By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t run from last year’s Celtics fast enough. When the final horn sounded on that disjointed mess of a season, I had to block my ears – difficult, when you work in sports radio – and cover my eyes for a while. The bad taste affected my enjoyment of the rest of the playoffs, to the point where I barely watched.
Free agency, of course, pulled me back in, with the thrill of Kemba Walker coming to Boston and a momentary flicker of hope that Al Horford would return to perform all manner of wonderful basketball things alongside him. But July proved to be a month of mixed emotions, as Horford wound up in Philly.
Then, the Green turned up in China – at least four of them did – with Celtics players comprising one-third of the Team USA roster competing in the FIBA World Cup. It was fun to get a positive spin on the team in the wake of last year. After all, it’s hard to hate on Boston when their guys are among the few who could even be bothered to wear the ol’ red, white and blue halfway across the globe. But they lost, and everybody resumed hating Boston.
I guess the Celtics weren’t quite ready to win an international competition (or stateside popularity contest). Can they win this year’s Eastern Conference?
I’m full of questions. More than the space of this column will allow. As we prepare to dive back into the deep end of NBA basketball for another season, here’s what’s on my mind at the start of training camp.
Who emerges as the crunch time big man?
As a guy who spent his entire childhood (and various men’s league stints) in the paint, my basketball attention is constantly drawn to the low post. I can’t be the only one trying to figure out what Brad Stevens does in the middle.
Part of me hopes former WWE 24/7 champion Enes Kanter can pair that shiny offensive game with 25 minutes of passable defensive intensity a night. Part of me wishes Robert Williams III, who’d be valuable as a second coming of Theo Ratliff, can cash in on Hub producer Mason Sousa‘s toasty prediction of the second coming of Hakeem Olajuwon.
Maybe that Poirier guy is the next Rudy Gobert. He’s French, after all.
In all seriousness, Kanter is likely the nominal “center.” I’ve always liked what the veteran brings to the table offensively; he sets screens and he’s hungrier for boards than anybody we’ve seen in green in recent years. Williams, Daniel Theis and Poirier will fall in line with matchup-dependent minutes. How much time they spend on the floor together is a new chemistry question for Stevens, whose squad thrived with Al Horford and Aron Baynes sharing court time over the last two years.
The best case scenario would see Williams, who reportedly put in some serious offseason work himself, challenge for more minutes. That allows the team to confidently prioritize offense or defense night-to-night or down the stretch of a particular contest. But it might be asking a lot of the Time Lord at this stage of his professional development.
How is Hayward?
Gordon Hayward didn’t go to China. He probably wasn’t invited. Regardless, the swingman stayed home and put in work, trying to get all the way back from the gruesome injury that derailed what had been a solid career.
If Hayward is able to get his shot, move laterally on defense, and provide maybe 75% of what he did in Utah, he’s a helpful starter for this team. That’s a huge if, but the ramifications are far-reaching. It opens up the floor and takes scoring and facilitating pressure off Walker. It makes things easier on both ends for whomever he’s paired with on the wing. And unless Stevens decides to deploy all three of his high profile wings simultaneously, a healthy and productive Hayward also gives the coach more options with his bench.
Along with Walker, he’s one of two max guys on the roster. You expect him to start, and you’d expect more than last year’s pedestrian line from a player getting that kind of money. It’s never the preferred route to have a max contract guy coming off the bench, and we’ve all seen how uncomfortable it can get when a team is dealing with the burned out husk of a former All-Star. Theoretically, the 29-year old has some prime years left; this isn’t some past-his-expiration-date guy trying to dial things back a half-decade.
Credit to Hayward for not accepting his fate and pushing forward. For the sake of everybody involved, let’s hope it pays off.
Who makes the jump: Tatum, Brown, both, or neither?
At this point, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are both the physical embodiment of Danny Ainge’s fabled fleecing of the Nets six-plus years ago and the future of the team.
Subject to change.
