New Celtics season, who dis?
What a difference a season makes for the Celtics. At the outset of last season, they were the Tacko Fall favorites in the East — standing head and shoulders above their competition on paper. They were basking in a preseason pledge from Kyrie Irving to settle down in Celtics green for good and in back-to-back Eastern Conference finals appearances.
Then the season began, and it was nothing but nyet. No chemistry, no consistency, no ability to confront adversity, no fun, no way out of the second round, and no chance of Irving returning after his leadership sank the season like the Lusitania.
A fashionable choice to go to the NBA Finals, those Celtics were the most disappointing, disliked, and underachieving Boston sports outfit since the 2011 Red Sox. They wore the mantle of talent-rich favorites like a pair of men’s moto leather pants: tight, uncomfortable, too trendy, and difficult to coordinate. They took more shots backbiting at each other than off the backboard.
Freed from the bonds and vicissitudes of Kyrie-dom, the Celtics begin basketball anew Wednesday against the Philadelphia 76ers, the same opening night opponent as last season. This time Philadelphia is home to the game, and Al Horford’s underappreciated efficiency and basketball IQ are on the Sixers’ side as well.
Given all that, the Celtics start this season back in their comfort zone. They’re part of the pack in an open-ended Eastern Conference, not the overwhelming and overwhelmed favorites.
The reconfigured Celtics could emerge as the best team in the East or the third-best team in their own division, depending on how things shake out for Irving in Brooklyn and for the defending champion Toronto Raptors in the wake of Kawhi Leonard’s rendezvous with Doc Rivers and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Even with the addition of Kemba Walker, the Celtics are back where they feel most comfortable, back to being a team driven to prove people wrong instead of having to prove them right. They lost their two best players in free agency and saw a championship window slam shut on their hands.
This is when the Celtics and coach Brad Stevens are at their best, when the roster and the expectations are manageable. When someone else (Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks and the Joel Embiid/Ben Simmons 76ers) wears the basketball bull’s-eye. When they can strive for Green-tinted gestalt.
Now, it’s back to basics and back to Brad Ball. The Celtics had increased their victory total each season under Stevens until last year’s 49-win debacle.
Walker is an All-Star, falling in the middle on the franchise point guard scale between Irving and Isaiah Thomas. He’ll get his. But the Celtics aren’t going to have to compromise for him, kowtow to him, and kiss his sneakers as they did with Kyrie.
The young guys that Irving clashed with during a season of bipolar basketball have gone from trade chips to ostensible franchise cornerstones. There will be room to breathe and grow for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown like there was during the 2018 run to the Eastern Conference finals when Irving and Gordon Hayward were hors de hoops.
Brown, the recipient of a four-year, $115 million extension on Monday, and Tatum are weather vanes for the Green. Their development is the reason to tune into this team. It also will dictate how far the Celtics go. If the pair of former No. 3 picks blossom into All-Star-caliber players, then the season is a success no matter the final record. The path to raising Banner No. 18 mirrors the growth chart of Tatum and Brown.
Much has been made of Tatum’s midrange proclivities last season. It was too much, but he should be able to do damage there. Of the 42 players to attempt at least 200 midrange shots in the NBA last season, Mr. Kevin Durant was No. 1 in shooting percentage at 55.1 percent. Irving was fifth at 49.6 percent. Great scorers can make their money with a midrange game as part of their repertoire.
Tatum ranked 34th in shooting percentage there at 36.6 percent. He was still better than Jimmy Butler (35.7), Andrew Wiggins (34.7), and Russell Westbrook (last, 31.8 percent). But he should be a better shooter and more efficient scorer than those guys if he is going to reach his peak potential.
Brown needs his skills to catch up to his athleticism, drive, and desire to rise to the moment. He knows what to do, but he can’t always execute it. The strides he has taken with his ballhandling translating to the regular season would be a welcome sight. If you could combine Tatum’s skills with Brown’s Mamba Mentality, you would have a mega-star.
Hayward, who was a ghost in the playoff loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, should be able to mesh better with the young wings and the team another year removed from the gruesome ankle injury he suffered less than six minutes into his Celtics career, his bounce and his confidence further restored to his Utah levels.
These Celtics should make basketball fun again on the parquet. They should be capable of duplicating last year’s “accomplishments.” On paper, they look like a better fit for each other and for Stevens, who said he “did a bad job” last season in the wake of Boston’s five-game ouster by the Bucks.
But Stevens knows better than to bet on what’s on paper. It’s about establishing the proper habits and culture to turn talent into a team. It’s about players being able to accept and embrace roles and sacrifices. That never happened last season. Stevens talked about the process at Walker’s coronation/introduction at the Auerbach Center in July when I asked what he had learned about translating talent to reality.
“I was really lucky to be raised in coaching where I was where that stuff mattered to the utmost degree,” Stevens said. “So, you always know that nothing on paper is a given. It’s about how you come together and how you play together, how you complement each other, what you bring out of each other.”
There are some red flags for the Celtics this year. Redoubtable point guard and defender Marcus Smart is talking about shooting more as a veteran presence on the team. Smart’s most redeeming quality is something that last year’s Celtics sorely lacked — the ability to impact the game without having the basketball. Don’t change, Marcus. The Celtics need you just the way you are.
Rim protection and rebounding could be in short supply for the Celtics with both Horford and Aron Baynes hanging their hoops shingles elsewhere. Free agent addition/courageous Turkish dissident Enes Kanter can be an offensive weapon in the paint, but he’s not an adept defender.
It’s time for Time Lord, Robert Williams, to step up. The kid earned some rave reviews last season and during the offseason for his dedication and work ethic. But he looked lost at times as a rookie, sporting a minus-5.9 net rating, the worst on the team.
The deck has been reshuffled for the Celtics and across the NBA. If the hoops cognoscenti are inversely as incorrect about this Celtics team as they were about last year’s, then it should be a wild ride for the right reasons this time.
Lowered external expectations suit the Celtics. They’re exactly where they want to be, dismissed as contenders, back in the NBA background. It’s where they do their best work.