2018-19 Boston Celtics
Projected Record: 60-22 (1st in East)
2016: 55-27 (2nd in East)
- Robert Williams (Pick #27)
- Brad Wanamaker (Free Agency)
- Shane Larkin
- Abdel Nader
- Rodney Purvis
- Explosive offensive upside
- Immense roster versatility
- One of the two- or three-best starting lineups in basketball
- Hayward needs time to get back into shape
- Player roles will be difficult to juggle
- Defense could regress
The obvious summation of the 2018-19 Celtics is that they’re functionally adding two All-Stars to a team of youngsters that made the Eastern Conference Finals without either. Kyrie Irving is once again healthy after a pair of clean-up surgeries on the knee he shattered in the 2015 Finals, and Gordon Hayward will make his return from the dramatic broken leg that ended his 2017-18 season on the day it began.
It’s not that simple of a calculus, of course. Hayward has a full year’s rust to work off, and his reintegration will be an adjustment for Tatum and Brown, who prospered in greater roles in his absence. The Celtics will play small much more frequently, mirroring Golden State’s vaunted “Death Lineup,” but this comes at the cost of some minutes to defensive depth pieces like Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis, and Al Horford will spend more time playing the five, which comes with an added physical toll. Deciding on what group closes out each game will be like playing four-dimensional chess.
And yet, the Celtics are ready. Hayward’s injury was a setback, but the plan was always in place. They’ll trot out the exact same starting lineup against Philadelphia this week that they did in that fateful opener against Cleveland last year. Brad Stevens has established himself as one of the premier coaches in the league by routinely taking flawed or injured rosters and guiding them above any realistic ceiling. Now, he has the most talent he’s ever managed in his career, and all of it, finally, is healthy.
These Celtics are deep and versatile, experienced and confident. Every hardship they faced last season, they overcame with flying colors — and there were many of them. Tatum and Brown erupted in the absence of Hayward. Terry Rozier made his mark as a starting point guard as Irving and Marcus Smart went down within mere days of one another. Aron Baynes went from afterthought depth signing to an anchor of one of the NBA’s best defenses. Second-round rookie Semi Ojeleye bodied up against the formidable Giannis Antetokounmpo in the first round of the playoffs. To cap it all off, Tatum dunked on LeBron James in a tight fourth quarter in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Anything can happen in the NBA. Gordon Hayward’s leg broke the very day after I published this preview last year. Perhaps the greatest advantage the Celtics have, though, is that they’ve already been there. Once you’ve lost both of your star players for the better part of a season, it’s hard to imagine how things could go more poorly than that. No matter what, though, the Celtics are prepared.
Knocks furiously on wood.
Most Valuable Player: Kyrie Irving
Kyrie Irving was the recipient of some MVP consideration last season, and while I don’t think he would have ultimately taken home the award if he remained healthy, it was indicative of just how good he was in his debut season in Boston. Now, after his very public commitment to remain in Boston for the long-run, Celtics fans get to look forward to just how good he can become.
I believe quite strongly that this will be the healthiest we’ve seen Irving in some time — perhaps ever. Concerns about his knee have been a little overblown. The two surgeries he underwent last season were clean-up procedures related to his fractured kneecap in the 2015 Finals — procedures he was always going to need — and it was an infection in that knee that would ultimately end his season. Though Irving will likely always be the kind of player who misses time with nagging injuries, the knee won’t be a problem again; based on the information we have, his knee is structurally as healthy as ever.
What that leaves us with, then, is a version of Irving free of knee soreness for the first time in years, fresh of the most dominant season of his career. He flirted with a 50-40-90 season on a career-high 31% usage rate, leading the Celtics through a seemingly endless series of wild fourth-quarter comebacks. Inside the arc, he made a career-best 54% of his two-pointers, including a 65% conversion rate at the rim that beat his previous-best by a whole 4%. He didn’t necessarily change who he was as a player — he was simply better at then he’s ever been.
I don’t think Irving takes home the MVP award this season, but a top-three finish is entirely possible. The Celtics are going to win a ton of games, and Irving will be in the middle of it all. Those are the kinds of players who will always get MVP buzz. Boston is as loaded as it’s ever been, and it’s possible Irving’s raw numbers take a bit of a hit, but when it comes down to the wire, the ball will be in Irving’s very-capable hands — hopefully, for the foreseeable future.
