Here are 20 things for Celtics fans to watch for in 2020. Happy new year.
1. Gordon Hayward’s left foot: Right now, Hayward looks just fine after missing three games in mid-December. He had one of his finest games of the season in the win over the Hornets Tuesday, registering 21 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists.
But he has said that he is still dealing with some soreness, and that it could linger for the rest of the season. Even though the Celtics insist there are no structural issues, Hayward believes the pain is related to the gruesome ankle fracture he suffered at the start of the 2017-18 season. It will be worth monitoring.
2. The Grizzlies pick: The Celtics’ once-overflowing cupboard of future assets has mostly been emptied, but there remains one last potentially glimmering chip. They will receive the Grizzlies’ first-round pick this year if it falls outside the top six. If it does not, the pick will roll over to next season, when it will become fully unprotected.
The Grizzlies entered Wednesday night tied for the league’s 11th-worst winning percentage, although they are among a cluster of losing teams separated by just a few games, so this position could change quickly.
Last season, the Celtics certainly hoped that the pick, which was then top-eight protected, would roll over to this year, which it did. But the smoothed-out lottery odds and the fact that the Grizzlies have two rising young stars in Jaren Jackson and Ja Morant make the choice less obvious this year.
3. The trade deadline: The Feb. 6 deadline is fast approaching. The Celtics wouldn’t mind improving at the center position, but their sparkling record and Enes Kanter’s excellent play off the bench have reduced the need.
Remember, to get a player who is a clear upgrade over Kanter and Daniel Theis, the Celtics would have to relinquish something significant, so they’ll have to weigh the cost.
4. All-Star selections: The Celtics are positioned to be well-represented at All-Star Weekend in Chicago next month. Kemba Walker seems like a lock, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have made strong cases to be considered All-Star reserves.
Hayward would be in the mix too if he had not missed so much time, but he could reenter the conversation with a dominant stretch.
The starters will be revealed Jan. 23, and the reserves will be named one week later.
5. All-Star coaches: The Bucks almost certainly will have the best record in the Eastern Conference at the Feb. 2 cutoff for the All-Star coaching staffs. But Mike Budenholzer and his crew coached in the game last year, and teams cannot have the honor in consecutive years. So the Celtics, currently in a virtual tie with the Heat for second place, will likely be in the mix to have their staff take the reins in Chicago.
6. Kyrie’s return: Kyrie Irving missed the Nets’ Nov. 27 game in Boston because of a shoulder issue, but Celtics fans made their feelings about him quite clear that night anyway. Brooklyn’s next game at TD Garden will be March 3.
7. The best five: Coach Brad Stevens has made it clear that his five best players this season are Walker, Tatum, Brown, Hayward, and Marcus Smart. There are no centers or even power forwards in that group, but it’s still enticing to see them on the court together.
Because of injuries, they’ve all been available just six times all season. And they’ve shared the court for a total of just 12 minutes. But they’ve outscored opponents by 37.9 points per 100 possessions in that tiny sample size.
8. Robert Williams’s hip: There is no timeline for the athletic backup center’s return. He is expected to undergo more tests this week, but so far there hasn’t been much optimism.
9. Hustle: The Celtics drew criticism last season for not always playing with maximum effort. That hasn’t been an issue this year. They rank in the top 10 in deflections, charges drawn, loose balls recovered, and screen assists.
10. The back of the rotation: Beyond the core five, Theis, Kanter, and Brad Wanamaker, it seems like Stevens is still searching for consistent ninth and 10th men. He has time, and much of it will be matchup-dependent. But he would love to see someone emerge from the group of Grant Williams, Robert Williams, Semi Ojeleye, Javonte Green, Romeo Langford, and Carsen Edwards.
11: Brutal back-to-backs: Every team has tough sets of back-to-back games. But the Celtics will face the 76ers, Bucks, and Heat on the tail end of back-to-back sets. Quite the challenge.
12. Tacko (and Tremont) Time: Despite all the injuries, two-way players Tacko Fall and Tremont Waters have used up just a small fraction of their allotted 45 days with the Celtics. Fall’s presence makes everyone around him happier, and it certainly gives the fans a jolt, but Waters is better positioned to have an impact down the stretch, particularly if there are injuries in the backcourt.
13. The Bucks pick: The Celtics also will receive the Bucks’ first-round pick this season, the result of a draft-night trade last year. Milwaukee was expected to be quite good again, but few expected it would be this dominant. The Bucks have the best record in the NBA, and the Lakers look like the only team that might bump them down a slot.
14: The buyout market: If the trade deadline is quiet for the Celtics, they could look to bolster their roster in the buyout market afterward. They do not currently have an open roster spot, however.
15: Other All-Star Weekend stuff: The Celtics almost certainly will not have a player in the Rising Stars Challenge, which includes top first- and second-year players. But Walker or Tatum could be 3-point Shootout options, and if the league wants to take a chance, Green would be fun in the dunk contest.
16. Kanter’s . . . defense? Throughout his career, Kanter has been known as a defensive liability. But advanced metrics show that he’s actually been quite capable at that end. The Celtics are allowing just 98.7 points per 100 possessions with Kanter on the floor, a better defensive rating than all five Boston starters. He’ll happily point out his six-block performance against the Hornets as further evidence.
17. End-of-season honors: The Celtics have no true MVP or Rookie of the Year candidates, but Walker could make another push for All-NBA recognition, Brown could be considered for Most Improved Player, and if the wins keep coming, Stevens could be in the mix for Coach of the Year.
18. The standings: Even though more than half of the season remains, the top six teams in the East are all but locked in. The Bucks appear likely to secure the No. 1 seed, with the Celtics, Heat, Raptors, Pacers, and Sixers tussling for the next five slots. These six teams entered Wednesday with a combined 89-15 home record, so home-court advantage will be essential.
19. LeBron and AD come to town: The Lakers are once again the most alluring team in the NBA. When LeBron James and Anthony Davis come to Boston Jan. 20, it’ll be the juiciest matchup of the year for the Celtics.
20. Handling adversity: This team is certainly happier and more connected than last year’s group. But it’ll be interesting to see how they handle a rough patch if one arrives. The Celtics have yet to have a losing streak longer than two games.