The Boston Celtics entered last season with high expectations: A top-four finish in the East and a trip to the Conference Finals was a realistic prediction.
Reality was much uglier. Kemba Walker was never quite healthy, missing 29 games and only looking like his vintage self for stretches. The team defense — once a point of pride for Brad Stevens teams — was pedestrian. COVID hit the team hard, with star Jayson Tatum missing time and then needing an inhaler the rest of the season to breathe right during games. The results were a .500 team that ended up in the play-in, made the playoffs but were summarily bounced by the Nets in the first round.
All of that has some looking past the 2021-22 Celtics.
But are those people sleeping on a team ready for a bounce-back season? Is this version of the Celtics closer to the one who could make the Eastern Conference Finals than one barely scraping into the playoffs?
Potentially. But a few things need to go their way, starting simply with luck: Boston had a +1.6 net rating last season and should have been three or four games over .500, but teams shot lights out from three against them and a few other things didn’t fall their way, and they were 36-36. If luck normalizes, this is a better team already.
The Celtics core is still elite wing play, and the team will go as far as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can take them. Expect Tatum to show an Olympics bounce — he raised his game spending the summer In Tokyo winning gold with champions such as Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. Tatum is ready for the jump from All-Star to top-10 player in the league — and he expects that of himself.
Brown should not be in Tatum’s shadow— he made a leap last season and it got lost in the Celtics’ overall struggles. He scored 24.7 points a game and shot 39.7% from 3 — he became a dangerous offensive player to go with his elite defense.
Having two elite wings — Tatum and Brown — has long been a recipe for playoff success. Boston is as strong on the wing as any team in the league.
The most meaningful change from a season ago is Stevens being out as coach — he bounced up to the front office to replace the reitiring Danny Ainge — and Ime Udoka taking over in the big chair.
The big question for the new coach: Can Udoka bring the Celtics’ defense back to a top-10 level? A lot of that may depend on the Time Lord — Robert Williams got a four years, $48 million contract extension and now will have to anchor that defense. The defense should bet better with Evan Fournier being out and Josh Richardson taking his place — combine that with Tatum, Brown, and Marcus Smart at the point and the Celtics have a strong perimeter defense. If Williams can do his part inside, and Udoka can get them all on the same page, this should be a good defensive team. Maybe very good.
There are a lot of other things to like about these Celtics. Dennis Schroder struggled to fit in with the Lakers, but returning to a sixth-man role he could thrive in Boston. So could Richardson, who was asked to do too much shot creation in recent years but will fill a more familiar role this season.
The Celtics are going to be an elite team at the guard and wing spots, the question can the Celtics’ bigs keep up. Williams will start at center, veteran Enes Kanter will play behind him, get buckets and boards, but not help much defensively. Veteran Al Horford is in the mix, and he can play some four, but while he is a high IQ player he is not a difference maker any more. Is that enough up front?
This is going to be a bounce-back season in Boston, the only question is how high is that bounce?
Our partners at PointsBet have the Celtics’ win total at 46.5 — I’d take the over. But I wouldn’t bet the kids’ college funds on this one, I see a 47-49 win Celtics team that finishes fourth or fifth in the East. This is a good team, but not one that is a threat to a healthy Nets or Bucks team.
Just don’t sleep on these Celtics.