”A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” -Emerson
Every year, I’m tempted to analyze and predict how my beloved Boston Celtics will perform. The new NBA season tips off tomorrow. I’m allowing myself not to have specific expectations this year. Something that isn’t easy in the age of information-overload and highly analytical sports fandom. Rather than throwing tons of numbers around and claiming a sense of expertise, I’ll do something different. I’ll explain what I’m hoping to appreciate about these Boston Celtics, with a few sentences on each player (with a few numbers) in alphabetical order.
But first, here’s Kemba at Media Day.
Jaylen Brown signed a 4 year extension today.
Jaylen Brown will remain a Celtic. This is welcome news, as I feared the speculation would grow with each passing month. Jaylen is an incredible athlete. He will delight with his open court agility. He will throw down vicious dunks. His scowl is visceral and tactfully deployed. A long-term planner, it was reported that Jaylen rejected a 4 yr, $80M extension, which would have meant he’d become a restricted free-agent after this year. That report may have been false, as the 4 yr, $115M contract blows that away. Some armchair GMs are already debating whether or not that is an overpay. A word of caution: Analyzing Jaylen based on his age 20–22 seasons, when this contract is for his age 23–26 seasons. Jaylen’s combination of defensive ability and likelihood for growth make this deal reasonable. In addition, it is likely incentive-laden. In any event, Celtics fans can now fully embrace the Kemba-Jaylen-Tatum trio as the path forward for Boston. Assuring that identity means more than most realize, in terms of developing trust and cohesion.
Carsen Edwards drained 9 three-pointers in a recent preseason game against the Cavs, making headlines and prompting a flood of hyperbole. I love the idea that Carsen Edwards will provide instant offense for the second unit, alongside Enes Kanter. I can’t wait to watch the two of them develop their pick-and-roll game. I also love his hair. I think 9 preseason threes against the woeful Cavs defense is equal to 3 regular season triples against a decent defense. I’ll take it!
Tacko Fall (two-way contract) started playing basketball at age 16, upon arriving in the U.S. from Senegal. Tacko Fall is 7'6" is already a hometown hero in Boston. Tacko was a 4.0 student at Liberty Christian Prep in Florida. He also nailed his SATs. After dominating underneath at Central Florida. Let’s hope by this time next year, he can compete with Robert Williams and Enes Kanter for actual playing time. Tacko Grande wouldn’t be a horrible nickname, as Fall’s standing reach is 2.5 inches above the 10-foot rim. Jumping is unnecessary for Mr. Fall.
Javonte Green landed the Celtics final roster spot recently. Congrats to Javonte, who is definitely a “grinder.” It took a few minutes to research Mr. Green. Here’s what I discovered: He garnered only one Division 1 offer (the mightly Radford) and took it. He played four years and averaged 17 ppg, 8 rpg, and 2 steals in his junior year. Green is only 6'4" so definitely an undersized small forward. His senior year was slightly worse than junior year, and took very few outside shots. Simply put: his NBA prospects were slim to none. So he signed in Europe. Spain’s third-level league. Played well. Moved on to Italy’s second-level league. Played well. Moved on to the German basketball league. Played well in the Euro Cup. Voila! He arrives with an NBA shot. Well done, Javonte. Don’t let your dreams die.
Gordon Hayward is not done yet. Don’t expect miracles, but allow room for Hayward’s confidence and agility to keep improving as he works his way back from that leg injury. I’ve heard many discuss the second-year back will look different from the initial return. It was a major injury. Patience is not the strong suit of contemporary sports fandom…or any period of sports fandom. If Hayward can facilitate with his vision, defend two or three positions reasonably well, and knock down open threes, he will be very helpful.
Enes Kanter is going to be fun to watch haul in offensive rebounds. He will mitigate the loss of Al Horford offensively, using actual post-moves, something the Cs haven’t really had since KG. He may even help young bigs Robert Williams and Tacko Fall develop theirs. The reason Kanter was available was his lack of lateral quickness. In today’s pick-heavy NBA, Kanter’s inability to stay in front of most guys is a problem. He’ll play with the reserves and keep the team afloat.
Romeo Langford is tantalizing with his wingspan and the slashing potential that made him a McDonald’s All-American out of high school. He played with a messed up thumb in his only college season at Indiana. Now he is nursing a knee strain. Best case scenario for next year: Langford is providing 15 good minutes, improving his range and getting to the line.
Semi Ojeleye continues to add defensive versatility and toughness. His shooting hasn’t progressed as the team had hoped. Adds depth and will be used in strategic match-ups where his strength is needed.
Vincent Poirier came over from France, where he rebounded and ran the floor relatively well. Poirier may challenge for minutes if Theis gets injured or underperforms and if Williams isn’t ready.
Marcus Smart is grit in human form. Impossible not to appreciate due to his tenacity, Smart’s shot has gradually improved and he’s now calm with the ball, waiting for passing lanes to develop. Health is always a factor. Hopefully, as Marcus ages, he’s able to pick and choose his sprawling dives and all-out-loose-ball-chases. I was relieved when he signed that contract last summer. We should have at least three more years of Marcus. More likely, he becomes that increasingly rare player: a Celtic-for-life.
