The Boston Celtics look drastically different going into the 2017-18 NBA season. But are they better?
That’s really the only question that matters, as Boston’s busy offseason won’t mean much unless the Celtics ultimately improve upon last season’s Eastern Conference finals appearance with their new core, which includes Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
It’s impossible to answer that all-encompassing question right now, though, so let’s examine seven other questions facing Boston as the team starts training camp Tuesday in Newport, R.I.
1 . Is Kyrie Irving ready to be the go-to guy?
You know the deal by now. Irving wanted out of Cleveland because he no longer wanted to play second fiddle to LeBron James. Instead, Irving wants to be the top dog, and he’ll have that opportunity with the Celtics, who parted with Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 first-round pick and the Miami Heat’s 2020 second-round pick to land the four-time All-Star.
That said, opportunity hardly guarantees success. And while Irving is incredibly talented, life in the Eastern Conference can be tricky without James, who’s still the best player on the planet. This season will go a long way toward seeing whether Irving is up to the challenge of being the guy, both on and off the court, for a team with NBA Finals aspirations.
2 . Can Gordon Hayward handle the pressure?
Hayward has been the guy on a playoff team, as the Utah Jazz snapped a four-year playoff drought last season, even defeating the Los Angeles Clippers in seven games to advance to the second round. But there’s a difference between being the leading scorer on a middle-of-the-pack playoff team in Utah and being a focal point for the most historic franchise in NBA history.
There’s a certain level of pressure that comes with playing in Boston — in any sport — and some thrive under the bright lights while others flop. It’s time to see what Hayward is made of, as the Celtics went above and beyond to sign him to a max contract in free agency, thinking he could be a piece that catapults them past Cleveland in the East.
3. Who starts at shooting guard?
Amazingly, Marcus Smart is the longest-tenured Celtic. He also lost 20 pounds over the offseason, something he suggests will make him quicker and more explosive. But Smart’s defensive toughness has proven extremely valuable off the bench. And Jaylen Brown’s superior offensive upside could be too tantalizing to pass up, especially if the second-year pro builds on his solid rookie season. Training camp and preseason could go a long way toward determining who starts at the two-guard come Opening Night.
4. What should we reasonably expect from Jayson Tatum?
Don’t expect Tatum, the third overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, to burst onto the scene en route to Rookie of the Year honors. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge even acknowledged the unlikelihood of that happening in a recent interview with The Boston Globe.
“I think Terry (Rozier) and Marcus (Smart) are really ready to step up,” Ainge told The Globe. “And Jayson and Jaylen we can be a little bit more patient with, but they are going to play an important role.”
“We’ll see what minutes (Tatum) will earn. I’m not worried about how they will play when the lights go on. It will be unlikely that Jayson is Rookie of the Year because it will probably come from a team that starts their rookies and plays them 35 minutes per night.”
Tatum will be eased into things, which is a luxury the Celtics have because of the talent on their roster. But he’ll get his chances, especially if he takes advantage of his opportunities early in the season. It’s fair to wonder how long it’ll be before Tatum is seen as a possible go-to scorer off the bench.
5. How will the front court look?
The Celtics are loaded on the wing, and head coach Brad Stevens could opt to play a lot of small ball this season. It’ll be interesting to see how Stevens assembles his front court out of the gate, though. He could go small early and often, with Al Horford at center, where he thrived in the playoffs, and Marcus Morris (or someone else) at power forward. Or he could go with Horford at the four and start Aron Baynes at the five, much like he did with Amir Johnson for much of last season.
6. Can everyone finally appreciate Al Horford?
Speaking of Horford, it’s time for all Celtics fans to recognize the importance of signing the four-time All-Star to a four-year, $113 million contract before last season. Not only is he a good basketball player. But he also is a natural leader who bucked a longstanding trend by signing with Boston, once considered a less-than-desirable destination for free agents.
Others now are following, with Hayward even pointing out Monday that Horford played a key role in recruiting him to the Celtics this summer. As one of just four players returning from last season’s Celtics team, Horford will be instrumental in making sure all of the newcomers get acclimated.
7. How will the team mesh?
Which brings us to our final question, focused on whether everything will come together like Ainge and Stevens hope. The Celtics have a tremendous amount of talent and the potential to unseat the Cavs in the East, but most of these players never have played together. It’s going to take some time for the Celtics to develop chemistry, and even then, there’s no guarantee everything will work out.
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images