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Jayson Tatum

The New Look Boston Celtics – 2021-22 Season Preview

The 2020-21 season was a disappointing one for the Boston Celtics. A team that many picked to contend for the Eastern Conference last year ended up getting hampered by ongoing injuries as they were forced to play in the play-in series as the 7th seed, before losing to the Nets in 5 games in the first round.

Fast forward to now. Danny Ainge was replaced by Brad Stevens as the new President of Basketball Operations, and Ime Udoka replaced Stevens as the 18th head coach in the organization’s 75 year history.

New Celtics President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens (left) and new Head Coach Ime Udoka (right) are aimed to get the Boston Celtics banner #18.

The first trade of the Stevens era happened quickly as the Celtics swapped their starting point guard and four time All-Star, Kemba Walker, for a former Celtics legend, five time All-Star Al Horford. While no one will doubt Kemba’s ability as a playmaker and scorer, his nagging knee injury kept him out of the lineup frequently … and most noticeably, the knee only allowed him to play 3 of the 5 games in the Nets playoff series. He’s 31 years old, and several speculate his best years are behind him. With Tatum and Brown as the Celtics primary scorers, many believed the Celtics didn’t need a score first, point guard, which is what Kemba represented. Moreover, Kemba’s inability to defend made him a liability down the stretch in crucial games. A weakness that was exploited heavily when the Miami Heat eliminated the Celtics in the 2020 playoffs.

Celtics Nation knows what they’re getting in Al Horford, who was a fan favorite in his first stint in Boston. Horford’s best attribute is his passing ability from the frontcourt. Last year the Celtics played lots of isolation basketball given their 3 playmakers in Tatum, Brown and Walker, which resulted in them finishing near the bottom of the league in Offensive efficiency and assists (26th and 25th respectively in the NBA last season). Horford, will certainly help with that, as his best ability is to connect the other four players he’s sharing the court with at any given moment.

Towards the end of July, the Celtics decided to use the remainder of the trade exception created by the sign-and-trade deal that sent Gordon Hayward to the Charlotte Hornets, on 27 year old, versatile swingman Josh Richardson from the Dallas Mavericks. While the Celtics will represent the 4th team Richardson has played on in the last 4 years, Richardson is defensive-minded, like Horford, which was much needed. The Celtics had their worst defensive rating in the 8 year coaching era under Stevens last season. It’s also worth mentioning, that both Richardson and Horford have spent time with new Celtics Head Coach Ime Udoka in their previous stints in Philadelphia.

This offseason, the Celtics added the four new additions on top, left to right, PF Al Horford, SG Josh Richardson, PG Dennis Schorder, and C Enes Kanter (as well as PG Kris Dunn not pictured). While they lost, left to right on the bottom, PG Kemba Walker, SF Evan Fournier, C Tristan Thompson and SF Semi Ojeleye.

On top of the Josh Richardson signing, the Celtics also acquired point guard Kris Dunn, center Bruno Fernando and a 2nd round pick from the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Tristan Thompson. The goal here was for Boston to shed the money they owed Thompson, while bringing back some minor but cheaper contributors, namely being Dunn.

Many remember that on the infamous 2016 draft night, Celtics fans rioted when they chose to take Jaylen Brown over Kris Dunn. With that said, Jaylen has turned out to have the far superior NBA career up until this point. Dunn will likely be a third string ball handler who was also primarily brought in for his production on the defensive side of the ball. He has some of the most active hands in the league, as he averaged 2 steals a game in 25 minutes per game off the bench in Atlanta in the 19-20 season. Expectations aren’t overly high, especially because he was injured all of last year, but I would anticipate him being assigned to the opposing team’s best ball handler when they need to give Marcus Smart or Jaylen Brown a rest.

As Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum continue to grow as players and leaders on this Celtics team, the organization will continue to climb the Eastern Conference ladder.

Just last week, the Celtics made one of the final big splashes of the NBA offseason, scooping Dennis Schroder to a one-year $5.9 million contract. The big news around this signing was that Celtics are paying him $78 million less than an extension figure he infamously declined with the Lakers last season. After Lowry wen to Miami, Conley stayed in Utah, Lonzo signed with the Bulls, and Pelicans replaced him with Devonte Graham, Schroder and Boston ended up being the final pair; one a point guard and the other being a team in need of one for cheap.  

