With the NBA season in the bubble coming to a close, teams had to deal with a playoff run unlike any other. No home field advantage. No air travel. Limited access to any sort of a normal life, including family for the most part. Even complaints about lackluster nourishment in Disney World.
For the Boston Celtics, a lot felt so different, yet the final result felt like a gruesome repetition of a horrible past — yet another exit oh so close to an NBA Finals appearance. With the best regular season team in the NBA going down at the hands of the Miami Heat, the Celtics faced that playoff juggernaut for a chance at an Eastern conference crown, only to find themselves victim to the 5-seed miracle Heat themselves.
While Boston couldn’t leave Orlando with the championship they had hoped for, the core of the roster provided a lot to be excited about. Since the season began way back in October 2019, the revived core that saw the Celtics transition into the Kemba Walker era proved to give Celtics fans new life. Today, we take a look back at everything that transpired in the 2020 season and hand out awards.
Best Social Media Presence: Enes Kanter
Author's Note: On the day this was published, Kanter may or may not have posted a reference to a movie in video form that creeped out hundreds and made me consider removing this award — maybe just ignore his tweet this morning.
The Celtics have a variety of backgrounds and personalities on the roster and many of them aren’t afraid to express those on social media. You’ve got the beyond-his-years leadership at the forefront of social matters with Jaylen Brown. You’ve got world-class trolling by Marcus Smart. You’ve even got Daniel Theis liking and retweeting fan posts supporting him in his battle against the referees. So I took to Twitter to ask the fans who they thought had the best presence on social media.
I'm giving out awards to the 2020 @celtics for the season and I got some fancy honors to give out. Let's poll the folks on this one. Which Boston Celtic had the best social media presence this season?
You all spoke and, despite holding a lead for the majority of the 24-hour-poll, JB didn’t have enough to beat out the journeyman who’s been in Boston for one season so far — Enes Kanter.
The Turkish former #3 overall pick has made his presence felt in the Turkish, Boston, and social communities. He consistently makes an effort to make an impact on education reform, racial justice, and basketball in the community of youth everywhere he goes, several of which I touched upon when I reviewed his visit to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. He manages to express this side of himself eloquently and make a verbal impact on social media, while also giving the fans consistent entertainment on Twitter (@EnesKanter) and Instagram (@eneskanter11) by sharing interactions with his teammates and goofing around while going live on Instagram and often interacting with the chat. Finally, a Boston #11 in recent times that’s super-likeable… alright I’ll see myself out.
I’m generally not for hanging banners for negativity and for a team that made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, Celtics fans are fortunate to be part of an organization that didn’t have an array of disappointments to choose from this season. That being said, let’s get this out of the way.
As an Indiana Hoosier, Romeo Langford was a solid offensive player with the profile to be an athletic defender. As a college hooper, he averaged 16.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 0.8 steals, and 0.8 blocks per game in his one season as a 6'4" shooting guard. He also shot a light but noticeable 27% from 3. He was ESPN's #1 ranked shooting guard in the Class of 2018 before the Celtics took him #14 overall in the 2019 NBA draft, incidentally just one pick after Miami Heat rookie sensation Tyler Herro.
In Langford's first year in the NBA, he ended up providing some valuable sparks with his energy and aggressiveness on offense and defense, but ended up averaging 11.6 minutes per game in which he shot 35% from the field and 18.5% from 3 and totaled 2.5 points per game. He played in 32 games on the season and dealt with injury concerns multiple times. After the Celtics' playoff run, he underwent right wrist surgery.
The Celtics used an offseason to start afresh at the point guard position and used the newfound leadership to operate one of the best cores in the NBA on their way to another conference championship series, so it bodes well for the future of the franchise that their biggest concern was the struggles of a rookie. They will need to get Langford and the other rookies some more health on their side before they are able to fine-tune their skillsets in the Brad Stevens system — a bit of depth can go a long way at a serious championship run next season.
Rookie of the Year: Grant Williams
At the beginning of bubble play, we established that if the Celtics were going to make a deep championship run, it was going to be on the back of their well-knit starting lineup. Depth ended up being an issue for the Celtics and it was rare to see a rookie have a big game this season. But of the bunch, nobody developed his game throughout the season and contributed more valuable minutes than Grant Williams.
Williams finished his rookie campaign ranked second in points per game, second in assists per game, first in rebounds per game, second in blocks per game, and first in win shares amongst Celtics rookies. Furthermore, despite the lack of size, he often played clutch minutes at the 5 allowed Stevens to use flexible defensive lineups in the regular season and in the playoffs.
