In many ways, the 2019-2020 NBA season marks a new chapter for the Boston Celtics.
Thanks to some high-profile free-agent departures and arrivals, coach Brad Stevens will have a noticeably different starting lineup and rotation. They’re past the point of “arriving” as contenders after their 2013-2016 rebuild, but they’re also no longer the young darlings of the Eastern Conference.
With Kyrie Irving and Al Horford out the door—to the division rival Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers, no less—and Kemba Walker stepping into primary playmaking duties, the Celts’ playing style will shift slightly.
Young prospects Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum could take another step toward their peaks, potentially building off their FIBA World Cup experience—gained with Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker, even if it was a rather “unsuccessful” run by Team USA standards.
And Gordon Hayward will aim to shake free of his post-injury mediocrity.
A year ago, many prognosticators viewed Boston as the top squad in the East and favorites to make the NBA Finals. The forecasts will be a bit more tempered this season, as there are new question marks and variables on both offense and defense.
But last year’s Celtics massively underachieved in the face of such preseason positivity. Could this year’s version do the exact opposite with such a lowered set of expectations? Given the roster changes and the state of the franchise compared to the rest of the league, what exactly is Boston’s ceiling in 2019-20?
The inconsistent 2018-19 Celts managed to finish the regular season with a respectable 112.2 points per 100 possessions, which ranked 10th in the league. Losing Horford, Irving and Terry Rozier will make it tricky for them to maintain that top-10 impact. However, there’s a reasonable path for them to stay in the league’s top tier on that end.
Losing Horford stings the most. His deft passing, off-ball instincts and pick-and-pop prowess enhanced the rest of the players on the court. The now-Sixers signee is a huge reason Boston was seventh in assist points created per game (65.2) and eighth in potential assists (47.6). Even when he wasn’t the direct assister, it was often his initiation of a passing sequence, or even just his screens and movement, that set up others.
It’s exceptionally difficult to replace the impact of such a Swiss Army Knife.
Fortunately, several of the squad’s key returnees could make substantial strides this season. Not only do Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have a chance to have career-best seasons, but all NBA fans hope Hayward’s post-injury ceiling is miles above what we saw last year.
In order for Brown, Tatum and Hayward to have their best and most efficient years yet in Beantown, Stevens must maximize Walker.
The Celtics’ shiniest new prize has reached NBA stardom as a pick-and-roll speedster and stop-and-pop assassin. Stevens hasn’t emphasized pick-and-roll schemes much during his time in Boston—the Celtics have been bottom-third in league pick-and-roll usage each of the past four seasons— but it might behoove him to deploy a healthy dose of it.
Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated explained the variety of ways Walker puts defenders in a bind via ball-screens:
…That could be as simple as hesitating in the space behind the screen, forcing more conservative defenses into a gut check. It could be the way he chooses to snake through a pick-and-roll rather than attempt a straight-line drive, extending his stay in the areas of the floor most sensitive to a team defense. Or it might even start earlier: before a screen is ever set, where Walker uses a subtle step to set up his defender to be creamed.
Not only is Walker potent in those situations, but newcomer Enes Kanter is a quality receiver and finisher. This new tandem could put loads of pressure on opposing defenses. Fewer than 25 percent of Boston’s field-goal attempts were within three feet of the hoop last season, but Kanter can hopefully buoy that number.
Preseason play may be an indication that Stevens is open to an uptick in pick-and-rolls.
Walker, Hayward, Marcus Smart, Brad Wanamaker and rookie Carsen Edwards all orchestrated pick-and-rolls with varying success during Boston’s exhibitions. Receivers such as Kanter, Daniel Theis and Robert Williams took turns finishing the exchanges.
In a reasonable best-case scenario, the Celtics and Walker will smoothly run a bit more pick-and-roll than usual while the latter will also crisply orchestrate their flex sets and zipper-cut sets. Brown and Tatum will make steady progress as shot-makers and facilitators. Edwards will provide instant, Rozier-like scoring off the bench. (Did you see his volcanic eruption for eight triples Tuesday?!?!)
