Fading Expectations: Where Do the Celtics Go From Here?
Evolution or Revolution is a series that analyzes whether a team needs a few tweaks or a fundamental reboot.
After a seventh-place finish in the Eastern Conference was followed by a first-round exit in the playoffs, the Boston Celtics decided it was time for change.
Danny Ainge, the long-time director of basketball operations, is out. Brad Stevens’ reign as head coach is over too, though he has switched from orchestrating plays on the bench to making deals in the front office. His replacement, Ime Udoka, is an experienced member of supporting casts who finally gets a chance to take on a lead role.
The revamp was not just restricted to team staff, either.
Kemba Walker – seen as a major addition in 2019 – was deemed expendable amid concerns over both his long-term health and salary number. Sending him to the Oklahoma City Thunder came at a cost – Boston had to give up their first-round pick in this year’s draft as a sweetener – but it may not be the final move for a franchise aiming to regain momentum.
For so long, the Celtics were viewed as a team on the rise. A plethora of burgeoning talents were allowed to develop under the highly rated Stevens, a graduate from the college system who steered them to the East Finals on three occasions between 2017 and 2020.
However, 2020-21 was undoubtedly a step back. A 36-36 record in the regular season, albeit amid the backdrop of a global pandemic, was a surprise. Losing to the Brooklyn Nets in five games, though, was not.
So what happens in the next chapter of the Celtics story? Stevens must work out the path for a team that, after playing the long game, has quickly been left behind by its rivals
Boston’s Double Act Offers Hope
Capitalizing on a plethora of draft picks stockpiled over time, the Celtics had sculpted a roster that appeared a step away from moving onto the next level. Major moves were made to try and tip the balance: Kyrie Irving appeared to be a perfect marriage before the relationship flamed out, while Gordon Hayward endured a hugely unfortunate start and never completely recovered.
Walker is gone now too, leaving Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as the two fundamental pillars in place for Boston to build around.
Brown finished with a career-high 24.7 points per game in 2020-21, a figure aided by shooting 39.7% from 3-point range. He attempted more shots in general, with his 19.2 field goals up from 15.6 in the previous campaign. There was also an upturn in assists as well.
However, Brown missed the playoff series against the Nets due to a wrist injury. Tatum fought valiantly, posting a 50-point performance in Game 3 to become the third Celtic (joining John Havlicek and Sam Jones) to reach a half-century in a regulation playoff game.
Yet that stunning performance merely delayed the inevitable. In putting together a Big Three, the Nets have jumped the queue in the East. Boston was one of only two teams to have a pair of players finish in the top 20 for points per game. The other? Brooklyn, of course.
Tatum averaged an impressive 26.8 points per 75 possessions to continue an upward curve. Kevin Durant described the third overall pick in the 2017 draft as a “tough, tough cover” after trying to keep him quiet during the first-round matchup. Like Brown, the 23-year-old Tatum showed his all-around capabilities by setting career highs in points, rebounds and assists.
His usage rate of 30.8% per 75 possessions was both a sign of his growing status and a by-product of an ever-changing cast around him. The Celtics used 37 different lineups – only three teams topped that figure – as injuries and the added wrinkle of the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols left Stevens consistently shuffling the deck on a nightly basis.
However, the absences should not paper over the cracks: Brown and Tatum – whose absence from an All-NBA team cost him $33 million in his rookie extension – need help.
Moving on From Walker
Boston hoped Walker would be a multi-dimensional scoring guard who could also facilitate for others. The issue was he did not play nearly enough to merit holding on to that ideal any longer.
Walker was restricted to 43 appearances in the regular season, averaging 19.3 points – his lowest since 2014-15. The team was marginally better with him on the court – they scored at 113.2 points per 100 possessions, compared to 109.6 without – though played at a slightly higher pace when the former Charlotte Hornet was absent.
Taking into consideration the likelihood of the four-time All-Star utilizing his player option for the 2022-23 season (there was over $73 million left on his deal), Boston opted to make the move with the Thunder. And a familiar face is returning for a second spell (more on that later).
Walker’s departure provides some cap relief, of course, but it also leaves a sizable hole in the roster. Marcus Smart appears the in-house option to start at point guard, yet he’s heading into a contract year and is still yet to demonstrate how he can be relied upon for consistent offensive production.
Smart isn’t a tremendous scoring threat at 13.1 points per game, though he is a player with a reputation for being a pest to opposing teams posted a defensive rating of 112.8 – the highest of his career. As he heads into his eighth season, Smart is a solid contributor capable of making plays without the ball but someone opposing teams do not fear when he has the ball in crunch time.
The same may well be said for Al Horford, even if the Celtics are not quite getting the same player who said farewell to Boston in 2019.
You Can Call Me Al
Life in Philadelphia did not pan out for Horford following his move in free agency two years ago. He was stuck as the odd man out in a crowded frontcourt where Joel Embiid rules the roost. His time in Oklahoma was short-lived as well, but now he is back in familiar surroundings.
The 14-year veteran has become a more frequent 3-point shooter since his first stint – his average of 5.4 attempts in 20 games for the Thunder was a career high. That’s a stark contrast to the player who tried 18 shots from beyond the arc across his first six years in the league.
His playmaking abilities will help lighten the load on Brown and Tatum, while his experience should be invaluable to promising big Robert Williams, whose effective field goal percentage of 72.1 left him behind only DeAndre Jordan in the entire NBA.
Williams also showed he can be a presence on defense as only five players averaged more blocked shots per game. The third-year center is a low usage, high-value finisher when close to the rim who is primed to take on a starting role.
In general, however, Boston’s defensive numbers suffered a dip. After ranking second in 2019-20 at 107.3 points allowed per game, they fell outside the top 10 this season at 111.2.
The Celtics also have a decision to make over Evan Fournier, a trade-deadline addition who is now a free agent. Outside shooting is a must in the league, and the Frenchman was successful with 46.3% of his 3-point attempts following his arrival from the Orlando Magic.
Payton Pritchard, last year’s first-round selection, showed signs of promise, but Boston still needs more shooting depth.
The revolution may have already occurred in Boston. After over 600 games as the head coach, Stevens wasted no time in making an impact following his change of roles.
However, a full re-shaping of the team would require trading away one of the core pieces he has worked so closely with over recent years. Smart, who makes just over $14 million on an expiring deal, appears the most trade-friendly asset and the Celtics know the clock is ticking.
Whether Smart sticks around or not, Boston needs more to aid their dynamic duo in Brown and Tatum. The cap situation suggests dipping a toe into the free agency waters, rather than diving right in. There’s no point pinning too much faith on the draft process for help either, as their first-round selection is now sitting in the Thunder’s treasure chest of picks.
Stevens will survey the landscape and acknowledge standing still is a risk. Brooklyn has its Big Three, Giannis Antetokounmpo is ensconced with the East champion Milwaukee Bucks and the Atlanta Hawks have suddenly found their wings during a run to the conference finals.
If there is a shortcut to potentially becoming a title candidate, it could be in the form of a frustrated superstar ripe for picking off in a blockbuster trade. That, however, would require a change of mindset when it comes to how they have gone about building the team in recent years.
Moving Walker was a start, but Stevens the GM must get creative if Boston is to get back in title contention, rather than just making the playoffs.
Design by Briggs Clinard.