordon.’ And we’re very excited about that. I sometimes worry, like, ‘Oh my gosh, they think it’s somebody else.’ But I’m excited about Gordon.”
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The Celtics will open the exhibition season Sunday evening against the Hornets, so Walker will have a quick reintroduction to his former team. Also, Rozier, who signed a three-year, $58 million deal with Charlotte, will make his return to the Garden.
“It’s great,” Stevens said. “Terry and I spent a lot of time, or at least a few discussions last year, where obviously he was frustrated. I don’t think he ever really let it affect him in regards of how he came out and worked and competed. That’s something I always appreciated about him.
“After he signed that deal, it was fun to text back and forth and just see his reaction. I was really excited for him. He was such a fun person to be around and coach in his young years in the NBA. He’s going to be a really good player for a long time.”