Following a year of turmoil, the Celtics entered the 2019-20 season with lowered expectations. In an Eastern Conference with the reigning MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo and a 76ers team with a championship-or-bust mentality, Boston was no longer considered a contender.
But the Celtics haven’t taken a step back after losing Kyrie Irving and Al Horford this past offseason. In fact, they’re on pace to be better without them, and the Bucks and Sixers should realize this isn’t a two-horse race.
With an 18-7 record, Boston sits right behind Milwaukee in the East standings. While there are some concerns — namely the weakness of the frontcourt with Horford gone — the Celtics are back to playing Brad Stevens basketball.
How have the Celtics gone from second-round flameout to legitimate threat in the East so quickly? There are a few reasons for their quick turnaround.
The Celtics changed the culture.
It sounds ridiculous to say about a 49-win team, but last year’s group was a disaster. Boston was coming off a 2018 Eastern Conference finals series in which the Celtics took LeBron James and the Cavs to seven games. Jayson Tatum looked primed for an All-Star season, and Irving and Gordon Hayward were returning from injuries. The skill level was perhaps the closest thing to the mighty Warriors, but the chemistry was terrible.
What a difference a year makes.
Kemba Walker may not posses Irving’s raw talent, but his fit in the locker room is a massive improvement. The grumblings about minutes and shot selection are no more. Coaches and teammates aren’t forced to walk on eggshells and wonder if their point guard will randomly ask about the meaning of government before a film session. The joy is back.
Walker, Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart playing together over the summer for Team USA helped kickstart that chemistry, and it’s translated over to the regular season.
“It feels good, just to build our camaraderie right now early on, before the season even starts,” Smart told Chris Forsberg of NBC Sports Boston back in August. “So when we do finally get on the court, when it’s time to strap it on for the season, we kind of already got a hint of what everybody wants to do and a feel for everybody.”
The Celtics are happier this time around, and it’s showing in the win column.
Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are back on track.
After struggling with their roles for much of last season, Brown and Tatum have regained their swagger.
Tatum received the message on his shot selection and cut out the contested, Kobe Bryant-like midrangers. He’s taking 7.0 3-pointers per game (up from 3.9) while also attempting 4.0 free throws per game (up from 2.9), resulting in a notable increase in points (15.7 to 20.8).
Brown seems to be the player that has most benefited from a stable workplace. He’s on pace to average career highs in points (19.6), rebounds (7.0) and assists (2.1). Brown has recaptured his outside shot (49.7 percent from the field, 36.5 percent from 3-point range) while playing solid defense on the wing.
The development of Brown and Tatum is important not only as it pertains to the current season, but also the future success of the franchise. They are taking huge strides in the right direction.
Gordon Hayward could be a gamechanger.
When fully healthy, Hayward is an All-Star, capable of operating on or off ball offensively and switching across multiple positions defensively. Before missing one month with a broken hand, Hayward was averaging 18.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game while shooting a blazing 55.5 percent from the field and 43.3 percent from beyond the arc.
The Celtics’ most dynamic five-man unit — Walker, Smart, Hayward, Brown and Tatum — has been limited by injuries this season. What happens when Stevens can unleash that group all at once with ballhandlers and defenders at every position?
Boston still has a long way to go. The Celtics’ lack of size is glaring, particularly when it comes to one-on-one matchups with Antetokounmpo or Joel Embiid — Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter and Robert Williams aren’t going to scare anyone. Team president Danny Ainge will be scouring the trade market for a big man ahead of the Feb. 6 deadline.
Despite that gap in the paint, the Celtics are firmly in the mix. That wasn’t the case when preseason predictions were made.
Don’t plan those late May trips to Milwaukee and Philly just yet. The East has another horse in the race.