After a disappointing 1-3 preseason record, meaningful Celtics basketball is finally upon us. What an offseason it’s been, mostly consisting of waiting to finally see this roster as it was intended. So what can we expect from this healthy Celtics team as it’s assembled for the 2018-19 season? Below are the five biggest questions this season holds:
1. What are the limitations on Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward?
While this talented core took a LeBron James led Cavaliers team to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season without its two prized offseason acquisitions, it’s clear that a healthy Irving and Hayward are necessary for this team to reach its ceiling.
Irving was spectacular in the 60 games he did appear in last season, essentially averaging a 24-5-4 line in 32 minutes. Hayward was lost just five minutes into the season with a gruesome leg injury, but his All-Star level talent and versatility will be a welcomed skill set on both ends for Brad Stevens.
The question is, how healthy are both of these guys? Irving had some hardware removed from his knee in the offseason, dating back to a fractured knee cap suffered during the 2015 NBA Finals. Hayward, while close to fully recovered from his leg injury, has plenty of rust to shake off. Fortunately, this team clearly proved last postseason that it has the depth to cover for these guys.
While it might be frustrating at times, expect Stevens to go the conservative route with both players. Even if both are fortunate enough to endure injury-free seasons, it would be a surprise if each star wasn’t rested at least 12-15 games. That doesn’t mean this team can’t still earn the top seed in the East.
2. What’s Jayson Tatum’s ceiling?
The No. 3 overall pick in last summer’s NBA Draft immediately exceeded expectations, showing veteran polish to his game right from the start. Injuries thrusted Tatum into a larger role than anyone expected from the rookie, but he continued to prove capable of every challenge thrown in front of him.
Tatum’s 14 points and five boards per game during 80 regular season outings (all of which he started) turned out to be just an appetizer for what was to come in the postseason. Tatum was the Celtics’ best pure scorer in the playoffs, averaging 18.5 points, while also upping his playmaking skills with 2.7 assists.
Kyrie is the go-to guy on this team for now, but Tatum’s developments have most of us thinking it won’t be long before the C’s have two of the best scorers in the NBA. Tatum spent his summer working out with the likes of Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, so to answer the initial question, Jayson Tatum’s ceiling is as high as any young player in the NBA.
3. How valuable will a deep bench prove to be?
It’s wild to think that some of the very same players that were considered stars during last year’s postseason run will now transition to bench roles. The Celtics are crazy deep this season, and they know it.
Marcus Morris deemed the Celts’ bench “B.W.A.” on media day — Bench With Attitude — a nickname that’s sure to stick around all season. It’s far from just a catchy name, though. This is by far the fieriest bench the league has to offer.
Between Morris, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Aron Baynes, Stevens will be running at least nine deep every night. On top of that, young options like Semi Ojeleye, Guerschon Yabusele and Robert Williams will all be mixed in on nights Boston decides to rest some stars, and we can’t forget about the return of a healthy Daniel Theis. Not only will Irving and Hayward be able to have off-nights for their health, but veteran big man Al Horford should have the luxury of some rest as well.
Assuming the Celtics don’t have any serious health issues this season, the biggest issue with the bench could simply be Stevens finding enough minutes for all the talent he has.
4. Will Brad Stevens keep his foot on the gas in the regular season?
That last issue transitions right into this question, as this will be the first time Stevens is at the helm with the expectation being to win the Eastern Conference. Boston’s projected to win 58 games this season, and with that comes great expectations. Not only will Stevens have to manage the workload of players like Irving and Hayward, he’ll have to manage their egos as well. With the talent the rest of the starters have in Tatum, Horford and Jaylen Brown, combined with the best bench in the league, these two stars might not play as big a role as they think when the season begins.
This will be the most moving pieces Stevens will have to deal with in his NBA career, and how he decides to balance rest/egos/minutes/rotations during the regular season is going to be telling. Stevens has passed every test put in front of him entering his sixth season in Boston, now it’s time to see if he can drive the car to the finish line of the postseason rather than the regular season.
5. Will the Celtics break through to the NBA Finals?
While the Warriors are heavy favorites in Vegas to complete the three-peat, Boston’s a significant frontrunner to prevail in the East. Sure, the Sixers are an up-and-coming young team, but they don’t have the veteran star presence the Celtics do. The Raptors pushed all their chips to the middle of the table by swapping DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard, but that’s too much of an unknown at this time.
Of course, the major factor here is that LeBron went Hollywood on us and packed his bags for L.A. That means that a non-LeBron team will represent the East in the NBA Finals for the first time since the 2010 Celtics lost to the Lakers in seven games.
One look at the landscape of the league and the firepower of this lineup makes the answer easy. The Boston Celtics are headed to the 2019 NBA Finals.