Celtics season preview: 6 things to keep an eye on during the regular season
Before going into the regular season, let's get one thing straight: this season is NOT championship or bust. The Celtics are a young team that should work on player development, some change in coaching strategy and improvement in overall energy. I don’t expect them to make the championship this year, although they have the capability to do so. This year I'm hoping for at least a step in the right direction toward a championship. Here are six things to watch for during the 2020-21 season:
1) Will Tatum feel the pressure?
If one thing is clear about this Celtics team, it is that Jayson Tatum is the best player on the roster. He is the best scorer, a great defender and a star in the making. He made a big step last year and now everyone in the league is aware of his capabilities, which is good and bad. It's good to see him get the respect that he deserves, but it’s not good because he is going to get a majority of the team's attention on him. He can’t just be that dynamic scorer that we are used to seeing. He has to do a little bit of everything, but at the same time he shouldn't overdo it. I know it’s complicated.
Tatum is likley going to get doubled often, so he is going to have to figure out how to distribute more and create more opportunities to get open off ball. He also has to grab rebounds, defend the opposing team's best wings and still be the Celtics number one scorer somehow. It's a lot, but that is just what we expect from him now. It will help when Kemba Walker is back from his knee injury because he can take some of the heat off Tatum offensively. For now, it is important for the rest of the team to do their part while Kemba is out because if not the Celtics could get in a bad habit of relying on Tatum to score too much.
In the preseason, we have seen that the team is significantly better with Tatum on the floor. If that trend continues, the Celtics become a lot more dependent on Tatum, which could affect his player development. It’s crucial for him to not do too much because if it goes well then Tatum might be too confident and we see the Celtics run through him rather than playing team basketball. On the other hand, if he needs to be relied on too much and it doesn't go well then he could lose confidence. It is also possible that Tatum develops his game in all the right ways and he makes all of the players on the floor better by default, so lets just hope for that one. This is a big year for Tatum's development, and if everything goes well for him then the Celtics get another step closer to a championship.
2) Bench Productivity!!
A long running issue for the Celtics has been having an inefficient bench offensively. They were the third ranked defensive rated bench last year (50.8), but the bench offense was a completely different story. Before the Celtics went into the bubble last year, the Celtics ranked 29th in bench points per game (27.2), 27th in 3-pt percentage (31.6%) and were ranked 22nd in offensive rating (52.3). So it’s not great, but we go into this year hoping for better once again.
The two leading bench scorers last year, Enes Kanter and Brad Wanamaker, have left the team and to replace them the Celtics signed veterans Jeff Teague and Tristan Thompson. Teague is a great addition to the Celtics bench and we saw a glimpse of what he can do in the preseason game against the 76ers scoring 18 on 4-4 from three. Teague is also capable of dishing the ball. Thompson is a great depth addition too because he is a 12/10 guy who brings energy, but he might end up starting eventually. These two guys are good pieces, but the Celtics need a fully functional bench this year.
The player that has the most potential to score off the bench is Aaron Nesmith. I’ve been wanting a bench three point shooter for a long time, and last year I hoped it would be Carsen Edwards but I think that ship has sailed. I'm going to put my trust in Nesmith this season to be an electric three point shooter who can get like 10 a game. Robert Williams also has the capability to get 8-10 a game while Romeo Langford might surprise us with his abilities. There is also Pritchard and Waters who are kind of a wild cards to me because I think they have great potential, but will they have actual opportunities for roles? There is a lot of talent on the bench so my hope for this year's bench is going from 27.2 bench points a game to at least 37.
3) How do the Celtics replace Hayward?
With the absence of Gordan Hayward, the Celtics need to fill the large void that Hayward has left somehow. Last season Hayward averaged an efficient 17.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg and 4.1 apg, with a usage rating of 21.1%. Hayward was top four on the team in all those categories, plus he led the team in field goal percentage. So how does the team attempt to replace Hayward’s productivity?
Hayward was usually the guy who could come in and make shots when the team is cold, so we gotta hope for our star players to create higher quality looks for themselves and their teammates. Tatum, Brown, Walker and Smart will handle the ball more which means they will inevitably score more and have higher usage ratings. To make up for the playmaking abilities that Hayward brought to the team, Smart says that he will be the primary playmaker role and I assume Tatum will have to be more of a playmaker this year as well. It’s expected that the stars will do a little more, but the role players need to make a bigger impact on the team.
Theis did great at his job last year, and Teague and Thompson have been great role players throughout their careers, so I’m sure they will fill some needs. There is already a great seven or eight key guys, but one player specifically has the capability to bring in a diverse set of skills closest to Hayward: Grant Williams.
Brad Stevens said the Celtics will “certainly” depend on Grant Williams to impact winning again this season. Said they need him to make shots when he’s spacing, be a ball mover and facilitator and be able to guard as many positions as possible.
