After stifling the Philadelphia 76ers 105–87 on Tuesday night, the Boston Celtics season is officially 1/82nd complete. The consensus top team in the Eastern Conference, Boston’s entire roster will be on display as the return to the parquet. Gordon Hayward will start the season on a minutes restriction, building up his stamina and mobility over the first month or two.
Here’s my Celtics season brainstorm/preview/dialogue with international hoops writer and fellow NBA-obsessed Boston native Noah Perkins.
Celtics Depth: Unfathomable
NP: The depth of this Celtics team is Havlicek-ian; Walton-esque; Nelsonian; Posey-like.
The four greatest Celtics teams — 08, 86, 74, 63 — had bench-beef enough to intimidate Bill ‘the Butcher’ Cutting and his xenophobic glass eye.
Rozier, Smart, Morris and Baynes starting is a playoff team in the Junior Varsity east. Forgive my hyperbole but on paper this team is one of the greatest Celtics teams ever assembled. Now, would I ever compare them to 86, 08, or Russell? No. But a Finals win over the Warriors — the greatest Finals foe any Celtics team will have ever played counts for something.
LeBron in Purple and Gold
NP: When LeBron signed with the Lakers, I was slightly disappointed because I don’t particularly want Lavar Ball dominating NBA discourse this year and I thought his best shot at a championship was in Philadelphia. I think pretty much everybody expected him to go to the Lakers.
JH: When LeBron signed with the Lakers, I was relieved. For the last eight years, I’ve spent every April and May hoping a team might dethrone the King and create some genuine suspense on the East side of the playoff bracket. After eight consecutive Finals’ appearances, the May 2019 Eastern Conference Finals will take place without LeBron.
This gives Kawhi and Kyle Lowry, Giannis and Middleton, Embiid and Simmons, and of course the Celtics an opening. Last year’s Cavs-Pacers series was yet another in the long line of near-upsets that ended with LeBron proving he is the best player on the planet. I was relieved that he left…but on the other hand, I was disappointed. This new-look Celtics team beating LeBron’s Cavs would have been cathartic after all those years. Barring a trade, the Lakers will be more interesting in next year’s playoffs than they will be this year.
The East is now…
NP: Kind of like the movie poster for the 1988 film ‘Twins’ starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. In the poster, both men, wearing fabulously 80s tan suits, tinted shades and hideous checkered shirts stand side by side. Arnold towers over DeVito, who leans left, cresting his head against Schwarzenegger’s shoulder. The discrepancy in size between the two highlighted to the absurd. The Celtics are Arnold, the Raptors DeVito.
JH: The East is now five-teams deep…which is more than we could say for the last few years. If Jimmy Butler ends up in Miami, that’d make six. If you believe in the best versions of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter, that’d make seven. For the Wiz to be more than good, that would also mean Dwight Howard resurrecting his career. Howard’s game crested in his mid-to-late 20s, when he could have dunked on 12-foot rims. Now, he’s a paper-mache version of himself, stuck in a modern NBA where stretch bigs abound. It would be a better-look for the conference if Charlotte and Detroit both get to 40 wins. Cringe-worthy to see a 38 or 39-win playoff team. The Magic and Nets are both capable of 40 wins if everyone hits, but that would require some Steve Clifford hocus-pocus in Orlando and the Nets are one-major-free-agent signing (look out next summer) away from competing.
As a Celtics fan, I’m most concerned about the Raptors because of their defensive potential, and Kawhi’s ceiling. Also, don’t underestimate the mighty-pint Fred VanVleet, who is wily and fearless, like a stockier version of Sam Cassell.
I’m also expecting Budenholzer unleashing Giannis on the league in ways his previous coaches never did. More experience, more strength, and more spacing are all bonuses for a player that was already nearly impossible to keep from the rim.
The Sixers will be defensively dominant, but its too early to anoint them and Markelle Fultz will need seasoning and minutes to get comfy offensively.
