2019–2020 NBA Season Previews: Boston Celtics
Head Coach: Brad Stevens
Last Season: 49–33, 4th in Eastern Conference
- PG: Kemba Walker
- SG: Marcus Smart
- SF: Gordon Hayward
- PF: Jayson Tatum
- C: Enes Kanter
Additions: Carsen Edwards (R), Tacko Fall (R), Javonte Green (R), Enes Kanter, Romeo Langford (R), Vincent Poirier (R), Kemba Walker, Tremont Waters (R), Grant Williams (R).
Losses: Aron Baynes, P.J. Dozier, Jonathan Gibson, Al Horford, R.J. Hunter, Kyrie Irving, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, Guerschon Yabusele.
The Boston Celtics were one of if not the most disappointing team in the entire NBA last season. They were the favorites to win the Eastern Conference, had the most talented starting five in the NBA outside of Golden State, and looked to be poised to make the jump back to the NBA Finals. The Celtics did not come anywhere near those expectations, however, as ongoing chemistry issues and several disappointing individual performances led to an early exit in the second round.
As you’d expect when a team disappoints and has chemistry problems, personnel changes are made. Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris are out the door as this team will look much different this year than last.
The highlight of the Celtics summer was their point guard swap, as Boston acquired star point guard Kemba Walker from the Charlotte Hornets in a sign-and-trade in exchange for Rozier and a 2020 second-round pick. Walker is coming off yet another phenomenal season, as the eight-year veteran averaged a career-high 25.6 points and 5.9 assists per game en route to his third straight All-Star selection. Walker became the all-time leading scorer for the Hornets franchise last season, but has yet to experience the same team success he did when he won a national championship at the University of Connecticut.
While Kyrie Irving may be a better player than Walker, many including myself believe that Walker will ultimately be a better fit for the Celtics. Walker is a quintessential professional and a bonafide star on the court who will bring a positive mentality to the Celtics locker room. This upbringing presence should help a Boston Celtics locker room that experienced its fair share of trouble last season.
While Walker put together arguably his best season to date, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown did not progress as expected in their second and third seasons, respectively. Simply put it, there wasn’t enough time or shots to go around for all of the players in the Celtics rotation, as Brown and Tatum both struggled to find their rhythm throughout the season.
Tatum will have to improve his shot selection moving forward in order to keep progressing. After attacking the rim consistently in his rookie season, Tatum settled for more tougher, fadeaway mid-range shots last year and shot just one free throw for every five shots he took. Given how well he finishes at the rim (58th percentile) and how good of a free throw shooter he is (84% for his career), the Celtics would like to see him get to the line and rim more.
Tatum certainly has the most upside of any player on the Celtics and should continue to get his fair share of opportunities. He’s still struggling to mix his scoring and passing, but has plenty of potential on offense and is a more than capable defender.
Brown, on the other hand, hasn’t gotten as many opportunities as Tatum. In his first three years as a Celtic, Brown has been in and out of the starting lineup, and I believe that has affected his confidence and rhythm. Brown has been solid defensively, but is still raw on offense. Many believe Brown would thrive more if he had a higher usage rate and more isolation possessions, but it’s hard for me to see that happening given he struggles with his handles and off-hand dribbling.
Brown is a solid complementary wing, a good defender, and is in a contract year this season as well. Brown will certainly earn a big payday this summer, but I question if the Celtics will be the ones to give it to him. Given how invested the Celtics are in Tatum and Hayward, Brown could potentially take more money elsewhere when the season is set and done. He has all the raw tools that teams covet in a wing, and if he can continue to vary his offensive approach, he should be in good shape.
While the Celtics were able to swap one elite point guard for another, I believe losing Al Horford and replacing him with Enes Kanter will hurt Boston significantly. While Horford’s numbers don’t jump off the page, he was the defensive anchor for the Celtics and a great locker room presence as well. Horford’s 4.8 Box Plus-Minus was near All-NBA level last season, as he continued to prove why he’s one of the more elite big men in the NBA.
Horford’s replacement, Kanter, joins his fifth NBA team with the Celtics. Kanter is coming off a solid season with the Knicks and Trail Blazers where he averaged 13.7 points and 9.8 rebounds a contest. He brings low post scoring and rebounding to a Celtics team that looks weaker at the five spot this season compared to years past. While Kanter is an offensive plus, he’s a well known liability on the defensive end. His -1.7 career Defensive Box Plus-Minus sits barely above replacement player level (-2.0), which makes him unplayable at times. Due to Kanter’s defensive woes, the Celtics could go with Daniel Theis at the starting center spot instead. Theis is a more capable defender who can also stretch the floor out to the 3-point line. Robert Williams is another big man who should get significant minutes and provide defense, rebounding and energy off the bench.