For the Celtics, the value of this deal is insane, as they’re getting a guy who was valued at over $20 mil/yr just a couple of months ago for now just a hair below $6 mil. While this deal won’t make the Celtics title contenders in and of itself, it’s a low risk deal as it’s only a one year deal for low money. You now have 3 guards in Schroder, Smart and Richardson all playing on expiring years of their contract this upcoming season, which should make for a very competitive backcourt.

The changes in personnel, present several potential interesting starting lineup possibilities:

#1: (Big Frontcourt + Schroder @ PG): Schroder, Brown, Tatum, Horford & Williams III

#2: (Big Frontcourt + Smart @ PG) Smart, Brown, Tatum, Horford & Williams III

#3 (Defensive-Minded): Smart, Richardson, Brown, Tatum.& Williams III

#4 (Athletic): Schroder, Smart, Brown, Tatum & Williams III

#5 (Experience): Schroder, Smart, Brown, Tatum, & Horford

My guess would be the first lineup will be the one they eventually land on with Smart, Richardson, Kanter, Nesmith, Pritchard, Dunn and Langford all coming off the bench.

Most people have the Celtics around #5-7 in the Eastern Conference preseason power rankings with the Nets, Bucks, 76ers, and Heat comfortably ahead of them, and then the Hawks, Celtics and Knicks in that 5-7 group. With that said, this Celtics team is probably one of the most exciting rosters to monitor heading into this upcoming season, given the coaching change, the several personnel changes, and the anticipated growth of Brown, Tatum and Robert Williams III.

It seems with the late addition of Schroder, that Stevens was able to improve this team through this offseason. I do believe they will be competitive this season, and may have an outside chance, if the new pieces gel the right way, to get to the Eastern Conference Final this season.

Even Stevens

When Larry Bird won his 1st NBA championship with the Boston Celtics in 1981 at the beginning of the “Bird Era,” there was a young 5 year old boy in Zionsville, IN who was watching taped Indiana Hosiers basketball games before he would go to Kindergarten. That boy’s name was Brad Stevens.

Fast forward the clock 20 years, Stevens had just finished a college career at Division 3 school, DePauw University; a 4-year varsity letter-winner, 3-time Academic All-American, Team Captain, and recipient of the Coaches Award given to the most selfless, team-oriented player.

BradStevensDepauw
Stevens was the 6th man at Division 3 Depauw University, where he was given the Coaches’ Award his Senior Season, given to the team’s most team-oriented player. 

Stevens graduated with Honors from DePauw with a degree in Economics and an excellent job at the prestigious global health care company Eli Lilly.

Only a year into his first job out of college, the Indiana native realized something was missing … and that something was basketball. He quit his job and became a volunteer assistant in the Butler University basketball office. Butler quickly gave Stevens a low paying administrative basketball operations coordinator position. One year later, Stevens was promoted into a full time assistant role, where they would go 131-61 over the course of the next 5 years, before Stevens took over the Head Coaching job and became the second youngest Head Coach in Division 1 college basketball.

In his first season as a head coach, Stevens set a Butler school and Horizon League record, rattling off 30 wins, as Stevens was a finalist for the Jim Phelan National Coach of the Year award. His next year, despite losing 4 starters and projected to finish 5th in the Horizon League, the mid-major school went to the Big Dance once again, with Stevens being named Horizon League Coach of the Year and once again earning several finalist votes for National Coach of the Year.

In his third season as the Head Coach (2009-10 season), Stevens became the second youngest head coach to lead his team to a National Championship where they narrowly lost to Duke 61-59 on a narrowly missed half court heave from current Celtic Gordon Hayward.

StevensButler
Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs went to two back to back National Championship games, being the only ever mid-major team to make back to back title game appearances. 

The very next year, Stevens somehow managed to bring the mid-major team all the way back to the National Championship, this time losing to UConn. Back to back national championships are unheard of in today’s college basketball world, let alone from a mid-major school.

