The Celtics who open their season Wednesday night against the Philadelphia 76ers are not the same Celtics of last year, of course, and that carries meaning beyond the obvious.
Yes, there have been major departures, plural. Al Horford, so dependable as the frequent fulcrum of the offense and defense during his three seasons here, joined the Sixers on a four-year, $109 million contract. Horford was so easily admired by those paying attention during his time with the Celtics that he may actually get away with jumping to a rival without feeling the wrath of Boston fans.
The Celtics will dearly miss him on defense — I’m very curious to see how Brad Stevens strategizes to mask what looks like a brutal interior defense — but $109 million is a lot of loot for a 33-year-old whose knees creaked last year.
The other major departure, dazzling offensive player Kyrie Irving, truthfully was long gone before he ever signed with the Brooklyn Nets. Man, he was so fun to watch when he was engaged in his early days as a Celtic, but his complicated personality wrecked the team’s chemistry last year, and he quit — Q-U-I-T, shamefully and without enough national blowback — in the playoff series against the Bucks.
Irving once claimed to appreciate Celtics history, but his own legacy is that of someone who would have been a great fit with Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe in 1977-78. He’s in Brooklyn duping Nets fans now, while the Celtics added Kemba Walker, who is 90 percent the player Irving is and apparently 1 million times the teammate.
Sometimes I think chemistry is overrated — even the famous Ubuntu Celtics wanted to throttle each other (OK, Rajon Rondo) at times — but it is extremely important to this year’s Celtics after what Irving dragged them through.
Whether the good vibes that Walker and, to a lesser degree, Enes Kanter bring translate to winning basketball depends on some holdover Celtics not being the same as they were last year.
More than anything or anyone else, that means the three talented wings: Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward.
I came away from last season with great respect for Brown. He struggled to mesh with Hayward early as the latter was coming back from his horrible leg injury, and it seemed as if he was asked to sacrifice the most while Stevens tried (a little too aggressively, as it turned out) to get Hayward acclimated.
Brown might have been annoyed at times, but he kept working hard and ended the season playing high-quality all-around basketball. In preseason this year, he appeared to have improved even more; his ball-handling seems tighter and his passing more astute. He also stood up to Irving last season when the latter tried to blame the team’s early failure to meet expectations on the young players.
Brown was in his third year last season. Tatum was in his second, and he surprisingly regressed, which is just further proof that a player’s development is never linear and rarely goes as expected. Coming off an exceptional postseason performance as a rookie, Tatum fell into some bad habits last year, most notably settling again and again for long twos — the worst shots in basketball.
He can deny it, but it sure looked as if those much-talked-about workouts with Kobe Bryant had a negative effect; any additions to his repertoire came from the aging, can’t-get-to-the-rim-anymore-but-I’m-sure-as-heck-not-passing Kobe’s bag of tricks.
To his credit, the 21-year-old — yep, he’s that young — recognized that he needed to improve in the right ways. He looked terrific for Team USA before an ankle injury knocked him out of the World Cup this summer, either slashing to the hoop with his rich array of moves or knocking down threes. He looks a little more rugged. A big year is ahead, though it remains to be seen whether he or Walker will be the alpha dog with the game on the line.
As for Hayward, well, you know. It was a hard season last year coming back from one of the most grotesque injuries we’ve ever seen, and we should have expected it to be hard. Expectations were too high that he’d resemble the star he was in Utah in his first year back on the court.
Expectations are a little more reasonable now, but they are accompanied by appropriate optimism. He looked steadier toward the end of the season, and in camp he was noticeably quicker and more decisive. I don’t know if he’ll ever be a surefire All-Star again, but he looks as if he’s back to being a fine all-around offensive player who might be the best initiator and passer that they have now that Horford is gone.
If Brown, Tatum, and Hayward can figure out how to play well together and maximize one another’s abilities even as they’ve all evolved or changed as players, this has a chance to be a fun season.
Oh, I miss the great expectations we had at this time last year; if everything had gone right and Irving hadn’t been so enigmatic and indifferent, they might have ended up pulling off the kind of magic that the Raptors did.
This year’s Celtics have lower expectations for obvious reasons: They’re less talented. But if Tatum and Brown take steps forward — and it appears they already have — and Hayward finds his comfort zone again . . . if Marcus Smart, the soul of the team, can stay healthy . . . if Walker is everything he has always been . . . if one or two of the kids, like Grant Williams and Carsen Edwards, contribute meaningfully . . . and if that hole in the middle of the defense can somehow be patched . . . it will be an interesting season in all the right ways.
Put them down for 50 wins. One more than last year. They may not be as talented as that group, but they’ll be better, and we’ll like them a heck of a lot more.