While the Celtics made a big splash in free agency this summer, they also got a lot younger through the draft. Of the nine new players Boston brought in this offseason, seven of them are rookies. Of the newcomers, two-time SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams is the one to watch out for the most.
Williams may not pass the eye test for most given he’s a big-bodied forward who stands just 6-foot-7, but his basketball IQ is off the charts. Williams should make an immediate impact on the Celtics if given the proper minutes. He has post skills, a solid jumper that should improve with time, good vision, and gets to the line with the best of them (94th percentile in the NCAA last season). He lacks elite athleticism, which could hurt him on the defensive end, but still had a respectable 2.0 steal percentage with the Volunteers last season.
X-Factor: Gordon Hayward
Nobody had a more disappointing season from an individual standpoint last year for the Celtics than Gordon Hayward. After suffering a devastating leg injury just five minutes into his Celtics career back in 2017, Hayward returned last season to mixed results and never quite hit his stride. The Butler product looked nothing like the player he was on the Jazz, as he averaged 11.5 points per game on just 33% shooting from 3-point range.
Despite a tough season last year, I believe Hayward will start to play like his old self again this campaign. Everybody heals from injuries differently, and Hayward has now had another year to fully heal and overcome the physical and mental roadblocks of a significant injury. Even if he never returns to the player he once was, Hayward can still give you borderline star production on the wing. Not to mention, the Celtics should have far better chemistry this year which should allow Hayward to integrate better into the offense.
If the Celtics want to make a deep playoff run, Hayward will have to be the difference maker. If Hayward can even slightly return to his old self, the Celtics have a shot at making the NBA Finals.
Will Jaylen Brown be traded?
Given that he is in a contract year, I believe the Celtics will at the very least entertain trade offers for Jaylen Brown this season. Brown is a valuable asset, and I think the Celtics tinker with the idea of moving him to avoid losing the wing for nothing in free agency.
Who would take Brown is speculation at this point, but you have to believe he’d garner significant interest given how young and talented he is. The C’s could move Brown for a better option at center, or choose to hang on to him and pay him the big bucks this summer. What General Manager Danny Ainge will decide remains to be seen.
Can Brown, Tatum and Hayward start together?
While I currently have these three players in the starting lineup, I’m not sure if that’s the best idea for the Celtics. When these three shared the court last season, the offense was stagnant and many possessions ended in isolations and shot hunting.
Brad Stevens will certainly have many options to choose from in terms of making a starting five. Last year Brown and Hayward were in and out of the lineup, and I believe having one of those two come off the bench is the best option for the Celtics. Stevens could elect to put defensive stud Marcus Smart at shooting guard or enter Semi Ojeyele or Grant Williams at the four. Either way, having Brown or Hayward come off the bench gives the Celtics a reliable lead scorer when the starters need a breather.
How much will the rookies contribute?
I’ve already discussed Grant Williams, but what about the rest of this rookie class for the Celtics?
Romeo Langford, the highest draft pick for the Celtics in this year’s draft, had a fairly disappointing lone season at Indiana. The 14th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft struggled mightily with his jumpshot despite having a smooth form. Langford shot just 27% from deep, 39% from mid-range, and ranked in just the 42nd percentile in spot up situations.
Overall, I believe Langford has a relatively low ceiling. While he is a good isolation scorer and finishes at the rim at a high clip, he lacks athleticism and quick twitch muscles. Langford isn’t a particular great defender and the fact that he will be at an athletic disadvantage compared to most NBA wings won’t help either. While his shooting percentages should improve, he struggles with his passing and barely had an assist-to-turnover ratio above one in his freshman season with the Hoosiers. Langford is also recovering from thumb surgery, so it could be a while before he makes a significant impact.
Carsen Edwards, a second-round pick for the Celtics, was a walking bucket at Purdue. Edwards averaged 24.3 points per game for the Boilermakers last season and scored 42 points in two different games during the NCAA Tournament. His performance against Virginia in the Elite Eight was downright spectacular, as Edwards dropped 42 points and made 10 3-pointers.
While Edwards is a lights-out scorer, I question how much of an impact he can make at the NBA level outside of putting the ball in the basket. Edwards isn’t the best playmaker, as he had nine more turnovers than assists last season (113 to 104). Edwards struggles mightily on the defensive end as well and barely made over half of his shots at the rim on offense.
The other rookie who I feel could quietly make an impact is French big man Vincent Poirier. The Celtics signed Poirier to a two-way contract in July to provide frontcourt depth, and he should get some minutes as the Celtics try to solidify their center spot. Poirier projects as a solid pick-and-roll big, a good rebounder, and a so-so rim protector.
The Celtics may not have the talent on paper that they did last season, but their chemistry on the court should vastly improve this time around. The Celtics are ready as ever to make a playoff run and should not be counted out. I have the Celtics winning between 47 to 51 games this season.