By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
The TD Garden parquet is shining and the Boston Celtics are finally healthy.
A better sight, I cannot imagine.
After a ragtag and undermanned Celtic squad pushed LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season, the Celtics have reloaded with the healthy returns of superstar guard Kyrie Irving (knee) and Gordon Hayward (ankle/leg). They also have two budding superstars in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
Oh, and Al Horford is still in the picture, giving the Celtics a ridiculously stacked starting lineup possibility featuring all five.
Brad Stevens has options beyond the stacked five, of course, with a deep bench with bite (Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris) and scoring (Terry Rozier, Daniel Theis, and Morris can certainly contribute here as well).
It’s put the Celtics in perhaps their best situation since the days of the Allen-Garnett-Pierce Big Three.
But here are the four biggest storylines facing the Green this season…
When does the real Gordon Hayward come back to Celtics?
It has been 364 days since Gordon Hayward suffered his horrific, season-ending ankle/leg injury. It was an absurdly long road back to normalcy for the 28-year-old scoring wing, but finally, Boston’s max contract addition looks ready to get back on track.
But it’s not going to happen overnight, and I think everybody is beginning to actually understand that.
Hayward had a slow ease-in throughout the preseason, averaging just over 19 minutes, but noticeably struggled to get his shot back to what it was during a career-year with the Utah Jazz in 2016-17. He also dealt with some back pain, likely as a result of putting himself through full-body basketball workouts opposed to simple exercises focused on regaining strength in his leg. And the Celtics are going to monitor Hayward’s minutes out of the gate, too, limiting him to about 25 minutes per night.
So when does Hayward look like Hayward again? It’s a good question, and at the top of the list for this team.
When Paul George made his return from a broken leg and suited up for six games to close out the year for the Pacers in 2015, it was more about getting back into the rhythm of playing competitive basketball than it was playing to his level. I think you should expect a little bit of that with Hayward out of the gate this season, as it wasn’t until around his 10th game and onward that George seemed to truly regain his form and be the all-world player that he was prior to his broken leg.
What becomes of Terry Rozier?
The Celtics and Terry Rozier were obviously unable to come to terms on an extension prior to Monday’s 6 p.m. deadline, meaning that Rozier (a restricted free agent next summer) could indeed be playing in his last season as a Celtic. This will certainly put Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge in a fascinating spot this season.
On one hand, the volume-scoring bench presence of Rozier is too good to pass up on and trade out of town, especially if the Celtics are all about winning a title this season. At the same time, this is a player you spent a first-round pick on, and one that will likely command (and get) starter money from somebody next season. Something the Celtics, on the surface anyway, appear unlikely to offer, especially with Kyrie Irving’s verbal commitment to stay in town on a presumably max contract next summer.
So, do you let that walk or do you try to parlay it into something of value while you still can? Knowing Ainge, the latter seems like a more probable path, but he loves Rozier, as does head coach Brad Stevens. There’s also the fact that Rozier is perhaps the best insurance policy available in the event that Irving’s knee issues return this season. So unless the move is for somebody like the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis, trading Rozier off the 2018-19 team seems like a no-go, as unlike Ainge as that sounds.
The realistic expectations for 2018-19 Celtics?
The Boston Celtics should absolutely find themselves representing the Eastern Conference in the 2019 NBA Finals.
It should honestly take them 15 — maybe even 17, at the very worst — games to get there. It took them 19 games — with the 19th game ending with an undeniable second-half choke — to almost get there a season ago. And that was without their two best players (Irving and Hayward) at their disposal for the entire postseason. They’re back, healthy, and have an even stronger supporting cast with Brown and Tatum thanks to their forced postseason step-ups a season ago.
That’s not the only reason why winning the East should be considered a formality of sorts for this ultra-deep Celtic squad.
After dominating the East en route to eight straight Finals appearances, LeBron James has mercifully moved to the Western Conference by way of his deal with the Los Angeles Lakers. The only reason the Cleveland Cavaliers even won the right to be dismantled by the Warriors for the second season in a row was because they left LeBron on the floor for all but 1:54 of the final 96 minutes of the series, too. One minute and 54 seconds! But LeBron’s gone, so, the already-limping Cavaliers are now essentially building their roster around… Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, and Tristan Thompson. God, what a nightmare. I would say that they’d be lucky to even make the playoffs, but a 31-51 season probably gets you the No. 5 seed in the East.
Elsewhere, the Sixers have failed to add the coveted third piece (LeBron, Kawhi Leonard, or maybe even Jimmy Butler) needed to knock the Celtics off. The Toronto Raptors have to pray that Kawhi doesn’t quit on them — and even if he doesn’t, it would have made more sense to add Kawhi to what they had with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, not add him at the expense of DeRozan. The Wizards, though possessing an elite one-two punch at the one-two in John Wall and Bradley Beal, are what they are at this point. And sorry, but you can’t pay me enough to take the Bucks or Pacers seriously in a seven-game series.
For the first time since 2007-08, the Celtics winning the East borders on a formality, really.
Is this team good enough to beat the Golden State Warriors?
No Eastern Conference team has given the superhuman Warriors more fits over the last three years than Brad Stevens and the Celtics. Whether it was with his overachieving roster of misfits or with Kyrie in the picture, the head-to-heads between the Celtics and Warriors have become must-watch games, if only because you know the Celtics are going to give the Dubs a game.
The Warriors have become increasingly cognizant of the threat the Celtics pose to them, too, and have subtly mentioned the possibility of an NBA Finals head-to-head between the two teams. Oh, and the Warriors know that Kyrie is a massive, massive threat to them in the NBA Finals. In fact, he’s arguably the only reason why the Warriors are not back-to-back-to-back-to-back champions and Klay Thompson straight-up admitted he was happy he didn’t have to deal with Irving in the 2018 Finals.
With a healthy Hayward, and with the continued on-court development of Brown and Tatum, the Celtics seem more equipped than ever when it comes to potentially handling the Warriors and their all-world lineup in a seven-game series. The Celtics, again, if healthy, also have a bench that seems capable of at least hanging with the Warriors on a nightly basis.
And with a 3-3 record against the Warriors over the last three seasons, it almost feels like the collision course is real.