The Boston Celtics began their season on the right note, crushing the Philadelphia 76ers 105-87 at home on Opening Night. Can they keep it up? Okay, obviously they won’t go undefeated, but they could be due for a historic season if everything breaks right. Here’s what to keep an eye on during the remainder of the NBA season.
Kyrie Irving (PG); Gordon Hayward (F); Jayson Tatum (F); Jaylen Brown (G/F); Al Horford (C/F)
The biggest question here is whether or not Horford will be starting at center most of the time, giving Brown a chance to start, or whether the Celtics will employ a more traditional big man in the role. Expect them to be extremely flexible when it comes to who is playing what role at any given time, so take those letters aside their names with a grain of salt.
On the 15-man roster: Marcus Smart (G); Terry Rozier (G); Aron Baynes (G.F); Marcus Morris (F); Robert Williams (F/C); Daniel Theis (F); Semi Ojeleye (F); Guerschon Yabusele (F); Brad Wanamaker (G).
Signed to two-way contracts: Walt Lemon (G); PJ Dozier (G/F)
Guard Jabari Bird is on the roster, but due to the ugliness of his legal situation, nobody expects him to be playing for the Celtics now (or probably ever again). Expect Marcus Georges-Hunt to take his roster spot after the league finishes its investigation. Lemon and Dozier are signed to contracts that allow the club to send them back and forth from the G League to the NBA throughout the season as needed.
Brad Stevens will be eyeing his first ever “Coach of the Year” award this season. While it’s likely that the media has overstated Stevens’s role in helping the Celtics exceed expectations over the last few years, there’s no doubt that he’s one of the most respected coaches in the league. More than anything else, it’s Stevens’s ability to get his players to buy into the system that elevates him above most of his competition.
It’s tempting to say something wonky and contrarian like “Al Horford is the team MVP because he’s the most integral player in the system Brad Stevens runs.” While this is true, it’s silly to use the term “Most Valuable Player” to describe anyone other than the team’s best player. Kyrie Irving, then, is Boston’s clear MVP candidate, even if he did rack up a mere seven points in 29 minutes of action on Opening Night.
Biggest potential surprise
Robert Williams. During the offseason, it seemed likely that their rookie big man was going to spend much of his first few months as a professional ballplayer as part of the Maine Red Claws, Boston’s G League affiliate. However, after showing flashes of his defensive potential over the preseason, it wouldn’t be shocking if the Celtics conclude that their best chances of winning games would involve having their best shot-blocker playing significant minutes. It’s not like they shy away from playing rookies.
Biggest potential disappointment
The Celtics’ biggest fear would involve Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward not being on the same page. Hayward has survived his first full game with the Celtics without suffering a season-injury ending injury, so it’s already going better for him this time around. Now he has to learn to share the ball with Irving, who was the Celtics’ primary playmaker during his abbreviated first year with the franchise. Hayward, of course, was the key offensive player when he was with the Utah Jazz. Can the two of them learn to start together or will his presence alter last season’s impeccable team chemistry? Will “too many good players” really end up being a fatal flaw?
Potential in-season moves
Ideally, the Celtics won’t have to make any. The team’s lack of moves during the offseason was less the result of failure on the front office’s part and more due to a lack of desire. If they make a major transaction, it’s only because they either have a chance to make a once-in-a-lifetime move (like their shock move to trade Isaiah Thomas for Kyrie Irving last year) or because something has gone terribly wrong. Theoretically, with Irving’s pledge to re-sign with Boston this summer, Terry Rozier is a potential in-season trade candidate, but we know how that has gone in the past.
Best case scenario
The Celtics run away with the Eastern Conference in the regular season, putting off some eye-popping win streaks and easily handle the competition in the Eastern Conference Finals. In the NBA Finals, they go head-to-head against the Golden State Warriors, who are missing an injured Steph Curry. Boston’s defense gets in Kevin Durant’s head and, despite a breakout series from a red-hot Klay Thompson, Boston pulls off the near-impossible by beating the Warriors in seven games.
Worst case scenario
Kyire Iving and Gordon Hayward struggle sharing the ball. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown take significant steps back. Al Horford shows his age. Their injury luck doesn’t improve. The Celtics have struggles scoring and the defense can’t make up the difference. They end up having to fight for the 4th-6th seed after the rest of the East turns out to be more dangerous than previously expected. Their first or second round opponent ends up stopping their season short of the conference finals. Irving turns heel and leaves the team despite his very public promise not to.
Regular season prediction
The C’s go 61-21 in the regular season, which is good enough for first place in the East. They dispatch either the Toronto Raptors or Philadelphia 76ers, but not before their opponent gives them a scare, in the Eastern Conference Finals. A valiant effort in the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors falls short, as Boston loses 4-2. “We’ll be better next year,” Marcus Smart says after his team’s Game 6 loss and, you know what, he ends up being right.