The Celtics open up the 2021-2022 season tonight, and if you’ve been living under a rock here’s a quick preview for the upcoming season.
Where We Left Off
In my 2020-2021 Post-Mortem, I outlined a few things that the Celtics needed to do in the offseason in order to set themselves up for success in 2021-2022 and beyond. At a high level, here is where I saw the biggest areas in need of improvement and priorities going into the offseason (in no particular order):
Second Unit Scoring
Finding a good head coach
Time Lord Extension
Move Tristian Thompson
Let’s be honest here: the Celtics were kind of a mess last season. The vibes were absolutely fucked. It seemed like there were significant concerns up and down the organization, and it felt like the way things ended last season they were left with only more questions than answers. However the Celtics made a few key moves in the offseason that addressed many of these concerns in one fell swoop.
The biggest development roster-wise was trading Kemba Walker and the 16th pick of the draft (which was later traded to Houston, who selected Turkish big man Alperen Sengun) to Oklahoma City in exchange for Al Horford, Moses Brown (later waived) and a future second round pick. This move kind of addressed much of the uncertainty and roster construction weaknesses all at once. Horford brings size, veteran leadership, and versatile playmaking to a team that was sorely lacking in all three last season. Whether or not Horford (age 35) has anything left in the tank is a legitimate question. However last season in OKC he was playing well enough where the team, who is openly tanking, decided to sit him after a mere 28 games. Horford projects to be a back up big guy at this point, and if they can get 20-25 good minutes out of him per game then I chalk that up as a win. Horford is also a fan favorite here in Boston, and I think I’m speaking for many when I saw we are glad to have him and his sister back in town. Also, let’s just face it; Kemba was not good last season. Box Score perverts will insist that 19 points per game on 48/36/90 splits is borderline elite. But if you actually watched any Celtics basketball you saw how relentlessly Kemba was hunted defensively. He was virtually unplayable at times. Couple that with the ascension of Tatum and Brown, and it became pretty apparent it wasn’t going to work out long term with Kemba. That being said, I’m glad he got to go to his preferred destination, where he will sure break the hearts of delusional Knicks fans who haven’t watched him play since the 2011 Big East tournament. God speed, Kemba.
The second big development in the offseason was the surprise exit of one Danny Ainge as general manager and the elevation of former head coach Brad Stevens to his former position. The Celtics head coaching search seemed to move pretty quickly and ultimately landed on Ime Udoka. Udoka spent six seasons in the D-League, Spain, and France before beginning his six year NBA career. He spent the final four seasons with San Antonio before joining their staff, where he served seven seasons before moving to the Sixers for a season. Most recently he was an assistant with the Brooklyn Nets. Udoka also served as an assistant under Gregg Popovic during his time as the head coach of USA Basketball, and reportedly developed a good relationship with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart during that time. Udoka seems to tick all the right boxes in terms of where this team is currently at and what it needs. He has a solid relationship with the most important players on the team, and he is going to bring a defensive-minded approach to a squad that was unmotivated on that end of the floor. Schematically it’s unclear as to how this team is going to function, but I’m willing to bet that much of the reason Stevens took such a shine to him was the Popovic pedigree of team oriented, ball movement heavy offense. Also, I’m just going to get this out there, but he is extremely handsome. That’s got to count for something?
Perhaps the most comical development of the offseason was the signing of Dennis Schroeder. Schroeder famously turned down a four year, $84 million extension with the Lakers prior to last season before putting in a lackluster effort in the 2020-2021 campaign. The Lakers let him walk, and there was little interest around the league in Schroeder’s services at his desired price point. Fortunately for the Celtics, they were able to take a flyer on him for a mere one year, $5.9 million deal. Schroeder is both a tantalizing talent and as mercurial as they come. He brings some much needed scoring firepower off the bench and will be able to lead the second unit no question. He also has a hilarious German accent and reminds me so much of Rajon Rondo it hurts. He should fit right in around here.
The Celtics also signed Marcus Smart and Robert Williams to long-term extensions. Personally, I was elated at the news they signed both these guys. Not just because I have the most impressive Marcus Smart rookie card collection on earth. Smart is in many ways the heart and soul of this team, and I think it’s important for the Celtics to show they are committed to him. Also, I think fans would have thrown Brad Stevens into the Charles River had his first official transaction been moving Smart. They also signed Williams to a pretty team friendly deal. Williams still has tremendous upside, and if he can take another leap this season they are going to be well positioned going forward.
The Celtics also made some moves around the margins. They traded Tristian Thompson to the Kings (thank god), Carsen Edwards to the Grizzlies, signed Josh Richardson (formerly of the Mavs), brought back Enes Kanter on a one year deal (YUCK), and traded for big man Juancho Hernangomez.
Alright, you are all caught up on the offseason. To the regular season and beyond!
It’s still sort of unclear where this team is going to be schematically. What really stuck out to me in the preseason is that this team wants to get up and down and that they are going to move the ball. For those reasons I see them skewing smaller and quicker. Here is where I see them landing as far as a rotation goes:
(One note: I’m not going to draw any positional distinction in these rotations because in my mind positions are dead.)
