It’s not hyperbolic to say the next few months could change the course of Boston Celtics history.
The journey begins in earnest Thursday night when the Celtics open the second half of their season with an important game against the Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks. The pivotal clash marks the first leg of a three-game road trip for the C’s, who are tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for fourth place in the East after finishing the first half with a 37-21 record.
The Celtics entered this season with NBA Finals aspirations after pushing LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals last season without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. It’s been a rocky ride to this point, though, making Boston’s final 24 regular-season games and its ensuing postseason run of the utmost importance. A crucial summer awaits, and what happens between now and June could go a long way toward impacting the Celtics’ offseason.
So, with that in mind, here are eight questions facing the Celtics as they enter the second half.
1. Will Kyrie Irving do more harm than good?
The argument over whether the Celtics are better with or without Irving has dominated headlines recently, especially with Boston ending its first half with back-to-back wins over the Sixers and Detroit Pistons while the All-Star point guard watched from the bench with a knee injury. Some discredit the debate, pointing to Boston’s efficiency with Irving on the floor and the need for a closer come playoff time, but the Celtics’ young players — namely Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier — often look more comfortable in their roles when No. 11 is out of the lineup. And one shouldn’t overlook Boston’s playoff success without Irving last season, even though the C’s didn’t exactly run roughshod through the Eastern Conference, particularly away from TD Garden.
The whole situation isn’t limited to X’s and O’s. While we can identify the pros and cons of Irving’s on-court presence, the 26-year-old also has created buzz this season for comments he’s made in the media — some of which have been critical toward his teammates. This week has been no exception, with Irving getting chummy with fellow impending free agent Kevin Durant during NBA All-Star Weekend and subsequently complaining about the attention the superstars’ relationship garnered.
Irving is a spectacular talent — one of the best players in the NBA, in fact — but his public frustration and sometimes questionable logic make it fair to wonder whether he’s a good leader. After all, Irving has done little to suppress speculation about his long-term future. That lingering distraction could crush Boston’s NBA Finals hopes this season, and maybe even cause irreparable harm moving forward if Irving leaves in free agency this summer having done nothing but stunt the growth of the Celtics’ young core.
2. How will Brad Stevens handle adversity?
The Celtics have increased their win total in each of Stevens’ five seasons as Boston’s head coach, often overachieving relative to the talent on their roster. The 2018-19 campaign has been a whole different beast, with lofty expectations and off-court drama hanging over Boston’s up-and-down performance.
From managing Irving’s ego to ensuring each player is comfortable with his minutes/role, Stevens has his hands full. The Celtics no longer are the scrappy underdogs, and that reality seemingly has taken its toll on the team. It’s time for Stevens to live up to the hype as one of the NBA’s best coaches.
3. Can Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris continue career years?
Smart already is rewarding the Celtics for giving him a four-year, $52 million contract this past summer by having an excellent season in which he’s shooting far better than his career norm. Morris also is posting great numbers despite a dip in production last month.
Maybe water will find its level with these two veterans. Or maybe they’ll ride the momentum for an entire season. Either way, Smart and Morris are very important to the Celtics’ success — on the court and in the locker room — and their responsibilities could grow when the stakes are raised, especially if Boston endures any more adversity in the second half.
4. What will Celtics get from Gordon Hayward?
Speaking of adversity, credit Hayward for battling his way back from last season’s gruesome leg injury. Now, the Celtics just need to figure out how he fits into their plans, which has been a season-long struggle due to his inconsistent play on both ends of the floor.
Hayward twisted his right ankle — not the surgically repaired one — over the All-Star break, so his second half already is off to an inauspicious start. Stevens didn’t sound too concerned when discussing the injury Wednesday, but Hayward’s potential impact could best be described with a shrug emoji.
5. When will Aron Baynes return?
Baynes hasn’t played since Feb. 1 due to a foot contusion. He’s been limited to 34 games and won’t play at all during Boston’s three-game road trip to open the second half. Stevens indicated Wednesday the center is “at least a little bit away” in his recovery. The Celtics sure could use Baynes’ presence in their front court, though, so his progress is worth monitoring coming out of the break.
6. Will Celtics add a player on the buyout market?
Boston cleared a roster spot before the trade deadline by sending Jabari Bird to the Atlanta Hawks. The presumption was the Celtics will at some point use their newfound flexibility to add a player who is bought out of his contract by his current team.
The Celtics don’t have any glaring weaknesses, so this simply could be an instance of Boston targeting the best player who becomes available. Zach Randolph, Robin Lopez and Marcin Gortat are among the names floated as possibilities. Some front-court depth is preferable.
7. How will other Eastern Conference contenders fare with new additions?
While the Celtics stood pat at the trade deadline, their biggest competitors in the Eastern Conference proved very aggressive, making the road to the NBA Finals that much more difficult for Boston.
The Bucks added Nikola Mirotic. The Raptors added Marc Gasol. The Sixers added Tobias Harris. Time will tell which — if any — of these moves pays dividends, but the Celtics obviously will be monitoring each team’s development closely while trying to rise in the standings.
8. What’s the deal with Anthony Davis?
It’s no secret the Celtics plan to pursue a trade for Davis this offseason, so they’ll definitely be keeping tabs on the situation in New Orleans, where the Pelicans superstar essentially is playing out the string knowing his days in the Big Easy are numbered. There are many layers to the Davis saga, though, and the rest of this season could impact the value of Boston’s potential trade assets.
The Celtics have several promising young players — like Tatum, Brown and Rozier — who might enhance or hurt their stocks before the offseason. They also have multiple draft picks in limbo, adding to the uncertainty over what exactly Boston can — and will — offer New Orleans this summer.
Thumbnail photo via Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports Images