Fast forward the clock to July 3, 2013 when Brad Stevens was signed on as Head Coach of the Boston Celtics. In his second season as Head Coach, Stevens led a rebuilding Celtics team to the Eastern Conference Playoffs as the 7th seed. One year later, the Celtics returned to the playoffs, this time finishing 5th in the Eastern Conference. And in 2016-17, Stevens brought the Celtics all the way to the top of the Eastern Conference, finishing 1st in the Eastern Conference.

This brings us to now … the 2017-18 season. With a team that had been steadily building to contend to bring Boston it’s 18th banner. 6 minutes into the season, the team lost their 2nd best player in Gordon Hayward; followed only a few months later losing their best player in Kyrie Irving. The team has been inundated with extended injuries to key players like Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris.  And yet it appears Stevens has pressed every right button through the course of what was an extremely challenging season in regards to injuries.

This Celtics team won eight games in which they trailed by 15 points, the third-highest single-season total since 1996. This team has seen the emergence of former role players like Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown along with the emergence of Jayson Tatum to produce the Eastern Conference’s 2nd best regular season record.

Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown
Stevens has pulled all the right strings on an unlikely group led by the emergence of players like “Scary Terry” Rozier (12) and Jaylen Brown. 

How? Stevens’ believes all his players on his roster can fit into their sets and run the offense. His belief in Rozier and even Larkin to run the point has been well documented. When Hayward went down, Tatum became the starter in his “Next Man Up” philosophy.

Stevens actions on the sidelines are cool and collected, earning him the nickname “Even Stevens.” He analyzes the game and watches intently from the sideline. Make no mistake about it, Stevens gets animated about bad calls occasionally, but picks those spots wisely. His composure has seemingly carried over to his teams’ resiliency in coming back this year.

Nurturing such a strong culture while returning only 4 players from last year’s team is an enormous challenge. It starts with Danny Ainge drafting tough players (Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum). Ainge picks the players but Brad Stevens is the arbiter of playing time. His stoic demeanor and play-calling genius is what he is known for, but make no mistake about it, Stevens is an all school hard-ass … if you don’t play hard, you come out.

Tatum
Danny Ainge (middle), deserves equal praise to Stevens as he has become one of the League’s most respected GM’s. This year he traded out of the #1 spot to take Duke’s Jayson Tatum at the #3 spot while picking up a 2019 1st round draft pick. Tatum has vastly outperformed both Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball, who were taken before him in this year’s draft. 

The players still feel Stevens is with them, even as he holds them and himself to almost impossible standards, which is an almost impossible balance to strike. Stevens, Ainge and the veteran players have created a culture of serious, consistent tough work. Toughness and mental strength without talent don’t get you very far in the world’s best league, but when you combine all of them you get a team that punches above their weight. Boston just makes fewer mistakes than any rival. It starts on the defensive end, they are ultra switchable on defense, always moving on a string. Their greatness on defense lies in the absence of spatial mistakes. A team this big and this attuned can close windows faster than anyone else. They show a similar composure in tense moments; game 7 against the Bucks, 3 close games against the 76ers, culminating in an almost perfect final 90 seconds to close out Game 5.

Brad Stevens didn’t receive a single vote for this year National Basketball Coaches Association trophy, which was awarded to Toronto’s Dwane Casey (who has since been fired after getting swept by the Cavaliers last round). When the Red Auerbach Trophy as the NBA’s Coach of the Year award is announced next month, expect Stevens to be at the top of the list.

Stevens’ ability behind the helm has started to draw comparisons to that other coach in Boston, Bill Belichick. And while the red-hot Lebron and the Cavs seem to pose a formidable challenge in the upcoming Eastern Conference Finals, don’t bet against Stevens and the C’s.

It’s not always the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of fight in the dog.

The Stars Are Aligning in Boston

6 minutes into the 2017-18 season, it seemed like all was lost. Danny Ainge’s master plan of stock piling assets since the departure of Pierce, KG and Allen, to assemble Boston’s next big three was gone, or at least temporarily put on hold until next season.

Hayward Injury
Just like that, 6 minutes into the 2017-18 season, the Big Three became the Big Two in Boston when Gordon Hayward gruesomely fractured his ankle. 

