2019-20 Team Obituaries: Boston Celtics
In the NBA, only one team can be crowned champion. The other 15 playoff teams that fall short should not be disregarded though. Here at Off the Glass, we will be writing the “obituaries’ for the teams that didn’t get to hoist the O’Brien Trophy.
The Boston Celtics started the longest season ever fully mired in uncertainty. Fresh off the departures of veteran stars Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, many pegged Boston as a regression candidate after their disappointing second-round playoff exit in the 2018-2019 season.
Would star free agent Kemba Walker be able to fill Irving’s shoes? How could the Celtics survive with such a thin center rotation? Would Gordon Hayward ever be the same player after his horrific leg injury? Could Brad Stevens get it done when it really mattered? And what of the Celtics much-hyped young stars in the making, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown? When would they be ready for prime time?
These and many other questions dogged the Celtics all offseason, and as fellow East rivals like the Heat, Sixers, and Nets loaded up on talent, the prospect of Boston making a deep playoff run looked more daunting than ever.
As the young season started to coalesce, the C’s began to answer a few of the above questions. Still, heading into All-Star Break, the Celtics looked like a plucky playoff team that probably didn’t have the star talent or depth to really make a deep run.
Jaylen Brown showed significant improvement, Hayward looked consistently solid when he was on the court, Walker settled into his role as a score-first point guard who could energize the offense, and the Celtics cobbled together an unspectacular but effective big man rotation led by veteran Daniel Theis, the eternally confounding Enes Kanter, and surprisingly strong play from the undersized rookie Grant Williams. Good, but not great.
Then something happened that changed the trajectory of the Celtics year. Promising young gun Jayson Tatum made the leap to superstar Jayson Tatum. Taco Jay put together an absolutely torrid stretch of play, averaging 26 points, seven rebounds, and three assists following an explosive 41 point effort against the Pelicans on January 11th. This culminated in his star-making OT performance against the heavyweight Clippers, in which he dropped both 39 points and, perhaps more notably, Paul George on one of the highlight plays of the season.
Where before there were only questions, now the Celtics had answers. This was Jayson Tatum’s team above all else, and aided by his trusty sidekick Jaylen Brown, and a surprisingly deep roster, the Celtics would go as far as No. 0 from St. Louis would take them. With the NBA Bubble on the horizon, Boston had plenty of wind in its sails.
The Celtics went 5-3 in the seeding games, and then squared off against a depleted Philly team missing Ben Simmons, a frequent boogeyman for Boston. The C’s made short work of the Sixers in a clean sweep, but crucially lost Gordon Hayward to yet another injury, (unfortunately the story of Hayward’s entire Boston run). This set the stage for the Celtics second-round opponent, a true toss up series against the defending champion Toronto Raptors.
The C’s sprinted out to a 2-0, lead led by Tatum and some incandescent shooting from local folk hero Marcus Smart. Boston next gave away Game 3 on the last possession when OG Anunoby hit a miracle game-winner to bring Toronto back in the series.
With renewed confidence, the veteran Raptors evened up the series in Game 4. Despite this, Boston fought its way to a hard earned victory, eventually winning in seven primarily due to the superior play of Tatum and Brown.
It took everything for Boston to beat Toronto, and this was clearly on display in the Eastern Conference Finals, where a motivated and disciplined Miami team, fresh off of a stunning upset of the Bucks, put an end to Boston’s otherwise stellar season.
The Celtics finished the season with a combined 58-31 record including the playoffs. In the ECF, it became clear that for all the questions Boston answered this season, a few still linger.
However if there is one resounding answer they can take away from the strangest season ever, it is that as long as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are on the roster, Boston will be a playoff fixture with a chance to do something special in any given year.
Boston must resolve these unanswered questions in the shadow of a Lakers championship. Ouch.
The first offseason stop, and perhaps most important, is the draft. For years Boston hoarded a war chest of draft assets carefully procured by president of basketball operations and general manager Danny Ainge. This year appears to be the last where the Celtics have extra ammunition, though.