Best case scenario, Brown, Hayward and Tatum are all getting 30-plus minutes a night and contributing in crunch time. But the simultaneous management of three talented, very different players and personalities is the major leftover element from last year’s experience that still worries me.
Questions remain about fit, such as who is the nominal “power forward” out of the group, which big man would flank them, and whether or not Marcus Smart will be there to inject his defensive influence.
There’s the lingering memory of reported resentment over Stevens’ use of Hayward coming off his injury. The fact that Brown played better when Tatum was sidelined in China. Or, you can watch tape from the beginning of last season, when it was clear the three couldn’t function simultaneously.
Moreover, Brown’s playing for a contract. Long-term decisions are increasingly speculative in today’s NBA – just look at his peers from the 2016 draft. We don’t know Brown’s ceiling, and the presence of Hayward and Tatum could either help or hinder that investigation. We do know the C’s are loaded on the wing and could swap Brown to fill a position of need. But they may also wind up regretting such a move.
Tatum has been the presumed heir apparent from what seems like training camp of his rookie year. The 21-year old is now described in league publications as Boston’s “number two” behind the All-Star Walker. He’s reportedly spent the summer working on becoming a more complete offensive player, which includes – you guessed it – his ability to get to the rim without surrendering the rock. If he takes a significant step forward, Tatum can similarly set himself up for long-term employment.
These are good problems to have, but tricky to navigate amidst the pitfalls of youth, injury and franchise expectations.
Which of the rookies will have the biggest impact?
Romeo Langford was the high draft pick. Carsen Edwards was the scoring revelation of summer league. Grant Williams seems poised to take over the old Kelly Olynyk role of being the draft pick who’s happiest to be here to start his professional career. And we haven’t even mentioned Tacko Fall.
At media day, Langford proclaimed he was 100 percent coming off surgery for a thumb injury that hijacked his jump shot last season at Indiana. But it’s unclear where he fits other than as a project who’s here in case one of the Brown/Hayward/Tatum trio moves on.
Minutes could be more accessible this season for Edwards and Williams. The former could provide a scoring punch for the second unit, but it’s unclear if the undersized guard can get his shot against legitimate NBA competition.
Williams has a similar dilemma – a “big” at just six-foot-six – but his skill set addresses the need for a stretchy, stout defender who can score the ball in multiple ways. Could he see minutes as a small ball five? As a more traditional power forward when one of the starters needs a blow? Time will tell.
Has Marcus Smart reached his ceiling?
Reading through a recent NBA preview, Smart’s name was mentioned among Celtics expected to step forward in 2019-20.
My immediate thought was: “Hasn’t Marcus Smart reached his ceiling?”
Last year’s 8.9 points per game, 4.0 assists per game and 2.9 rebounds per game were all within spitting distance of his career averages. His 2.8 steals per contest were indeed a career high., but after watching Smart for five years, I can’t say I expect him to be any more than a low-double digit scorer, secondary ball handler and defender who disrupts the game as one would if they stopped action to throw several bowling balls onto the parquet floor.
Then, you consider his minutes were his lowest since 2015-16, and that he seems to have developed a three-point shot, and it’s in fact possible there are more winning plays in store for a 25-year old entering his athletic peak years.
Smart will never be a primary offensive option, which is why his 36.4 percent clip from downtown last season looms large. When Smart’s not setting up one of his teammates, he could be a decent safety valve for a slasher or post player, where you don’t reflexively scream, “Noooooooo!” every time he rears back for a three.
Was last year’s success from behind the arc real or just a blip? And, if necessary, can he hit threes consistently as a member of the second unit? If Smart wound up back there, he wouldn’t exactly be surrounded by a batch of proven NBA scorers.
It’s up to Stevens and his staff now to find the perfect mix. At first glance, Walker seems to be a simple recipe substitution for Kyrie Irving, but the two players dominate the game in different ways. The bench is full of eager bodies but seemingly devoid of last year’s toxicity. And Horford’s not around to make everyone’s lives easier.
We’re ready to start anew. It’s time for training camp. Everyone is in the best shape of their lives, right? Let’s go.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.