NEW YORK — The Celtics begin their 2021-22 campaign tonight against the Knicks, marking a new era for Kemba Walker and a fresh, albeit ominous, debut for Boston against the guard they traded.
Brad Stevens dealt one of the former franchise cornerstones as his first executive action, one who arrived in the wake of the Kyrie Irving departure in 2019. Another one of the departed in Al Horford returned in exchange for Walker, unavailable for opening night due to a COVID-19 positive test. Jaylen Brown remains questionable with his own positive test. A decision by at least one Celtic to not get vaccinated looms large amid an ongoing pandemic, while Robert Williams III’s injury history resurfaced with a tendinopathy diagnosis that he’ll play through.
The reminders of last year, ravaged by COVID, disconnectedness and injuries, emerged amidst an otherwise successful preseason. Payton Pritchard, Romeo Langford and Aaron Nesmith all posted serviceable minutes after successful stints in the Las Vegas Summer League. Grant Williams appears slimmer and more agile. Josh Richardson impacted the defensive end as expected and Dennis Schröder captivated with a first-quarter scoring and defense barrage in the preseason finale. Jayson Tatum shot poorly overall, but flashed a stronger frame, his ability to reach the free throw line and surprised Richardson with his passing.
Opening night will reveal the tradeoff both the Celtics and Knicks hoped to accomplish with their offseason moves. The Knicks added Walker and Evan Fournier from Boston as offensive centerpieces to a team that already ranked among the best defenses, while starving for points. The Celtics traded pure talent for depth, stability in no longer maintaining Walker’s knee, better defense and an ability to sustain through aforementioned injuries and COVID. A thin roster a year ago put Boston at a particular disadvantage during the full COVID season.
Dennis Schröder, Richardson and Juancho Hernángomez could now feasibly fill in for Brown and Horford, as well as some improved younger players. Few weak links on defense project to play regularly when Boston’s at full strength, once an array of players learn Ime Udoka’s switch-heavy defensive scheme.
The east is better, the Celtics may starve for shooting at times and Udoka’s tough brand of coaching may present sustainability challenges. Any slippage over a stretch could sink a team into the play-in tournament. For home-court hopes, look to the stars. Here are the 10 biggest questions entering this NBA season.
1. How good can Jayson Tatum be?
The only player with 50 points in four separate games a season ago couldn’t make an All-NBA team, costing him $33-million in his contract extension. The Celtics star flashed passing greatness during the 2020 NBA Playoffs, and at times faded into isolation Udoka hopes to partially curb. Tatum’s iso prowess can be a strength in clutch situations, but he posted 0.82 points per possession, in the 41.5th percentile. Brown similarly stalled going one-on-one. Tatum’s 5.3 free throw attempts per game hit 9.8 in the playoffs against Brooklyn, converting 91.8%.
Tatum is a fire hydrant scorer. Efficiency, passing and consistent defense need to enter the equation for him to reach MVP conversations, where his contemporaries exist. Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo live there, with varying cases for the NBA 75th anniversary team to be announced this week already. Tatum has no case.
He’ll need to reach that echelon soon for the Celtics to rejoin the contenders. Udoka’s promise to find him in various spaces, posting him up and clearing corners for him to work closer to the basket bodes well.
2. Where will Jaylen Brown operate?
Lingering COVID effects plagued Tatum last year and any positive test carries the same concern. The Celtics expressed Tatum felt ok during his hiatus after testing positive, which now settles on Boston’s willingness to play him without ramping him up in practice. In either case, the league-leading scoring we saw from Brown to begin last season doesn’t appear likely. A career season does.
Udoka wants the ball in Brown’s hand more too, which is encouraging, because Brown pushed transition in 22% of his possessions. Brown and Tatum both thrive, ranking in the top half of the league on a per-possession basis last year. His dribble got tighter and his on-ball scoring more explosive.
Like Tatum, Udoka wants to see that translate into playmaking. Brown often fell to the corners, where he thrived in the 90th percentile of spot-up shooter. He also made efficiency history with a 17-for-20 FG game for a wing at the Lakers. Brown finishes efficiently even at high volume (48.4% on 19.2 FGA/G). Feed him, allow him space to operate and find his variety of spots. That’ll be Udoka’s most important challenge.
3. How much double-big will we see?
I struggle to call Horford and Williams III double-big, because of their versatility. Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson coined that phrase as two career centers stuck on the floor together early last year out of desperation after Gordon Hayward left Boston’s third wing spot. The pairing struggled consistently.
These two, by contrast, thrived during a one-game run against Toronto. Horford commanded the ball above the arc and hit all four of his three-point attempts. Williams can catch lobs, roll to the basket and make additional passing reads. The vertical and horizontal spacing they provide, respectively, won’t make this such a slog.
The Celtics do want to break into smaller, more versatile defensive lineups, especially as they switch everything. Horford will rotate in to play plenty of center. Theis and Thompson played 11 minutes per game with the starters. These two can play that and then some in certain closing situations (NY would’ve been a good look at that).
