Expectations for the Celtics this season are somewhat low. After losing Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward in back-to-back offseasons, the 2020 Eastern Conference finalists that boasted arguably four All-Star level players is suddenly down to just two. It’s understandable why so much pessimism surrounds the team considering they’ve failed to exceed expectations in at least two of the last three seasons, but there are still things to be hopeful about.
In Bet Online’s release of opening NBA over/unders for the upcoming season, the Celtics were tied with the Hawks for the 5th highest total in the Eastern Conference. That would, obviously, place them either 5th or 6th (depending on tiebreakers) which would be an improvement on last season, but it still feels like selling the team a little short. If things go right, there’s no reason Boston can’t climb back up to the top of the East.
The Celtics have the talent to stack up with any team besides the Bucks and Nets. Even with just Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the Celtics are in a better position than roughly two thirds of the league before factoring in the rest of the their roster. Only seven teams have two All-Stars from last year on their roster (not including the many All-Star replacements for injured players last season).
The supporting cast around Tatum and Brown is certainly intriguing. The “hoarding of draft picks” may have been frustrating while it was happening, but it may finally be paying off. With Robert Williams emerging as an elite defensive presence, Payton Pritchard showing the potential to be a dangerous scoring threat after leading the Celtics in total points scored off the bench last season as a rookie, and Aaron Nesmith’s continuing to develop, all three could grow into larger roles next season.
On top of the projected internal development, the Celtics brought in a former Sixth Man of the Year runner-up with something to prove in Dennis Schroder and a quality two-way player in Josh Richardson. Richardson led the Heat in scoring in 2018-19 and Schroder came within 0.1 points of leading the Thunder in scoring in 2019-20. With those two as scoring options next to elite offensive threats in Brown and Tatum, Boston’s offense will take a big jump. Not to mention the defensive prowess that Richardson adds along with Marcus Smart and Al Horford.
When looking at what the 76ers did last season, why can’t the Celtics do the same? Perhaps without the same playoff choke that Philadelphia suffered due to one of their star’s spontaneously combusting on national television? The Sixers went from being a six seed in 2019-20 to the one seed in 2020-21 in part thanks to a coaching change and a few trades considered “salary dumps” and “lateral moves” at the time. Al Horford for Danny Green was their salary dump and Josh Richardson for Seth Curry was their lateral move. It just so happens that the Celtics made similar moves, coincidentally for the exact players Philadelphia traded away. Horford didn’t end up being the right fit for Philadelphia despite playing such a pivotal role for Boston the season prior. Perhaps the same is true of Richardson.
I’ve yet to mention perhaps the most important factor in the Celtics improving next season, which could be further growth from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. If Brown makes the jump from All-Star to All-NBA candidate and Tatum makes the jump from All-NBA candidate to MVP candidate, then the Celtics are really in business. It’s not all that far out of the realm of possibility. Each player has consistently improved in every season of their career so far and competing with Team USA has helped young stars develop into MVP candidates in the past, like James Harden in 2012. Perhaps the same can be true for Tatum. If Brown and Tatum are destined to become a Kawhi Leonard and Paul George-like duo, then this would be the logical next step.
Boston was in desperate need of a culture change, which they appear to have achieved. They need to avoid the same COVID-19 pitfalls that plagued them last year. With those two elements and the current roster construction, Boston can have a great season and vastly exceed their expectations. Will they be a serious championship contender next season? Probably not. But can they be every bit as good as teams like the Warriors, Suns, and 76ers? Absolutely.
Photo: (Ron Chenoy – USA Today Sports)
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