The C’s $127 million dollar man, Gordon Hayward, was done for the season after his lower left leg gruesomely snapped on national television in one of the league’s more anticipated season openers in recent history. And with the injury, it seemed like the Celtics would likely have to wait another year to seriously contend for an NBA Championship.

Not so fast.

Fast forward to today, and the Celtics have the best record in the NBA at 7-2. They’re the first team in NBA history who have started out a season 0-2 and then have gone on to win their next seven games. After being down 18 points on the road last night against what many believe to be the best “big three” in basketball in Oklahoma City’s Westbrook, George and Anthony, the C’s came back to win by 7 … and in many ways, legitimized their current 7-game winning streak. They are the first Boston Celtics team, since 1950 to keep opponents under 95 points for 7 consecutive games.

Big3
(Left to Right) Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, and Kyrie Irving were supposed to be Boston’s first Big 3 since KG, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.

Kyrie Irving and Al Horford look like they’ve been playing together for years. Jayson Tatum is the early season favorite to win the Rookie of the Year. Jaylen Brown is playing like the break-out all-star all in Boston had hoped, averaging 16 ppg and 7 rpg. Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis have emerged from nowhere, to be significant contributors. Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier are playing better basketball than they ever have and are providing depth in the backcourt. They just got back Marcus Morris back for the first time this season last night. And the man behind the curtain, Brad Stevens, seems to be pulling all the right strings at the right time.

JaylenJayson
Jayson Tatum (left) has been playing like the front-runner to win Rookie of the Year in Hayward’s absence, and Jaylen Brown (right) has been playing like an All-Star through the first 9 games. 

Sport, in general, has a funny way of providing unscripted entertainment. Needless to say, no one in Boston could’ve predicted Gordon Hayward’s season ending injury 6 minutes into the season. Nor, could anyone have predicted the Celtics having the best record in the NBA 9 games following that injury. Despite only having 4 members of last year’s Celtics team return this year and a lot of new faces, there is an undeniable chemistry thus far with this group. In many ways, it seems as though the Hayward injury has brought the group closer.

 

Kyrie wanted to be the man … and he has been exactly that through this 7 game winning streak. His play combined with the fact that Isaiah hasn’t played a minute with the sub 500 Cavs, makes Ainge and the Celtics look like the clear early winners of the Kyrie/Isaiah trade. And also, a realistic shot of winning the Eastern Conference.

In trading down from the #1 overall pick to #3, Ainge made a very ballsy decision, betting what might eventually be his legacy as the Celtics President of Basketball Operations. Ainge felt like Duke’s Jayson Tatum, who they picked at #3, was the best player in the draft and realized they could still get him at #3. In sliding down two spots, Boston also received an additional future draft pick; either the Lakers 2018 draft pick (if it falls between 2-5) or Phialadelphia’s or Sacramento’s 2019 first round pick, whichever is higher.

 

And so far, Ainge has been right.

The #1 pick, Markelle Fultz went to the Philadelphia, and has injured his shoulder almost immediately into the season and is out indefinitely, joining Ben Simmons and Joel Embid as heralded Sixers draft picks who have missed significant time during their rookie seasons due to injury. Lonzo Ball, taken at #2 by the LA Lakers, has received lots of early season criticism and is averaging only 8.8 ppg. Meanwhile, Jayson Tatum has found himself in Boston’s starting 5 earlier than expected with Hayward’s absence and is averaging 13.7 ppg and 6.6 rpg, and is the early season favorite to win Rookie of the Year.

Top3Picks
There was disagreement amongst Boston, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles’ front offices as to the order of these three players (left to right: Jayson Tatum, Markelle Fultz, and Lonzo Ball) in the 2017 draft class. 

With the 6th youngest roster in the NBA with an average age of 24.5, the Celtics are widely believed to have one of brighter, if not the brightest, future amongst NBA franchises. And while Hayward’s injury caused initial doubts about this season, it seems to have brought this team closer and provided opportunities for others, namely Jayson Tatum, to shine.

It might be early, but it seems as though the stars are aligning in Boston.

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