Grant’s season was highlighted by his gritty breakout performance in the thrilling win over the Los Angeles Clippers at home in February. And remember when Williams started the year shooting 0-for-25 from 3 and TD Garden erupted when he hit one from deep for the first time? Well, he ended the season shooting a serviceable 25% from 3 and shot 72% from the charity strike. Not to mention, not too many rookies can say they have their own show on a podcast by The Athletic — Grant and Tacko can.
Most Underrated: Daniel Theis
Alright, y’all Theis haters — I see you, I hear you, and I acknowledge the fact that you are wrong. Forget the referee war on Theis, this man has to battle the casuals who actually think he is not the most underappreciated player on the roster and one of the most overlooked centers in the NBA.
Daniel Theis, the king of the seal, won three straight championships in the German league before coming to Boston and all he has brought here is a winning menatlity and a culture of doing whatever it takes to execute Brad Stevens' gameplans to perfection. In the beginning of his NBA career, his jump shot and spotty decision-making left much to be desired for the Boston offense but this season, Theis has been about as all-rounded of a center as the Celtics could hope for from the fifth-best starter.
Watch the seal from Daniel Theis here on the Kemba drive. As Kemba comes off the handoff, Gobert is in a drop. Theis rolls not to the basket but to the level of where Gobert is and basically sets a second screen to open Kemba up and take away the rim protection. pic.twitter.com/Z00IX5JPom
Statistically, Theis' career highs in field goal percentage (56.6%), free throw percentage (76.3%), rebounds per game (6.6), assists per game (1.7), steals per game (0.6), blocks per game (1.3), and points per game (9.2), aren't elite by any means. But when he’s doing all the little things right on a consistent basis to support the rest of the starters, that’s pretty much exactly what the Celtics need from him.
Theis finished the regular season fifth in the NBA in screen assists per game (and #2 amongst non-all-stars), second in the NBA contested twos (behind Nikola Jokić by a mere 1), second in the NBA in total contested shots (behind only Anthony Davis), and fourth in the NBA in total box outs (Jaylen Brown at #5, Marcus Smart at #6).
The Celtics have recently been storied to have issues with size and yes, the depth at the 5 could use some work, and even Theis could work on his defensive prowess and … uh, getting the refs to like him. But he provided a massive boost that goes unrecognized by pretty much everybody except his teammates and coaches. Easy choice here.
Most Improved Player: Jaylen Brown
Maybe the most difficult award to quantify, improvement can be seen from many via opportunity or improved skill. My candidate for this Celtics award saw both. The fact that Jaylen Brown was not top 10 in the NBA in MIP voting this season is nothing short of a travesty. In fact, I argue he should have been higher in the standings than his teammate, Jayson Tatum, who finished fourth in MIP voting.
As I explain below, Tatum played at an MVP level this season and put up several career-highs so the recognition of Brown as the winner of this award is in no way a knock at Tatum’s leap. However, with the transition to Kemba Walker, Celtics basketball as a whole was significantly improved, primarily due to how involved everybody could get on the offensive end of the ball. With nearly every member of the roster seeing benefits from the change in opportunity, the standout in terms of improved aggressiveness and skill was Jaylen Brown.
Brown was selected #3 overall in the 2016 NBA draft and Brandon Ingram, who won the NBA MIP award this year, was drafted #2 overall. Since Brown's rookie year, we've seen small developments in his game via the eye test. However, any non-casual fan would notice that there were stark differences in how confidently and efficiently Brown would produce offense. He was more comfortable attacking mismatches and improved on his jump shot allowing himself to strike fear into the opponent’s defense — this year, defenders had to not only worry about Brown’s crafty finishing package but also the off-ball threats getting more space on the floor due to the attention Brown earned on offense. On defense, he made some improvements as well, especially guarding at the perimeter and often holding his own against the other team’s best player.
Of course, I’m not going to let those of you who want the stats leave without the numbers. In the 2018-19 season, Brown played 26 minutes per game, shot 46.5% from the field, 34.4% from deep (on 3.7 attempts per game), and 65.8% from the free throw line (on 2.7 attempts per game). He also averaged 13.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 0.9 steals per game.