With three first-round picks at 14, 26, and 30, the Celtics have some room to get frisky, especially as some teams look to trade out of the top-10 in a draft class that is high on quality role players and low on superstars. Many Celtics fans believe the first priority for the draft should be to find the eventual long-term successor to Kemba Walker.
While Kemba had a good season by any objective measure, in the playoffs other teams consistently hunted him on the defensive end and limited his effectiveness with trapping defenses. Kemba is likely the Celtics starting PG for the next three years barring a major roster shakeup, but having a younger backup ball-handler who can run the second unit offense and take some of the playmaking burden off of Walker, who turns 31 next season, could change the trajectory of the Celtics in the long term. Luckily the Celtics have options.
The 2020 draft is loaded with stud PG prospects, and Ainge could likely find one either by trading up into the lottery or staying put at 14. Two names to keep an eye on here; French phenom Killian Hayes and Alabama’s Kira Lewis Jr, both of whom could offer a significant boost to the Celtics’ thin bench. I would be very surprised if the Celtics add three rookies to their already very young roster.
Another question for the Celtics is at the center spot. While Daniel Theis proved he was a capable starter, he simply couldn’t keep up with Bam Adebayo’s blend of speed and physicality when it mattered. Robert Williams III and Grant Williams have earned the right to play more minutes next year at the 5, but with the possible departure of Enes Kanter, the Celtics will likely lack a big body who can battle with Embiid or Bam down low.
While the Celtics could look to the draft here as well, given the age of the aforementioned Williamses, a more logical route might be to find this mystery big via trade or free agency. Could this mean the return of Aron Baynes on a mid-level type of deal? A move to bring in someone like Steven Adams or Myles Turner? Or maybe the Celtics think outside the box and roll the dice with someone like Harry Giles, a noted friend of superstar Jayson Tatum.
Boston’s cap sheet is a crowded one. While I would be surprised if Gordon Hayward turned down the final year of his $34 million dollar max deal, stranger things have happened in the NBA. Will the Celtics look to re-sign Hayward on a restructured contract, trade him now for younger assets, or simply play the coming year out and see how it goes? Jayson Tatum will presumably be offered a max extension as soon as Danny Ainge can get the paperwork filed. But this will certainly put the Celtics, a perpetual luxury tax team, even deeper in the red with Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown’s large deals still on the books.
Regarding the bench, you can likely bet on the departure of Semi Ojeleye, who no longer has much of a role with Grant Williams in the fold. Will the Celtics look to retain Brad Wanamaker, a solid if unspectacular backup guard, or perhaps call up G-league killer Tremont Waters? If the Celtics look to make trades will they dangle young players like Romeo Langford? Marcus Smart proved that he could be an effective starter for this team in the playoffs, but his role likely depends on whether Hayward is on the roster next year.
All of these questions are things Ainge and company will try to address in due time. Much like this past year, the offseason is bound to be among the weirdest in memory. While it is near impossible to make predictions under these circumstances, there are a few things we know.
Heading into next year, the Boston Celtics, barring significant injuries, will be a tough, competitive eastern conference playoff team and a dark horse pick to make the NBA Finals. Kemba Walker will likely provide borderline All-Star level play, Marcus Smart will do Marcus Smart things, Jaylen Brown will continue to elevate his game as a secondary star. And if Tatum’s current trajectory continues, he will likely be a fringe MVP contender and All-NBA player.
You can build a whole lot around that, and those pieces will likely make the difference between the Celtics being a good team and a great team, but the core four is solidly in place. As far as predictions go, expect Ainge to look for at least two things, a win-now veteran that the Celtics can get 20-30 minutes out of and a young player that can extend the Celtics championship window even further. The rest of the pieces will fall into place as they may, but the key for the Celtics going forward is to start building a championship roster for right now, knowing that in Jayson Tatum, they likely have the player that can take them to the promised land.