4. Who among the young players steps up?
It’s funny calling Pritchard a young guy when he’s older than Tatum. Young and old means experience on this roster. Langford has little. Pritchard received ample for a late-first round pick. Nesmith’s minutes came and went, as did Grant’s role. You can loop Williams III in here too, though he has a clear role.
Stevens loved Langford’s defensive positioning and instincts, and he’s hitting his threes now. Nesmith’s defense needs to come a long way to garner trust from Udoka, it appears, but he’s scoring from three levels in his recent opportunities. He also broke Tatum’s practice three-point record with 244 makes without consecutive misses. Grant can shoot too, with more interior size.
Pritchard intrigues me as an eventual starter. The Celtics will need his shooting and may be able to hide his defense, and going at him directly isn’t a sure thing either. He’s developing into a dangerous volume shooter. Can he distribute after a rough year in the the pick-and-roll?
5. Where does Marcus Smart fit in all this?
Smart had an odd preseason. The picturesque Celtic denied the virtue of having captains after Udoka pitched the idea of having them directly before Smart spoke. Udoka later suspended Smart one game for missing the team flight to Orlando. Boston extended Smart over the offseason, and mishaps aside he’ll need to deliver as the team’s lone consistent point facilitator. His role grew more defined over last year, when he swapped between Walker fill-in and wing shooter.
Smart grew his free throw attempts, assist numbers, decreased his shooting slightly and slipped substantially on defense, falling out of all-defensive status. That’s where this team needs him. The days of shutting down guys one-on-one may be over, but Smart’s versatility, organizing skills and and strong hands make him an asset in this era at his best. The key question for the Celtics will be whether that defensive regression continues, or proved to be a product of an inordinate scoring load.
6. Can Dennis Schröder return to Sixth Man of the Year form?
Schröder is captivating here beyond the price tag discount. Some may even call for him to start at some point, but Udoka wants to balance the talent spread between Boston’s first and second units.
The Celtics lacked scoring punch off the bench last and an array of inexperienced players struggled to address it. Brown, Tatum and Walker always needed to rotate into bench units, whereas the former sixth man candidate can command his own, averaging 17 points per game in that role with the Thunder between 2018-20. Schröder showcased explosive bursts to the basket during a 6-for-11 spot in the preseason finale, scoring 13 points with six assists and three steals. Schröder may not be in Boston’s long-term plans due to his contract status, but the Celtics will benefit from a prove-it campaign.
7. Will Udoka’s rules sustain?
Udoka drilled habits during training camp. Don’t complain to officials. Extra ball movement, making decisions on the ball in 0.5 seconds. He suspended Smart and created a culture where anyone can be called out by anyone. His stances on style of play got received by the team. Captains? Not so much.
Will it all last? We’re back to 82 game seasons and a new coach in Udoka may find the tough play may not be sustainable over that entire schedule. Suspending a pillar in Smart sent a strong signal in his ability to be fair, but will Tatum land on the bench for complaining like Grant did in the preseason? So far, so good in establishing a culture quickly.
8. Trade targets?
Get ready for another round of TPE talks, since the Celtics acquired a $17.1-million exception in exchange for Fournier. That could be enough to acquire Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Thad Young, Joe Ingles, Kyle Kuzma, Robert Covington, Terrence Ross, Kelly Oubre, Josh Hart, Marvin Bagley, Kyle Anderson and more. I’m surprised the trade machines haven’t already started buzzing. It’s more likely the Celtics save this in full for the offseason after jumping the gun on the Hayward TPE, but if a quality medium salary becomes available for multiple seasons it’s worth mulling in-season.
9. Can Robert Williams III stay healthy?
And not just healthy, can he remain explosive this year? Williams didn’t appear himself, shooting 33% from the field and dunking only once in preseason. He had a stunning 0-for-7 game as a 70% career shooter. Then we learned Williams dealt with tendinopathy, the latest in a line of lower-body ailments for a the center who fell to Boston in the draft due in part to injury issues. Williams has a contract incentive to play 69 games this year, can he hit it? Can he sustain his form while doing it? He admitted the need to improve his conditioning in camp, and Horford reminded him to not use everything he has in practice. Williams added he’s buying all-in on the team’s training regimen this year. He missed 20 games last year, including two in the playoffs, and only played 29 the year before.
10. Health and safety?
Rolling Stone reported earlier this month the Celtics have multiple unvaccinated players. Richardson said he’s unsure about getting it on media day, and refused to elaborate from there. Brown and Horford tested positive to begin a season following one where the Celtics led the league in days missed due to COVID-19. The vaccine should in large part help this roster from developing more serious cases, but even a breakthrough (we don’t know if Brown or Horford were vaccinated) could carry a 10-day absence while awaiting multiple negative tests, as it did for a vaccinated Udoka. Injuries like Walker and Williams’ and an array of COVID cases like Smart and Tatum’s played a major role in derailing last season. The same two threats loom this year and need to be avoided.