X Factor: Gordon Hayward
I’m not sure it’s possible to draw up a more dramatic and unfortunate way for Hayward to begin his Boston career.
Where Hayward was actually my pick for team MVP last season, he’s now in the position of needing to prove himself. His return to NBA basketball this preseason was welcome — and also illustrated how far he still has to go. Jumpers weren’t falling, drives were uncertain, defensive rotations were late; Hayward simply looked rusty. For someone who hasn’t played in over a year, this is not unexpected. It will take time.
How long it takes matters for Hayward and the Celtics. His reintroduction is not just about his individual play — it also affects both Tatum and Brown, too. The wing trio will have to adjust to playing together, and balancing responsibility between the three of them will take practice. That becomes more difficult while Hayward is so rusty.
April is the most important thing for Boston, in the grand scheme of things, but the regular season still matters. Toronto and Philadelphia will be clamoring just as hard for the East’s top overall seed, and Milwaukee and Indiana are no slouches. The sooner Hayward gets back to his old self, the better.
Don’t Forget About: Terry Rozier
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Terry Rozier was the breakthrough star of the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs, not just for the Celtics, but for the entire league.
Consider the situation. Kyrie Irving had knee surgery in March, and would not return for the year. Just days later, Marcus Smart would injure his thumb, and would not return until the second game of the first round series against Milwaukee. Even reserve bench guard Shane Larkin would be in and out of the lineup with nagging injuries. Suddenly, after a season spent largely as the backup two-guard, Rozier was the only point guard the Celtics had.
And he thrived in the opportunity. In the playoffs, Rozier averaged 16 points, five rebounds and five assists, playing a whopping 36 minutes per game. He turned the ball over only 22 times in 19 games. He smothered guards like Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe, befriending the former Patriots quarterback of the same last name in the process and all-around absorbed the spotlight.
This is likely Rozier’s last season as a Celtic. He has great chemistry with this roster and genuinely seems to enjoy playing in Boston, but those playoffs proved he deserves to be a starting guard in the NBA, somewhere. If Kyrie Irving sticks around for the indefinite future, Rozier just won’t receive that opportunity while he wears a green jersey. Danny Ainge knows this, and rather than trading him, the Celtics are riding it out for one more season with all hands on deck. Hard decisions will come in the future, but right now, Rozier is one of Boston’s many secret weapons.
The Celtics are going to be good. Possibly very good. Probably not quite good enough, but it’s also feasible that they could be. Such is life for teams in the Curry-Durant Warriors Era.
The team has both high-end talent and quality depth in every role. Aside from injuries – or poor recoveries from injuries – that depth may be the only real threat to how good of a team this can be. With players like Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris looking at cuts in their minutes and shots just as they enter free agency, it’s conceivable that the team chemistry could break down and lead to issues. This is a very different challenge facing Brad Stevens than what he’s had in the past.
“Too much talent” is the absolute best kind of problem in any sports league, though. The most likely outcome of this season is that at least three of the “Closing Five” of Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum play their way into the All Star Game as the team wins a bunch and challenges Toronto for regular season supremacy. Something in the 54-64 win range seems reasonable.
More importantly, this is a team built for the playoffs. We’ve seen that versatile teams with no obvious points of attack (or ones having LeBron James) control recent NBA post-seasons. In a playoff series, what are the soft spots that opponents can target on this team? Kyrie isn’t a “good” defender, but he is 6’4” and has shown the ability to step up his effort when the time comes. LeBron James targeted Terry Rozier in switches, but LeBron is in Los Angeles now and Rozier is going back to a reserve role. Marcus Smart can’t make shots, but his willingness to take them means that he still gets defended. Even Aron Baynes was able to switch onto Giannis and bomb threes over Joel Embiid. The Celtics simply don’t have the types of weaknesses that can derail an otherwise winnable playoff series.
That being the case, the Celtics should enter the postseason as the one- or two-seed with an expectation of returning to the Conference Finals. Anything less would be a significant disappointment. The goal of this team is clearly to make the Finals. If they get there and lose, that would be a success. Getting there and winning… it’s at least on the table.
Ryan Hebert, Riffs Man (@HebertofRiffs)
Lots of writers go into a season preview with educated guesses, founded on the basis of past statistical performance and realistic expectation of improvement, which they heavily hedge on realistic circumstances which may present themselves during the course of a season. They will tell you that Jaylen and Jayson have the potential to break out, that Kyrie and Gordon’s numbers will be sacrificed for the betterment of the team and that Brad has the most challenging year of his career ahead of him with so many talented players deserving playing time and needing to produce statistically to secure future contracts. This style of analysis is Pure Cowardice.