Marcus Smart, Josh Richardson, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Robert Williams
Dennis Schroeder, Al Horford, Payton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith, Juancho Hernangomez, Grant Williams, Romeo Langford
Bruno Fernando, Enes Kanter, Brodric Thomas, Sam Hauser (two-way)
Right off the bat, this team is already so far ahead of where last years team was in terms of talent and versatility. They have a great mix of veterans and young guys off the bench. They have scoring, they have shooting, they have size, and they have defenders.
I could also see the Celtics going big and inserting Horford or Hernangomez in at forward instead of Richardson. I suspect that Udoka and the Celtics are going to emphasize flexibility and mix and match their starters game to game, opponent to opponent.
What I’m Watching For
I think Rob Williams is going to be the X-factor for this team. His athleticism and defense bring an entirely new dimension of verticality to this team. And I still believe that he can be a lynchpin for this offense with his playmaking. I compared him to a longer, more raw version of Bam Adebayo in a piece a few years ago, and I think the new contract shows the Celtics see that too. I’m hoping Al will take him under his wing a little bit in that regard. Of course, the question with him is always going to be health. Every time he flies through the air to swat a shot I hold my breath. For someone who is so explosive I wouldn’t say he is a very fluid athlete. I dunno, maybe I’m splitting hairs. Also, this:
The Celtics basically got Juancho Hernangomez for nothing (aka Carsen Edwards) last offseason, and I think he might be a sneaky good pickup for this squad. He reminds me a ton of Daniel Theis, not just because he is a large tattooed European dude. Both are competent defenders and can stretch the floor offensively. Juancho can handle the ball a bit, and is definitely going to be an upgrade over Grant Williams. Hernangomez is also starring in the upcoming Netflix movie Hustle, alongside none other than Adam Sandler. The movie follows a struggling player agent (played by Sandler) who discovers an unknown talent in Hernangomez. I’m hoping this one is more Uncut Gems than Jack and Jill.
I can’t tell if Dennis Schroeder is actually a steal of a signing, or if all the other NBA teams were justified in being scared off. His bag fumbling is well-documented at this point even though he wasn’t terrible for LA last season. He seems like he’s been a little but humbled and is willing to accept a bench role and an opportunity to prove himself. Also, I just can’t not see Rajon Rondo in his game. Schroeder is like Rondo if he poured all his energy into scoring instead of accumulating triple-doubles.
This is basically a make-or-break season for Romeo Langford. He’s been unable to stay healthy in his three seasons in the league and has nearly been leapfrogged by Aaron Nesmith at the wing position. However he has had some flashes in the preseason that lead me to think he might win the job. He’s looking more confident with his jumpshot, including a nice game winner against the Magic, which will be crucial to him getting a larger share of minutes off the bench. Either way, more wing depth for this team means more versatility, and adding another competent wing to the mix is only going to pay dividends.
I am intrigued by the amount of pieces the Celtics have in the backcourt to play around with. They have a nice mix of defense (a lot of defense) and playmaking that no matter what combination they pair with Brown and Tatum should compliment them nicely. If they want to let Tatum and Brown initiate the offense, they can skew defense with Smart and Richardson. They can surround them with shooters with Smart and Pritchard. Or they can let Schroeder or Pritchard initiate the offense and take some of that scoring burden off.
Vegas clocks the Celtics at an over/under of 46.5 wins, which would leave them at 6th in the Eastern conference. I think I’m a little more bullish on the team. They are deep, well rested after their first round playoff exit, and have something to prove coming off such a disappointing season. I also think many of the teams coming in ahead of them have their own issues (I’ll get into this more during my larger NBA preview in the next week or so). I’m taking the over on this one. I think they’ll end up closer to 50 wins.
It’s no secret that this team is going to go as far as their two young stars will take them. However I think Jayson Tatum is poised for his breakout season. He probably would have been an All-NBA selection had he not missed such significant time due to COVID and it’s lasting effects. He put up two fifty burgers in the playoffs. He was probably the second best player on the gold medal USA Basketball team, behind Kevin Durant. Hell, Durant himself heaped praise on Tatum calling him “elite” and saying it was an “honor” to guard him in the playoffs. Tatum also noticeably changed his body, putting on a ton of muscle in the offseason. I say all that to say that +2500 odds on Tatum winning MVP seems like free money should he go off.
Best Case Scenario: The team overachieves for first year coach Ime Udoka and finishes third in the east. Tatum enters the top 10 in the NBA conversation. Jaylen takes another leap to All-NBA. Rob Williams stays health and blossoms into the two way force he can be. Schroeder plays like he deserves $84 million. The young guys take a leap and the Celtics can go 10 deep no problem. They lose in the second round to Brooklyn or Milwaukee in 7 games.
Worst Case Scenario: They can’t shake the bad vibes of last year. Udoka can’t get through to the new team. Tatum and Brown plateau. Rob Williams can’t stay healthy. The team is too talented to miss the playoffs, but they limp into the play-in tournament where they are easily dispatched by a young and hungry up-and-comer like Orlando or Indiana.