In the 2019-20 season, he upped every single one of those stats and put up career-highs in field goal percentage (48.1%), 3-point attempts (5.9), free throw percentage and attempts (72.4% on 4.3 attempts), rebounds (6.4), assists (2.1), steals (1.1), and points (20.3). He also shot 38.2% from 3 and had a career-high effective field goal percentage of 55.4%. Finally, just to stay in shape, he was a hustle stat machine, finishing 10th in the NBA in total defensive deflections in the regular season (Marcus Smart at #6) and 6th in the NBA in loose balls recovered per game (2nd in the NBA in total loose balls recovered). The shorter way to say that — all-star snub.
Jaylen Brown on not making the All-Star team: “I’m not disappointed.”
Said he uses anything and everything as motivation. Said the postseason is the stage he wants to be on.
Celtics fans are fortunate to be able to call Jaylen Brown their third best player (and on days that Marcus Smart decides to shoot like Steph Curry, maybe fourth). He will look to continue improving his ability on defense. Being able to keep his head in the game for a full 48 minutes with solid one-on-one and off-ball defense will be the next step into making him one the game’s elite two-players. For now, he has already taken a huge leap in his game and deserves the recognition for it.
Defensive Player of the Year: Marcus Smart
Was there ever a doubt? The heart and soul of the Celtics’ defensive identity and the longest tenured member of the team doesn’t need to get respect in the Defensive Player of the Year voting to care more than any other man on the floor about stealing every possession for their team.
Simply watching the Celtics for a few possessions will give you a sense of how impactful Marcus Smart is for Boston basketball even when his shot is off or he is not being intelligent enough on offense. The guarantee you receive from him every day involves a commitment of effort, skill, versatility, and energy that is seldom matched in this league. However, his statistics this season have backed up Smart as not just the best defender on the team but one of the best in our sport.
In the regular season, he post a stellar 0.5 blocks per game (top 10 amongst point guards, along with teammate Kemba Walker), 1.7 steals per game (top 10 in the NBA), 0.136 defensive win shares (16th in the NBA, Tatum at #6, Hayward at #17), and 2.6 deflections per game (10th in the NBA).
Smart’s elite efforts on the defensive end of the ball earned him a spot on the NBA All-Defensive First Team for the second straight season. Following the signing of Torey Krug with the St. Louis Blues, at 401 games, Smart is now the longest-tenured Boston athlete without a championship. He is signed through the end of the 2021-22 NBA season and that simply seems like a hundred years too little.
Most Valuable Player: Jayson Tatum
This is the definition of a no-brainer. Coming into the season, you could have a serious debate about whether Kemba Walker or Jayson Tatum would be the best player for the Boston Celtics. This season left little doubt who the most valuable on the team was. Jayson Tatum broke out as one of the best players in the NBA at just 21 years old. Now 22, he has put his name in direct comparison with some of the sport’s historical greats.
This season, Tatum averaged 23.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.4 steals, and 0.9 blocks per game, all career highs. He also shot at a 40.3% rate from deep and an 81.2% from the line and led the team in minutes played as he started 66 of Boston's 72 regular season games. Tatum quickly became the central piece of one of the best starting lineups in the NBA — his 10.1 estimated wins added was tops on the team and 24th in the NBA and he lead the team in usage rate, also good for 27th in the NBA. His 3.4 value over replacement player and real plus/minus were both #1 on the team and #11 in the NBA and his RPM wins were ranked #8 in the NBA. His elite season got him a place on the all-NBA third team and the fact that he didn’t make the second team is a true travesty, but that’s a conversation for another time.
There was only one player in the 2020 NBA Playoffs who averaged at least 25 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, one steal, and one block per game.
Statistics don’t even do justice to the impact that Tatum had to Boston basketball this season. Improved IQ and improved defense made Tatum an impactful playmaker on both ends of the floor and in regular season clutch minutes, Tatum’s 108 points was #9 in the NBA. Tatum even gained a step in the playoffs, as the true stars should. In the Celtics' playoff run, he averaged 25.7 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 5.0 APG. It’s clear that when Danny Ainge traded down and drafted Jayson Tatum, he found his franchise cornerstone of the future. Now the Celtics just need to hold on to the possible future hall-of-famer and season MVP.
Banner #18, again, so close yet so far and an offseason of another plethora of questions and a checklist at the hands of Danny Ainge, Brad Stevens, and the roster. Which moments of the 2019-20 NBA season stood out to you? What did you enjoy most about these Celtics and what are you looking forward to next season from this group of guys? And of course, the inevitable — let the jersey swaps begin, who is going to be wearing green for the first time next season?