Marquist Parker Sports Editor
A year ago, the Boston Celtics were the clear favorite to win the Eastern Conference. After a disappointing season, an ugly exit in the playoffs, and the departures of two of their three highest-paid players, the Celtics are seemingly back in the middle of the East playoff picture. But last season’s Celtics were certainly a lesson in how success in the NBA is about a lot more than a talented roster. This season’s Celtics could tell us just as much about team chemistry and the whole being greater or less than the sum of its parts. The Boston Celtics had what many would call an up-and-down offseason. Veteran all-stars Al Horford and Kyrie Irving left the team, and they were replaced by all-star guard Kemba Walker and journeyman center Enes Kanter. With a new season comes new storylines, here are the biggest stories ahead of the NBA season opener.
The Center issue– Al Horford was a stabilizing force for the Celtics on both ends for years, providing steady offense and rugged defense. Now that Horford has moved on to Philadelphia, it’s up to the rest of the roster to fill the shoes of one of the best big defenders in the league. All eyes are on second-year center Robert Williams to make the jump toward being an everyday starter for Boston. If Williams isn’t ready for that role than the responsibility will fall to 8-year veteran Enes Kanter. Why is this worse? Kanter’s defense has never been elite, or good for that matter. However, Kanter’s rebounding ability will be a boost to a Celtics team that has struggled on the glass for the better part of a decade.
The youth movement in full effect– With the departure of Kyrie Irving Boston is poised to hand the franchise over to the duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The two young wings look to take on more of the scoring burden alongside star guard Kemba Walker. The Celtics’ bench also appears to be in a youth movement, with rookies and second year players expected to carry much of the load. Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, and the aforementioned Robert Williams are going to be relied upon heavily this upcoming season.
A return to form for Gordon Hayward- After Celtic forward Gordan Hayward suffered a gruesome leg injury during the first game of the 2017 season the basketball world knew that he was in for a long recovery, and they were right. Hayward finally returned this past season, but a rough start to the season saw him head to the bench. Before the start of training camp Hayward said “I’m ready to be the player I came here to be.” That player was a Western Conference All-Star and averaged 21.9 points per game over 73 games. And his 2016-17 average wasn’t an outlier. Since he was drafted ninth overall in the 2010 NBA Draft, from one season to the next, Hayward averaged more points per game each year. There was never a regression until his injury in 2017-18. First, he showed glimpses of it during last season. With a couple of 30-point games, Hayward showed that when he is on his game, the Boston Celtics are basically unbeatable. If he does that on a consistent basis and find a way to mesh with Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics are going to surprise folks. Boston is a city that always has high expectations for sports, if this Celtics team is to reach any of them, Hayward is going to have to elevate his game this upcoming season.
Who takes the step toward super-stardom?- Kemba Walker is without question the best player on the Celtics, he was an All-NBA selection last year and was given a max contract to come to Boston and replace Kyrie Irving in the rotation. In this league you need multiple stars to win at a high level, the important question is who steps into the spotlight as Kemba’s costar. The most likely candidate is Jayson Tatum, who, after his rookie year, had the basketball world believing that he would be the next superstar in the NBA.
However, Tatum’s sophomore season was a down year all around. Tatum’s scoring numbers improved only marginally from his rookie season and actually declined from his stellar 2018 playoff run. His field-goal and three-point percentages both fell as he traded in shots at the rim for more mid-range attempts. His defense remains acceptable. Tatum has to learn how to play with another high-level scorers. Although Kemba Walker is a volume scorer himself, he won’t dominate the ball like Irving did. That will leave more opportunity for Tatum to be more of an offensive force. Long wing span, the third-year Boston Celtics forward should be basically unstoppable when he drives the lane.