A year ago, the Boston Celtics were the clear favorite to win the Eastern Conference. After a disappointing season, an ugly exit in the playoffs, and the departures of two of their three highest-paid players, the Celtics are, seemingly, back in the middle of the East playoff picture. But last season's Celtics were certainly a lesson in how success in the NBA is about a lot more than a talented roster. This season's Celtics could tell us just as much about team chemistry and the whole being greater or less than the sum of the parts.
> 30 Teams in 30 Days: Boston Celtics
Traded the No. 20 pick for two later picks, one of which (No. 24) was sent, along with Aron Baynes, to Phoenix … Selected Romeo Langford (No. 14), Grant Williams (No. 22), Carsen Edwards (No. 33) and Tremont Waters (No. 51) in the Draft … Saw Kyrie Irving and Al Horford leave for teams within the division ... Quickly replaced Irving with Kemba Walker … Also added Enes Kanter, re-signed Daniel Theis and Brad Wanamaker, and signed 25-year-old Vincent Poirier from France … Had six players -- Jaylen Brown, Poirier, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Daniel Theis and Walker -- participate in the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
1. Smart balance. Coach Brad Stevens started last season with his most talented starting lineup (Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum playing the 2-4). But after Thanksgiving, he swapped Brown and Hayward for Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart, who brought more balance to the lineup and started the rest of the season. With a new season, Stevens will have to decide if Smart in the lineup is worth bringing a dynamic young talent (Brown) or a player making $33 million a year (Hayward) off the bench.
2. Get to the hoop, get to the line. Last season, the Celtics ranked 27th in the percentage of their shots that came in the restricted area (less than 29 percent) and last in free throw rate (25 attempts per 100 shots from the field). One area where Kanter is an upgrade over Horford is his ability to produce shots near the basket via his rolls to the rim and offensive rebounding.
3. Opportunities up front. Even if they're playing small, the Celtics still need at least one other big -- from a group that includes Poirier, Theis and Robert Williams III -- to step up. That's especially true on defense, where they'll need a replacement for Kanter when they need to get a stop.
MAN ON THE SPOT
After a terrific rookie season in which he was having the offense run through him at the end of playoff games, Tatum failed to take a step forward in his second season. In fact, he saw drops in both effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage, not getting to the free throw line as often as he did as a rookie. He scored just 0.63 points per possession on isolations, the worst mark among 51 players with 100+ isolation possessions last season. The former No. 3 pick is still just 21 years old, but he'll be up for a contract extension next summer and a breakout season -- with less settling for jump-shots and better playmaking -- would raise the ceiling of his whole team.
Kemba Walker | 25.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 5.9 apg
Will be better for the locker room than Irving, but his size equals limitations on defense and at-the-rim scoring.
Jaylen Brown | 13.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.4 apg
Ranked 92nd in catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage (34.3%) among 102 players with 200+ attempts.
Gordon Hayward | 11.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.4 apg
Scored much more efficiently after the All-Star break (true shooting percentage of 64%) than he did prior (55%).
Jayson Tatum | 15.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.1 apg
Sprained his ankle at the end of Team USA's second World Cup game and his offense off the dribble was sorely missed thereafter.
Enes Kanter | 13.7 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 1.7 apg
Huge contrast from Horford and Baynes in that he generally gives back on defense what he takes on offense.
Marcus Smart | 8.9 ppg, 4.0 apg, 1.8 spg
Second-biggest jump in EFG percentage (from 44% to 53%) among 126 players with at least 500 field goal attempts each of the last two seasons.
Daniel Theis | 5.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 0.6 bpg
His 6.4 fouls per 36 minutes were second-most among players who played at least 750 total minutes last season. Only big on roster who can stretch the floor.
Grant Williams | Rookie
Langford was drafted higher, but Williams might be more NBA-ready -- and have a greater opportunity to play right away.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Celtics appear to be a tier below the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers in the East, and their lack of quality bigs is a real concern. But there's no telling just how much of a leap Brown and Tatum will make or if Hayward can get back to 100 percent. Though the complicated Irving is gone, it will still be a challenge for Stevens to get those three functioning well and getting them the touches they need alongside Walker. But the potential is certainly there for the Celtics' first top-five offense in more than 10 years.
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