The hay, as they say, is in the barn.
Danny Ainge earned his paycheck this summer, dismantling an overachieving Boston Celtics team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals last season and replacing it with a fascinating mix of All-Star talent and unproven youngsters. Beginning Tuesday night, that group will set about trying to meet its lofty expectations.
You’ve heard the stat by now: The Celtics roll into their season opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers with just four returning players from last spring. Gone are Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder; in are Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and rookie Jayson Tatum.
How do we assess a squad that has virtually zero experience playing together? Until we see them play, we can’t. But we certainly can ask questions.
Here are the four most pressing questions for the Celtics entering the 2017-18 campaign.
1. Can Brad Stevens get everyone on the same page?
Forget Irving and Hayward for a second. Boston’s success or failure will start with its head coach. Stevens has dealt with roster turnover before, but now, he’ll be working with more moving parts and bigger egos. Hayward and Irving come from vastly different systems in Cleveland and Utah, while the Celtics’ depth largely consists of players barely old enough to drink.
Stevens is touted as one of the best basketball minds in the NBA, and if he can design an offense that maximizes Boston’s All-Star talent while bringing along Tatum and Jaylen Brown, this team could be scary-good. But he’s still just 40 years old, and managing such a wide range of personalities will be the biggest test of his young coaching career.
2. Is Kyrie Irving ready to take the next step?
Scoring never has been a problem for Irving, but the Celtics will need more out of the dynamic point guard this season. The C’s thrived this preseason when the ball was on the move, with Irving playing distributor as well as go-to scorer. He’ll need to continue that trend into the regular season, resisting the urge to chuck up shots in isolation.
Most importantly, Irving must prove he’s ready to step out of LeBron James’ shadow. Marcus Smart, Al Horford and Terry Rozier are the “elder statesmen,” if you will, but this is Irving’s team: He wanted to be the alpha male, and he got his wish. His maturity likely will be tested early in the season as the Celtics endure growing pains, and how he responds will go a long way towards Boston’s success.
3. Are the kids all right?
Both Brown and Tatum are expected to start Tuesday night. That’s a lot of faith placed in two players whose combined age is 39. Irving and Hayward take some scoring pressure off Brown, but a deep playoff run could hinge on how well he’s able to defend multiple positions. Tatum, meanwhile, could be asked to carry the scoring scoring load when Hayward is off the floor, a tall task for a 19-year-old rookie.
Elsewhere, 21-year-old Guerschon Yabusele and 20-year-old Semi Ojeyele will need to provide frontcourt depth behind Al Horford, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes. The veterans are the headliners, but the kids could be an X-factor for this club.
4. Is this team a serious title contender?
This is the only real question that matters. Ainge assembled this roster with one goal in mind: Taking down the Cavs and making a run at the Golden State Warriors for an NBA title. The Warriors might be out of reach, but an Eastern Conference title is a realistic goal for this unit.
If Irving, Hayward and Horford stay healthy and Stevens works his magic, this team could be playing into June. There’s a real chance Ainge’s master plan goes awry, however, as inexperience and chemistry are serious concerns. We’ll begin finding out Tuesday night.
Thumbnail photo via John Geliebter/USA TODAY Sports Images