Celtics season preview: Are they better or worse without Brad Stevens?

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·6 min read
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The Boston Celtics were mediocre last season but look to turn things around with a new coach in Ime Udoka replacing Brad Stevens.

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, together, arguably compose one of the duos in the league. Both are incredibly strong scorers and have the ability to take the Celtics deep into the postseason in any given year. But after several significant changes along the periphery to their roster, will they have enough components necessary for a title run?

Below, check out our preview for the 2021-22 Celtics campaign.

Roster changes

Al Horford, Oklahoma City Thunder
Al Horford, Oklahoma City Thunder

Returning: Jaylen Brown, Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith, Jabari Parker, Payton Pritchard, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Grant Williams and Robert Williams

Additions: Al Horford (Oklahoma City), Josh Richardson (Dallas), Juan Hernangomez (Minnesota), Dennis Schroeder (LA Lakers), Enes Kanter (Portland), Ryan Arcidiacono (Chicago), Bruno Fernando (Atlanta), Theo Pinson (New York), Juwan Morgan (Utah), Garrison Matthews (Washington) and Sam Hauser (Virginia)

Departures: Kemba Walker (New York), Evan Fournier (New York), Tristan Thompson (Sacramento), Semi Ojeleye (Milwaukee), Tacko Fall (Cleveland), Tremont Waiters (Milwaukee), Luke Kornet and Carsen Edwards

Strengths

* They’re still incredibly young… It feels like we’ve been talking about this forever. But both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are two of the best in the league when it comes to guys who are under 25 years old. To put this into necessary perspective, Tatum is currently the same age as Sacramento Kings rookie guard Davion Mitchell while Brown is the same age as first-year Indiana Pacers wing Chris Duarte. Tatum and Brown, however, already have a combined nine years of professional experience. That will obviously be invaluable when it comes to learning from their mistakes earlier in their careers. But they are both still developing and have young legs.

* They can create their own shot… Boston averaged 20.7 points per game on their jump shots taken off the dribble, per Synergy, which ranked as the best mark in the Eastern Conference. Kyrie Irving is the only player in the conference who outscored Tatum on these opportunities. The Celtics also connected on 5.0 pull-up three-pointers per game, via NBA.com, which was the highest among all teams in the East as well. Although they lost two players (Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier) who were able to create for themselves off the bounce, they should still thrive off Tatum’s presence alone.

* Boston was excellent at second-chance opportunities… Last season, per 100 possessions, the Celtics averaged 11.7 second-chance opportunities. That trailed just the New Orleans Pelicans for the most in the league, according to PBPStats. Their overall offensive rebound percentage (28.9 percent) was the best in the East. Next season, this could be even higher as they will have Enes Kanter return to their rotation. Kanter has recorded an offensive rebound percentage that has ranked in the 95th percentile or better in each of the past seven seasons, via Cleaning the Glass. He leads all players in second-chance points per 100 possessions (14.08) since the big man first entered the NBA in 2011-12.

* A new head coach could give them a new spark… Udoka has spoken about bringing the “dog” mentality out of all the players on his roster. That should resonate well with guys like Marcus Smart, who is one of the toughest players in the league. Udoka is known for accountability and that should be crucial for a team that felt, at times, complacent.

Weaknesses

Robert Williams fighting for a rebound
Robert Williams fighting for a rebound

* Boston didn’t play well when it mattered most… For only the first time since Stevens’ first year as an NBA coach in 2013, Boston had a negative point differential in “clutch” minutes. The Celtics were actually outscored by 57 points during clutch minutes this past season, which was the second-worst mark in the NBA and the worst in the East. Meanwhile, their effective field goal percentage in clutch minutes ranked fourth-worst in the NBA. When the games were close, it ended in a loss more often than not.

* They need to play more team basketball… Perhaps it was because the Celtics had a lot of guys who could create their own basket, as mentioned earlier. But the Celtics averaged just 23.5 assists per game this past season, which ranked as the third-worst mark in the East. Tatum, Brown and even Robert Williams are all above-average playmakers for their position. But otherwise, Boston is lacking an offensive floor general who is capable of anchoring their attack. Smart can hold his own as a one but is closer to a secondary playmaker than a true point. The same truth applies to Dennis Schroeder, who Boston acquired via free agency. Unless second-year guard Payton Pritchard takes a massive leap forward as a facilitator, this could remain a problem.

* Boston is a bit small in the frontcourt… Although he is an undeniably elite rim protector, thanks in no small part due to his massive wingspan, Celtics big man Robert Williams is only 6-foot-8. His frontcourt counterpart, Juan Hernangomez, is only 6-foot-9. Veteran big Al Horford is 6-foot-9. Grant Williams, who may not get a ton of minutes but will play in the frontcourt when he is on the floor, stands at 6-foot-6. While there is nothing wrong with playing small, it may be a bit of a hindrance when they play against elite bigs like Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Anthony Davis.

Depth Chart

Possible moves

* The Celtics are primed to make a major trade or two after a busy offseason filled with extensions. They are now set to operate over the cap in the near future so any significant upgrade will have to come via trade. They have a $17.1 million, $9.7 million, and a $5.1 million trade exception they can use to upgrade their roster now. Those may be reserved for next offseason as they already have a deep roster and sit $6.8 million over the luxury tax. They have adequate salary filler to make trades this season in Al Horford ($27 million), Josh Richardson ($11.6 million),and Juancho Hernangomez ($7 million). They also have several recent first-round picks earning decently sized salaries who can be included in trades.

* The Celtics were rumored to be Bradley Beal suitors in 2022 free agency, but if such a player were to become available, they’ll have to acquire him via trade. Along with the adequate salary-filler, they can offer a combination of up to four first-round picks, former first-round picks such as Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard, and Marcus Smart. Smart becomes trade-eligible starting on January 25, 2022, which is when his veteran extension trade restriction expires. They can also offer Robert Williams, but any trade involving him this season is complicated by the poison-pill provision having just signed a rookie-scale extension.

* Boston sits with a full 15-man roster after trading Kris Dunn and Carsen Edwards for Hernangomez. Jabari Parker’s $2.3 million salary is only guaranteed for $100,000 and becomes 50 percent guaranteed on opening night. The Celtics could waive him to reduce their payroll and keep the 15th roster spot open in the meanwhile. They also still have a two-way spot open which could go to one of their camp-invites such as Juwan Morgan or Garrison Mathews.

– Yossi Gozlan

Salaries

Prediction

3rd in the Atlantic Division, 6th in the Eastern Conference

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