Last season was one to forget for the Boston Celtics. After reaching the Eastern Conference finals without Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward in 2018, they were penciled in as the favorites to get to the Finals with both of them back in the lineup.
Instead, their returns only caused a different set of problems for everyone from Brad Stevens to youngsters such as Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier. And that’s to say nothing of Irving’s free agency drama, which hung like a cloud over the franchise. Still, they had plenty of talent, and managed to win 49 games and claim the No. 4 seed. But after sweeping the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs, and taking Game 1 from the Bucks on the road in the second round, they collapsed and lost four straight to Giannis and Co. to end their miserable campaign.
Now, Irving is gone, along with Al Horford, Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes and Rozier. In are Kemba Walker, Enes Kanter and a whole bunch of interesting rookies. The vibe around the team is different, that’s for sure, but how will they fare on the court?
Ahead of what figures to be a fascinating season, here are five bold predictions for the Celtics.
1. The Celtics will finish with a better record and playoff seed than last season
For most teams, winning 49 games and earning homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs with the No. 4 seed would be a great season. But not for last season’s Celtics, who just about everyone expected to win the East.
Expectations are much different this year after the departures of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford in the offseason. Even with Kemba Walker’s arrival, there’s no question the Celtics are less talented than last season — especially in the frontcourt.
Still, it’s easy to see a path to a more successful regular season. It will be a much calmer and more relaxed atmosphere, and they’ll be dealing with less pressure. Improvements from Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum will help offset some of the talent lost in the offseason and the Eastern Conference is not as deep as it was last season. All things considered, the Celtics should be the third-best team in the East, and can get to 50 wins.
2. Gordon Hayward wins Most Improved Player
Most Improved Player is usually an award reserved for young players who make a leap, not former All-Stars. But there are extenuating circumstances with Hayward, who was a disaster for much of last season in his return from a gruesome leg injury on opening night in 2017.
Towards the end of the season, however, he started to show signs of returning to form. Now, he’s not only overcome the mental aspect of returning to the court, but has had an entire healthy offseason to train and work on his game — something he didn’t have last summer due to a second, unexpected surgery on his ankle. Every member of the organization, from Danny Ainge to Brad Stevens to other players, have commented on how much better Hayward looks compared to last season.
“He’s back. He’s 100 percent back,” Enes Kanter said. “He’s going to shock the world this year.”
And if you don’t want to just take Kanter’s word for it, which would perhaps be understandable given his penchant for fast talking, here’s Brad Stevens, who is notoriously reserved:
“The investment has been well-documented over the summer. And you can see it. You can see it.”
Whether or not Hayward can get back to All-Star level play remains to be seen, but there’s no question he’s going to be much, much better this season, and boosted by the narrative surrounding his injury, he’ll take home Most Improved Player.
3. Jayson Tatum makes his first All-Star Game
Of everything that went wrong with the Celtics last season, Jayson Tatum’s lack of development was perhaps the most disappointing. He was terrific in their run to the conference finals as a rookie; he dunked on LeBron James! Everyone expected his star to keep rising in his sophomore season.
Instead, he struggled to figure out his new role with the return of Irving and Hayward, his shot selection was frustrating and even though he still played pretty well for a second-year player, the sky-high expectations made his season feel like a bust.
That won’t happen this time around. He’s been intent on getting to the rim and shooting 3s in the preseason, and there’s never been a question about his talent. Now, entering his third season, he’ll put everything together and make the leap everyone was expecting last season. In the process, he’ll earn his first trip to the All-Star Game.
4. Robert Williams earns the starting center spot before the season is over
During the summer, the Celtics lost their two most important frontcourt players when they traded Aron Baynes and lost Al Horford in free agency. Even with the addition of Enes Kanter, French big man Vincent Poirier, and rookie power forward Grant Williams, there’s plenty of questions about what they’ll look like down low.
At least to start the season, it seems that Daniel Theis is going to get the nod to start at center. He’s been with the team the longest out of their big men, is defensive-minded and is someone Brad Stevens can rely on.
By the time the season is over, however, Robert Williams, a.k.a. Time Lord, will be the Celtics’ starting center. Williams played sparingly as a rookie, but he brings a level of power and athleticism that the team hasn’t had at the five for a long time. He has the size to bang with the true bigs in the league, can protect the rim and doesn’t need the ball on offense, which is important considering how many scorers will be in the starting lineup.
It will take him some time to earn Stevens’ trust, but by the end of the season, Williams will have earned the starting center spot for the foreseeable future.
5. Carsen Edwards will make an All-Rookie Team
The Celtics beat the Cavaliers by 23 points the other night in preseason action, and a big reason why — besides the fact that the Cavs are bad at basketball — was the play of Carsen Edwards. Specifically, his shooting. The point guard rained in eight 3s in the third quarter alone en route to a 30-point night.
It was just another sign that you should ignore the fact that Edwards fell to the second round in last summer’s draft, or that he’s only 6-foot-1; this kid can play. He’s already established himself as the team’s third point guard behind Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart, and will be a regular in the rotation this season.
With his shooting ability and quickness, it’s already easy to envision him as a dynamite bench scorer. While he may not get quite enough playing time to force his way onto the First Team, Edwards will impress a lot of people this season, and earn a spot on one of the All-Rookie teams.