I know it sounds ridiculous and other young guys have potential too, but Grant Williams has the potential to be a very solid glue guy for the Celtics. We saw a lot of what he was capable of in the series against the Raptors when he hit big threes and played exceptional defense late in games. He may not have the ability to score as well as Hayward, but he can be a key to Celtics success. He is one of the smartest players on the team; he knows where to be on the floor, when to set hard picks and how to keep the ball moving. He is only getting better going into his second year, working on his dribble hand-off skills and he continues to develop his three point shot. He also has the defensive versatility to cover the 2-5 if the Celtics need him to, even though Brad Stevens mentioned how he isn’t playing as physically as he would want. I can see Grant slowly follow the same development path as Smart just because he has such a great mentality. He just needs to play more confidently and needs consistent minutes this year and he will make an impact.
4) Kemba’s knee
So I’m very glad that Kemba is sitting out the beginning of the season after getting knee surgeries, but a lingering knee injury worries me a little bit. I wouldn’t be as worried about it if he played consistently last season, but there was some serious differences from before and after Kemba got injured:
Before he sat out in late January: 22.45 PPG/43.2% FG%/38.5% 3-pt%/.77 SPG
After he sat out in late January (regular season): 15.14 PPG/ 38.17% FG%/37.18 3-pt%/.32 SPG
Looking at these stats, it is clear that after Kemba came back from his injury he was less involved. He didn’t average nearly as many points as he did early in the season, while his lack of steals hints at how uninvolved he was on defense. He wasn’t that inefficient when he came back but he definitely didn’t play up to his potential. He most likely wasn’t as involved after his injury because he was being cautious before going into the playoffs, but this year the Celtics really need Kemba to be fully involved to succeed.
Along the way there will probably have to be load management games for Kemba because he might not be able to play a whole season plus the playoffs. He played very well in the 76ers playoff series, but then against the Raptors and Heat he was able to be erased by the opposing teams at times. It's not certain his underwhelming performance was because of his knee, but it would make sense. The load management for Kemba could affect the team chemistry and gameplan, but it's just something the team will have to overcome. Hopefully Kemba will come back from his knee surgeries fully healthy, but it's something to watch out for during the season.
5) What's the word with the TPE?
Yeah so the Celtics have the largest Traded Player Exception of all time at $28.5 million. I’m not going to go into this that much, but if you want to know the knitty-gritty part of this, click here.
I am curious on when we use this and how Ainge will use it, but it really depends on the scenario. The Celtics have until about late February/early March to use the TPE and they have to stay under the hard cap of $22 million. If the Celtics start out very well, they may want to wait it out and see if the team needs a smaller piece for the team like Doug McDermott ($7.3 mil). If the Celtics are doing okay but need one more addition to be a real contender, they might look for a bigger piece like Spencer Dinwiddie ($10.61 mil). They also may have a bad season and Ainge might want to blow things up and work their way to getting James Harden (for the record, I don't want this scenario to happen). I don’t know I’m just spitballing here but my point is there is a lot of flexibility and with a rare opportunity like this, anything could happen.
6) Brad Stevens coaching decisions
Before I go into anything on Brad Stevens here, I just want to mention that he is one of the best X’s and O’s coaches in the league and his teams always seem to have a special willingness to win. He is a big part of why the Celts have been so successful for the past four years. With that being said, there are some things he does that gets on my nerves that I would like to see him change this year.
The only issues that I have with Stevens is his in game management. I don’t have stats to back this up, but if you watched the Celtics enough last season you would know that Brad used timeouts poorly. Teams would go on like 15-2 runs against the Celtics and after the 15th point he would call a timeout, when in reality he should be calling timeouts as soon he realizes the other team gains momentum. He loves to let the Celtics play through the rough patch in a game, when that isn't the move every time.
Another thing that Brad does that makes me annoyed was the lineups he would put in during games. For example, on March 3rd the Nets beat the Celtics in overtime 129-120. In this game, Caris LeVert dropped a 50-bomb on the Celtics and the Celtics blew an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter. At the start of the fourth quarter, Brad played a Kemba/Edwards/Langford/Grant/Kanter lineup, which was a lineup that lacked defense and got very little experience playing together. In less than three minutes the Nets went on an 8-3 run, which gave the Nets enough momentum to eventually win the game. I’m reaching a little bit here, but after seeing the outcome of that game, you would think if Brad managed that game better in the fourth quarter then the Celtics would've held the lead and won the game.
For real though, Brad Stevens is a great coach, I just want him to clean it up a little bit. I’m excited to see how he mixes up the lineup this year.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it, the Celtics sucked in the preseason, but at least we can say “it’s only the preseason” and pretend like the Celtics weren’t trying. They start a little shorthanded against the Bucks to start the regualr season tomorrow, but the hospital Celtics usually suprise us so I'm excited regardless of what the outcome is. As a bonus I'll throw in my predictions for the regular season: I think the Celtics will finish in 3rd place in the east again, with a record of 46-26. On that note, I'm ready for the Cs to hurt me again, so let the season begin!