As the prophet who saw the Harden/Smart Double Gamebreaker Flop occurring 20 minutes before it happened in real life and predicted Robertwilliam being drafted by the Celtics a year and a half before it occurred and that he would tank his workouts by Being Cool during the NCAA Scam Tournament, my place in history is secured as a Seer of Insanely Cool Deeds as they pertain to the Boston Celtics.
I could retire today and make the Basketball Online as Hell HOF. But the Riffs Man did not get in the game for accolades. I will live by The Posters Gambit and I will eventually die after being kidnapped and executed by Sixers Fans because of The Posters Gambit. As such, I’m here to tell you what WILL happen this season and I’m only focusing on the truly important aspects of the game. None of the superfluous elements like stats and wins; the vice of Scoundrels, who use them to fill the void of their uncool existence as they post things like, “Actually KD has better stats and isn’t Insanely Mad and jealous of Yabusele’s Innate Joy” at 15 year old Twitter user @GundamSmarf420. Instead I will lay it all on the line and tell you the Two Coolest Events yet to come in the 2018-19 Celtics Season.
1.) Marcusmorris ejected on opening night under dubious circumstances, finds Justice in his pursuit of the Truth
Mook has had, historically, a colorful track record with NBA officials. Some have been misinterpreted gestures of encouragement, other incidents he’s accused them of conspiratorial activities, and in some circumstances he just went all out to hammer a ref into the stands. All of it is objectively Cool and he has always been in the right, but the refs cannot handle objective criticism and as such seek to silence the Great Hero of Our Times
On opening night, Mook will be ejected for screaming at a wide open Bensimmon, who has the ball above the break. A video will emerge in which he can be interpreted to say “Shoot a Three, Coward”, which will cause a rumble. He will be suspended for this infraction in a seemingly open and shut case, and they will try to throw the book at him, which is especially insulting given his longstanding feud with The Nerds. All hope will seem lost.
But in dark times, a group of select, Brave Grifters often rise to the occasion to manage their public image in a way that appears heroic and, dammit, that’s Good Enough for the Riffs Man in 2018.
Former Celtic Amirjohnson and Elite Law Man Michaelavenatti will expose the truth that the NBA deep state is embedded in the Sixers FO, and that they colluded to Doctor and distribute a fight video via a Colangelo burner account to have Mook saying “shoot a three coward” when in fact he said “Shoot a three, it’s the most important shot in the current landscape of the modern NBA”. Michaelavenatti, using his elite knowledge of Posting and Basic Literacy of Terms Used In Small Claims Court, will expose the Ruse in cooperation with Amir, who chooses the path of light and becomes a whistle blower after Jerrycolangelo accidentally texts him “I Love to do NBACrimes, and store all the evidence in an easily accessible folder in my office”, a message meant for his son Bryan, who posted the doctored video
As such, Mooks suspension will be overturned, the refs will resign in Disgrace and the Sixers punishment for such foul deeds is that they will be legally bound to always having a Colangelo in their front office for some reason.
2.) Smarf Finals MVP against Rockets
This is a mere matter of cosmic justice. The rockets intelligently assembled a team with two historically efficient guards who still grift for fouls even when they don’t need to, often abandoning the play of basketball in pursuit of movements that defy the rules of kinesiology and basic human decency. They do not need to do this, yet they do it. It is Evil. And the great spirits of Sport know this.
As such, in the defining moments of their career, they will be smashed by a man who does need to grift, because he shoots like 10% from the field, and does it better than they could ever hope to. With the spirit of championship grifters past like Dennisrodman and the ethics of a Houstonian Enron Executive, Smart will vanquish the bad men from the court of champions.
Smart will draw an off ball flagrant on a harden elbow after accidentally making more free throws he wanted to miss, highlighted by the loss of teeth that he had actually pulled out with pliers before the game and held on to as an In Case of Emergency fallback plan. All of their lives and careers have been building toward this moment and it will come to pass. Unless it doesn’t. In which case I will have the records wiped like the Bad Draft Analysis Man, and will be covered up by whatever insane thing happens that happens everyday that makes it impossible to remember anything.
Either way, it’ll be,, Cool