The NBA bubble is behind us, but the 2020-21 season still is sure to be bizarre in its own respect.
With the league abandoning the Walt Disney World quarantine campus and trying to learn from the NFL and Major League Baseball’s tumultuous bubble-free seasons, the Boston Celtics will try to pull off playing games at their home arena, as will teams around the league.
And you can all but guarantee we’ll see the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic’s second wave trickling into the upcoming season.
But beyond all that uncertainty, there are actual basketball questions yet to be answered as teams take their shape for opening night. So, let’s focus on that, because the Celtics have some things up in the air after a pretty eventful offseason.
Who replaces Gordon Hayward?
What a luxury it was to have the No. 4 guy in the starting lineup be someone like Hayward. Thus, we’ll answer this bluntly: there’s no replacing what he brought to the court.
Hayward spent much of his short stint with the Celtics hurt, unfortunately, and Boston made deep runs despite that. His time sidelined also helped in the development of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. But when Hayward was healthy, he was a great playmaker and more than capable of carrying the team offensively if any other core player was hurt or having an off night. But stepping aside to let the light shine on Brown and Tatum had to hurt his ego. He came to Boston to be the guy, and now he will be, but with the Charlotte Hornets for $120 million over the next four years.
Hayward’s absence will take a group effort to make up for on both sides of the floor, but by working out a sign-and-trade with the Hornets, the Celtics created what could be the largest-ever trade exception.
So whatever Hayward’s salary ends up being in the first year of his deal with Charlotte, Boston will get that amount to spend in acquiring one or more players in a trade or off waivers. There’s more on that here, but we’ll see what Danny Ainge makes of that TPE. Now entering the season, however, we imagine he plans to wait and see what he has first.
Who will we see at starting center?
Daniel Theis got the job done last season after Aron Baynes’ departure, and Enes Kanter carved out a role for himself against certain teams. But with Robert Williams’ time out with a hip injury, not to mention how young and raw he still is, depth at center has been a criticism of the Celtics since last season.
Now, Kanter is back with the Portland Trail Blazers and Boston has brought in Tristan Thompson via free agency. This certainly will be an upgrade for the center unit, but one big enough for the former Cleveland Cavalier to take Theis’ starting job?
Thompson certainly is a more traditional big man, but in today’s NBA we could see coach Brad Stevens looking at the bigs to do the job by committee — especially if Williams sees his true arrival in the NBA this season.
Theis likely will start on opening night, but we’ll see how things are adjusted as we go based on performance and opponent.
What’s good with Kemba’s knee?
Kemba Walker made it back for the NBA playoffs thanks to the long pandemic pause. But when it was all said and done, the team didn’t shy away from the fact that he wasn’t 100%. Even Danny Ainge pondered how far the Celtics could have gone had Walker been himself.
That left knee has been a nagging concern throughout his career thus far, and it probably will linger throughout this season too considering how quick of a turn around Boston had.
Stevens and Ainge already alluded to the fact that they’ll be cautious with Walker’s timeline regarding how many minutes he initially can handle. Their focus is to strengthen his knee, after all, so that it won’t be an issue later in the year.
But the question remains, is this something Walker always will deal with?
Will the Jays continue their ascension?
Tatum and Brown each made enormous jumps over the course of last season, and at 22 and 24 years old, respectively, the sky seems like the limit. Hopefully.
The 2019-20 season truly established that this is their team, and with both of them locked up long term, they’ll hopefully be motivated to continue on their trajectories and lead the Celtics to an NBA title.
The duo was one of the best wing combos in the entire league, so we could see Brown follow Tatum’s lead and make his first All-Star team in 2020-21 if he continues his improvement offensively. And if Tatum proceeds to develop into the passer we started to see flashes of in the NBA Playoffs, he very well could make All-NBA yet again. A supermax contract certainly will be motivation to continue his growth.
Still, it’s a lot of pressure to put on two kids under 25. Will they exceed expectations again or are we now setting the bar too high for them?
How good is this team’s youngest talent, actually?
As mentioned, the Jays were able to develop into the players they are at such a young age because injuries to former Celtics like Hayward and Kyrie Irving allowed them the opportunity to actually play.
Robert Williams and Grant Williams carved out contributing roles in the playoffs for themselves last year, but with Walker set to miss some time and Hayward off to Charlotte, an opportunity has presented itself for players like Romeo Langford, Tremont Waters, Carsen Edwards, and rookies Aaron Nesmith and Peyton Pritchard.
Those reps will be crucial in giving the Celtics a real look at what they’re working with, and Boston certainly needs scoring off the bench. So for these young guys, real reps in the NBA are theirs for the taking.
Who will they be competing with in the East?
Boston, despite hardly ever playing with its full roster healthy all season, somehow managed a No. 3 seed out of the NBA’s Eastern Conference. It won’t be that easy this year.
The Miami Heat, particularly, will pose as a serious threat again with the addition of Avery Bradley, and it goes without saying that the Milwaukee Bucks still are a wagon in large part because of reigning league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year Giannis Antetokounmpo.
But this season, the Brooklyn Nets should prove to be another rival with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving returning from last season’s injuries. Will they jell as a team on the court as well as they look on paper? That’s to be seen. But yet again, the East looks pretty challenging entering this season.