Top Seed in East VS Health
JH: Hopefully Brad Stevens will not have to weigh potential top seeding with health concerns. After watching last year’s playoffs, Boston’s playoff outlook might be less contingent on Kyrie’s knee being 100% than we might have thought, but he’s still the most dynamic creator on the team, and probably in the East.
NP: Let’s remember the 2018 Cavs: seeding doesn’t matter. Teen Wolf, Porky, Marlon Wayans, Tommy Shepard and the ferret faced nasal voiced guy from Princess Bride could backslide into 65 wins in the east. All that matters for the Celtics is staying healthy.
Will we see Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris in Celtics uniforms come April?
NP: Well, Rozier’s stock is pretty damn high right now, and those familiar with hoops abroad know Wanamaker can play. It’s a coin-flip. With Kyrie coming off an injury, I imagine they keep Rozier and let the chips fall as they may after the season.
Depth is depth. Even if Morris is only playing 15 minutes a night, how does the team get better by inserting somebody else for those 15 minutes? He’s obviously the most expendable player in the rotation, but what’s the point?Morris brings that street-level toughness to the team, and in the playoffs, you need that.
JH: One of the concerns should be Rozier trying too hard to fill it up because of his impending payday. Unless we see injuries to Kyrie/Smart/Jaylen, it’s likely Rozier is limited to only 20–25 minutes a night. Will his frustration grow as the season unfolds? He knows he’s capable of starting for 8-10 NBA teams. I hope he stays encouraged and patient, because he is a huge x-factor off the bench against the best defenses.
The Morris situation is clearer, in that the Celtics could avoid the luxury tax by dumping his salary. Agreed that his shooting and defensive moxie are well worth it, but teams often try to avoid becoming repeat luxury tax payers, and the Celtics are about to extend Brown and then Tatum.
I’m curious to see how Brad Stevens…
NP: …manages boredom and complacency. We’ve seen the Warriors deal with nagging boredom over a long season in a league without competition. Can wunderkind Brad keep this team engaged for six months? A sleepwalking Celtics team is ripe for the picking in the playoffs against the angry 76ers or the blitzing Raptors.
JH: Solid points. The season should be 70 games. We know enough about health, recuperation time and air travel to shorten the season by at least a dozen games, but the six home games lost per team becomes a no-compromise situation for the owners. Stevens will go the Popovich route and rest multiple players over various stress-points in the schedule. Possible issues he’ll need to deal with include Rozier’s minutes/free-agency dilemma and Hayward’s gradual acclimation back into the spotlight.
The Celtics will win ____ regular season games.
NP: 65 — two shy of the ‘86 team, one fewer than ‘08.
JH: 59 — Stevens holds back and rests multiple starters for a week before the All-Star Break and again over the last two weeks of the regular season, causing the team to dip below 60 wins, but retain the top seed.
Will this year be the Celtics best shot at a title in the next four years?
NP: I suppose if Dwight Howard reinvents himself at 35 as a step back three-point assassin and the Wizards can use that to lure Jimmy Butler to the DMV, that would be problematic. The Celtics probably lose some depth this off-season but retain their starting unit. Kawhi leaves the East. At some point Giannis leaves the East.
Unless the NBA realigns conferences, the Celtics should be in the Finals the next few seasons. Are they good enough to beat a Western Conference team in seven? Maybe after all these years of Anthony Davis rumors they actually land him in 2021.
JH: I’m not sure. This will likely be their deepest team, with the salary situation on the horizon, which would bode well for a Finals appearance…but the Warriors are still the Warriors, and now they’ve added Cousins, which (if he manages to regain even 80% of health) makes their potential starting-five absolutely insane. Seems very possible that Golden State loses Durant after this year just because he wants out of the a new challenge and they’ll automatically keep Klay and have to extend Steph and Draymond. Quite simply, the Celtics have a better shot at a title when/if Durant leaves the Bay Area.
That said, if the Sixers stay healthy, Philadelphia will keep improving each year over the next four. Kawhi’s season with Toronto and upcoming free-agency could make-or-break the Raptors future.
I’m not sure Giannis leaves Milwaukee, despite their small-market. All indications are that he’s not interested in celebrity.