Furthermore, Smart will prove that his improvement from deep (36.4 percent on 4.3 attempts per game in 2018-19) wasn’t a fluke.
Rookie forward Grant Williams might also be a key supplemental ingredient in Boston’s quest to deal with Horford’s departure. The former Tennessee standout has great passing instincts and scoring skills to operate in a variety of roles. Modest contributions from him would give Boston some depth and help the offense hum for 82 games.
Stevens has just enough weapons to remain near the top of the league in passing and three-point shooting—just reconfigured from what we’d previously gotten used to. And if Tatum and Brown serve as versatile threats, the Celtics will draw more fouls than they did last season—29th in the league at 19.5 free-throws per 100 possessions. Their offensive ceiling is roughly 113 points per 100 possessions, good for another top-10 finish.
The ceiling isn’t quite as lofty on this end of the court.
Given the personnel changes Boston made this offseason, I’m projecting the Shamrocks take a small step backward on defense. The Celtics finished seventh in league defensive efficiency last season, surrendering 107.8 points per 100 possessions. It could be a struggle just to keep their rating under 110 this season.
Walker will be as mediocre as Irving, if not worse, at the point of attack. While was his effort was often commendable in Charlotte, his size was an issue. Bigger guards can shoot and pass over his outstretched arms, and he’s a one-position defender. He’ll require a bunch of help from Smart, Brown and Tatum on the perimeter.
Meanwhile, the interior has massive question marks as well.
If Kanter plays 20-25 minutes or more per night, Boston’s pick-and-roll defense and help coverages may be compromised. He’s displayed poor footwork and wavering motor in all four of his previous NBA stops. Although his effort and execution have improved in recent years, he lacks the quickness required to consistently thwart the league’s top pick-and-roll threats.
Stevens may gradually give Robert Williams more responsibility as a frontcourt defender, as long as he’s viable offensively. The second-year big man led the Celtics in defensive rating (100) and ranked second in defensive box plus/minus (6.7) last season. His foot speed, aggressiveness and seemingly limitless verticality could help fortify the paint for short stretches.
On another encouraging note, the Celtics still have some switch-ability between positions 2 through 4 with Smart, Brown, Tatum and Hayward. Much like the offensive side, Brown and Tatum have yet to unlock their full defensive potential. Smart is the most talented of the bunch, and they’ll need him to fly around the court more than ever this season.
If the swingmen play at or near their potential this season, then Boston could be respectable defensively. However, it will be an uphill battle at the point guard and center spots.
Their defensive ceiling in 2019-20 is near where they finished in 2018-19 (107.8, defensive rating), and that’s assuming everyone fills their roles smoothly. It could be a lot rougher if they don’t.
Regular-Season and Playoff Ceiling
Given the Celtics’ bright offensive possibilities and tenuous defensive outlook, they should have one of the better records in the Eastern Conference during the regular season.
In a best-case scenario, they could flirt with 50-55 wins and land the No. 3 seed. More modest predictions might be in the 4-5 seed range, but the Eastern conference hierarchy seems wide open beyond the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers.
The Celtics’ playoff ceiling is a hard-fought second-round exit. They have some star power in Walker, Tatum and (perhaps) Hayward—but that’s not enough to overcome the elite talent of title contenders in Milwaukee and Philly. It will be a monumental task to slow down the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid enough to win a seven-game series against them.
Although expectations have been sky-high during the Brad Stevens’ era, Boston shouldn’t be ashamed of a 50-ish win season and a brief-ish playoff run. The roster’s makeup is good, but not quite ideal for NBA title aspirations.
The Celtics will at least be exciting to watch and easy to root for, though they’re still a step or two away from hoisting postseason hardware. That will be a whole lot less disappointing than last year’s disjointed bunch, even if the final result kind of winds up the same.
Dan is a TBW staff writer. After playing college ball at Franciscan University, he covered the NBA and NBA Draft for Bleacher Report for four years and the FRS Network for three years. He now co-hosts the Unlimited Range podcast and continues to campaign for Doris Burke’s promotion to lead analyst at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter: @DanO_Bball