BOSTON – The chip is back where it belongs on the shoulders of the Boston Celtics. After a summer a year ago when fans and media threw rose petals at the feet of a supposed title contender, then watched in uniform disgust as a team with all the potential in the world bickered and butted heads to a wholly underwhelming season, the reconfigured squad is solidly back in prove-it ground following this summer’s free agent frenzy.
The Celtics need to prove that they are still a destination franchise in the NBA after their two most accomplished players – and half of their overall rotation – left for perceived greener pastures. Kemba Walker needs to prove that he is truly a maximum-salary NBA star – not just the best-available next-tier talent left on the market after the true superstars were skimmed off the top. Enes Kanter needs to prove that he can help fill the void of both Aron Baynes and Al Horford, and that he is more the double-double machine that was taken No. 3 in the draft than the journeyman who has bounced around the league in recent seasons.
Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum need to prove that last year was more a case of circumstance than stagnation in their development. Gordon Hayward needs to prove that he can still be “Old G” on a regular basis – if he is ever to be “Old G” again two years removed from his gruesome ankle injury.
A year ago, the Celtics were constantly told – and foolishly came to believe – they had already arrived before they had ever really done anything. Now they have a chance to prove they are still in the contender picture when so many have cast them out of view.
“There is a lot for everybody to learn from last year’s experience,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said after Wednesday’s formal introduction Kanter and Walker at Auerbach Center. “I think it was a team where the expectations were probably too high all along. I would say to you guys every year that you don’t win on paper. You win on the court. And, obviously, talent wins.
“But we have a lot of talent on this team.”
Whether that talent is enough to contend with the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks in the East, and the growing collection of dynamic duos out West, remains to be seen. Celtics coach Brad Stevens, whose first attempt at leading an NBA conference favorite was a failure last season, will get a chance to go back to doing what he has done best his whole career and coddle a crew of overachievers into something beyond the sum of its parts.
At least this year all indications are he will have willing parts with which to operate.
“There is nothing more important to me than having a good relationship with your head coach,” said Walker. “We’ll get there.”
It was just one of many subtle, not-so-subtle, and at-times-blatant shots at Irving on the way out the door for the belief that he sabotaged a city with his petulance and his reneged commitment to Boston.
“I want to make sure no one wears it again,” Kanter joked of his decision to swipe Irving’s No. 11 that once was pegged for the rafters, before adding, “I had to do it.”
Walker, who wrote in The Players’ Tribune about his leadership style including not airing out teammates in public – as Irving did many times last year – doubled down on the comparison on Tuesday: “I’m easy to get along with … It will be easy for me to get along with anybody.”
If this is what Kanter and Walker were willing to say on day one in Boston, one can only imagine the gems Jaylen Brown is cooking up in his head to drop when he gets back to town.
Yet, while taunting Public Enemy No. 11 in Brooklyn, will delight fans in July, only wins will satiate the masses this season. A city drenched in championships over the past two decades thought it had one in the making a year ago, so the feisty underdog routine will only play as long as this Celtics squad shows it has the bite to back up its bark.
Ainge admitted on Wednesday that he had an idea in “March or April” that Irving wasn’t coming back to play ball with his father on the parquet for the long-term. He conceded that he knew on draft night that Horford was likely ticketed out of town with a departure sealed before the team could lock down Irving’s All-Star point guard replacement in Walker.
He claimed Walker and Kanter were Plan A – at that point, anyway.
In less than a month, Ainge has revamped the team with the hope of revamping its culture as well. He has taken a poorly constructed glutton for glory and turned it into a leaner, meaner squad that should be hungry to show it deserves a spot at the NBA’s big kids table.
The chip on the shoulder is back in Boston. There is plenty to prove. The good thing with the construction of this squad is that there should be plenty of opportunity to do that proving.
“I don’t know if we’re going to better,” Walker said. “I can’t tell the future. But we have a really good team – a bunch of young guys who are very talented, who I’m looking forward to playing with.
“Do I think we can be good? Yeah, I do. I want to be part of that.”