This Tuesday’s matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers marks the beginning of the most anticipated Boston Celtics season since the big-three assembled in 2007.
Last season, their young roster made an unexpected run to the Eastern Conference finals after losing both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to season-ending injuries. Boston wants to continue that momentum into 2018-19, considering they’re the odds-on favorite to win the East.
Hayward is returning, Jayson Tatum is blossoming and Irving is ready to be unleashed like a sports car just taken out of the driveway for the first time in a few months.
Expect Irving to be in-the-mix for MVP
Kyrie is the best player to put on a Celtic jersey since Paul Pierce. Before a knee injury that forced the 26-year-old to miss the remainder of the 2018 season, Irving was an all-star game starter, and in the conversation as a top-five MVP candidate.
Other than Hayward, this Celtic roster is almost identical on paper to last season. And yet, it’s completely different.
Tatum, Brown and Rozier are now established offensive weapons and are a bigger part of the offensive gameplan.
With the inevitable rise of Tatum and the return of Hayward, the pieces of the pie on offense are a bit smaller than what they were last season. This puts Irving in a position to unleash a new weapon: his playmaking ability.
He’d shown flashes of it last season, but the Houdini-like ball-handler isn’t considered one of the NBA’s elite when it comes to making his teammates better.
Perhaps Irving’s individual stats may take a very slight dip this year, but expect his (already impressive) offensive efficiency to go up.
The NBA MVP award is all about narratives, That’s why Russell Westbrook’s triple-doubles were more important in 2017 than they were last season. In 2018, it was Harden’s turn, even though his previous season was just as impressive, if not more.
And the Celtics are the media-darling of the league; you’d be hard-pressed to find an NBA reporter with anything bad to say about the team’s General Manager Danny Ainge, their Head Coach Brad Stevens, or the slew of valuable assets they’ve accumulated in recent years.
With Irving, the narrative is there and the talent is there as well. If Boston has a great regular-season, he will be an MVP finalist.
Gordon Hayward is Boston’s biggest question mark
Although the 28-year-old forward has made a full recovery from his injury, there’s uncertainty about what caliber of a player he will be for the Celtics.
He’s looked fine in the preseason, but both Hayward and the organization have made it clear that his return is not a completed process. It’ll take time for to gain most of his confidence back, whether that be with his body or his mind.
According to Stevens, Hayward will only play 25 minutes on opening night.
By the time Hayward gets in a groove, it may be too late, and that’s the problem. One of the forwards in the trio (Brown, Hayward, and Tatum) has to become the odd-man out.
Sure, they’ll all likely play in the closing minutes of games, but the longer it takes for Hayward to return to peak-form, the harder it will be to unleash him when he’s finally ready for it. By then, Tatum and Brown may have cemented their roles as the main offensive forwards.
He’s an underrated talent in the league, but on a roster this deep, someone usually has to take the fall. Hayward is still in range to score 15-20 points-per-game and be an all-star candidate, but that doesn’t mean that he’ll be the Robin to Irving’s Batman like was initially planned.
That being said, if Stevens unlocks a new level to Haywards game, and forward actually returns better than he was before, the Celtics will be a legitimate threat to the Golden State Warriors in June.
Tatum is the main attraction
When the 20-year-old rookie cocked-back and dunked on LeBron James in the conference finals, all of Boston believed that moment would end up alongside Larry Bird’s inbound steal and other seminal moments in Celtics history.
While there were some low points during his rookie season, Tatum established himself in the playoffs. He was the best offensive player on a team that was minutes away from reaching the NBA finals. Not even Donovan Mitchell (the only player arguably more promising than Tatum) can say he did that.
Tatum is already more polished than 90 percent of the league, and he’s not even old enough to take a sip of alcohol legally.
There were moments last season where Tatum looked like a baby deer just learning how to walk on one play, and a crafty 10-year veteran the next time down the floor.
He still averaged 14 points-per-game on 48 percent shooting and rose to the occasion in the playoffs by averaging 19 points-per-game.
Even though Irving’s acrobatic off-hand finishes will be enough to lure fans in, Tatum’s growth is what the die-hards are there to see.
The final verdict: 65-17 regular season record; defeated in the NBA finals
It’s hard to buy into any scenario (assuming there are no catastrophic injuries) where the Celtics don’t finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Logically, the same lineup that almost made it to the finals has upgraded at 4/5 starting positions (assuming Tatum and Brown improve). And to top it off, their biggest nemesis — LeBron James — has finally left for greener pastures in Los Angeles.
All signs are pointing towards a successful Celtic season. The question is, how successful?
While the Toronto Raptors, led by Kawhi Leonard, are the most obvious threat, the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks are lurking close behind.
Banking on a 65-win season is essentially a bet that nothing will go wrong with this team. That’s a safe assumption, and not just because their stars are well-equipped to carry the load.
Boston’s bench unit is so deep that they don’t need to rely on their starters to win on a nightly basis. Considering they have the best starting five in the conference, and also the best coach in the league, that’s a scary fact for any challenging teams in the East.