Jayson Tatum is a scorer whose confidence is unwavering. This enabled him to rise quickly as a prospect and to excel even in the stifling offensive environment at Duke. After a great rookie year and an even better playoff run (which seems even more mythical in light of all of last year’s drama…including Terry Rozier’s rocky return to Earth) it’s been well documented how Tatum’s shot selection needs help. With the reintroduction of Kyrie and Hayward last October, Tatum clearly pressed. Not enough shots to go around and a meteoric rise throughout Tatum’s teenage years added up to a messy situation last season. We often get ahead of ourselves with young players…especially when they show preternatural talents and play with a steady demeanor. Tatum will thrive once he allows the game to “come to him” and makes immediate decisions when catching the ball. Think of peak Paul Pierce, once KG and Ray Allen arrived. Once he didn’t have to do it all himself. That’s what Ainge and Stevens are hoping Tatum becomes within 3–5 years. An efficient scorer, who can dominate at times, gets to the line, and whose length makes him a one-on-one weapon in big moments. First step: Quicker decisions with the ball and fewer Kobe-like fade-away jumpers.
Daniel Theis is helpful underneath and is a solid lob-catcher when his legs are healthy. He’s more nimble than many realize, running the floor well and defending the pick-and-roll. He’ll never be a great shooter, but he’s happy to set screens and roll to the rim. Health was an issue last year.
Kemba Walker is a cross-over dynamo. Those who are mourning the loss of Kyrie Irving will quickly be satisfied with Kemba highlights. A fearless shot-maker, Kemba has made genuine strides in the last few years of his career. Stuck on offensively challenged Charlotte teams early in his career, Kemba’s scoring was inefficient and his range was decent. As he had in college at UConn, the Bronx native could blow by any defender and get to the rim with powerful leaping ability. Those first few years in Charlotte were tough, even as Kemba produced decent counting stats. In the last three years, Kemba’s improved range (40% in 2016–17 and 38.7% in 2017–18) has opened up his game, propelling him to the All-Star team (2017–19), even landing a 3rd-team All-NBA spot last season. His skittering footwork and ability to absorb contact are heightened by the fact he nails his free-throws (84%). Now age 29, Kemba has finally been given a bigger spotlight in Boston. Celtics fans should take to his electric play immediately. Within a year or two, last year’s Kyrie drama will feel like ancient history.
Brad Wanamaker is steady. That is all. He won’t turn it over. He will make the right play and defend consistently.
Tremont Waters (two-way) is a defensive wizard. The fact that he was available at pick 51 in the June draft speaks to his current level of shooting ability and the NBA’s focus on pick-and-roll point guards who stretch defenses. His 2.9 steals per game at LSU as a sophomore were 2nd in the nation. His ceiling is probably Patrick Beverley. Imagine him alongside Marcus Smart in strategically deployed full-court presses. That might be a reality by next year, if Waters can add some range.
Grant Williams has been referred to as a mini-Al-Horford, due to his unique versatility for a big man. Horford’s defensive savvy might be unparalleled in the current NBA. Seemingly always in the right place, a fluid and intelligent defender, entirely unselfish, and with three-point range, Horford will be dearly missed. The fact that he’s now a Sixer is especially annoying. We’ll miss Al. Grant Williams is two inches shorter, but equally strong. Some compare him to P.J. Tucker, that defensive bowling ball in Houston. The question with Grant, as is the case with all the Celtics young players outside of Tatum and Brown, is his offensive ability. Can he be more than a “glue guy?” But as we saw last year, an offense doesn’t need 5 scorers. It needs two play-makers, and two guys who stretch the defense with their range. The fifth guy has to do whatever is needed. Grant Williams seems likely to play that role.
Robert Williams is a tantalizing shot blocker with serious length and great timing. Unfortunately, like most very young big fellas, he isn’t ready for NBA-level pick-and-roll awareness and lateral quickness. He also needs to develop at least a 10–15 foot baseline jumper (remember Tony Battie?). Hopefully this year’s Celtics pull off enough easy wins that Williams gets heaps of late-game minutes to work on these skills in NBA games.
Instead of making a prediction on the number of wins, I’ll just say this: The Bucks and Sixers are clearly the two most talented teams in the Eastern Conference. That should come as a relief to these Celtics and to Brad Stevens. As we’ve seen through the years, expectations are often a burden. Instead of coming into this year expecting to get to the NBA Finals, this team is being discussed as the likely (not definitively) 3rd-best team in the East. With all of the young fellas and with an eye on the next 2–4 years (and Giannis’ possible free-agency if he doesn’t sign a max deal with the Bucks), the Celtics are poised to stay in the top tier of the East. Honestly, playoff relevance is all any reasonable fan should hope for anyway. The regular season isn’t meaningless. It’s six months of watching your favorite team and the individuals on it, as they develop.