The Disaster that was Boston’s 2018-2019 Season
If you had to pick a franchise to run at the beginning of last season, the obvious choice would have been the Boston Celtics. They have just come off of a playoff run where they came up only one game short of reaching the NBA Finals behind some inspiring postseason performances from Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and the rest of the Celtics young core. And the best part was that this all happened with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward sitting on the sidelines! With those two healthy and ready to roll, along with LeBron James’ departure to the western conference, Boston became the presumed favorite to win the eastern conference the next season.
But that didn’t happen. The Celtics never found their flow during the regular season, only mustering 49 wins (they were projected to win 59) during a season of ongoing chemistry issues and internal drama. Everyone seemed to assume that the highly talented roster would turn around come playoff time, but that wasn’t the case as they lost in 5 games to Milwaukee in the second round in a series that really felt like a sweep. Gordon Hayward, although he started to come on strong to close the season, never really looked like he did when he was in Utah. Kyrie let the fans know that he was planning to resign long term with the organization at the beginning of the year, but whacky comments and questionable leadership has made it almost inevitable that he will not be with the team going forward. Even Al Horford, who has served as the pillar of consistency as a leader by example since he signed back in 2016, has opted out of his lucrative contract and is exploring his options elsewhere.
And to top it all off, they just got bested again by LeBron, this time in the Anthony Davis sweepstakes. Davis has been on Celtics GM Danny Ainge’s radar for years now, and now that dream of having AD and Kyrie in Boston is over. For most teams, losses this big would send the franchise reeling straight into rebuilding mode with all hope lost. However, for this Celtics team, that is not the case at all.
Potential for Growth from Within
Despite the drama caused by Irving’s antics, perhaps the biggest disappointment from the Celtic’s past season was the lack of progression from their young talent. That 2018 playoff run seemed to be the beginning of a star-level trajectory for both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, as they each elevated their game when it was called upon them. Instead, however, after leading Boston with 18.2 points per game in the playoffs the previous season, Tatum’s scoring dropped to only 15.7 the next season. Brown went through an even more serious drop-off in production, going from 18.0 points per game all the way down to just 13.0. These declines can be explained by adding Kyrie and his 18.5 shot attempts per game back into the mix, as the same opportunities that Tatum and Brown had before simply weren’t there anymore. With Irving seemingly on the move, Tatum and Brown can go back to a situation where they used to thrive.
There also appears to be an opportunity for Gordon Hayward to show that he can get back to the all-star level he played at during his last season in Utah. While there have been significant drop-offs in terms of explosiveness and driving ability after his horrific leg injury to begin the 2017-2018 season, he has actually grown when it comes to making plays for his teammates. During that all-star season in Utah, Hayward had an assist percentage of 18.2% with a usage rate of 27.2%, but last season for the Celtics he posted a similar assist percentage of 18.4% despite his usage rate declining to just 19.0%. Being that Irving and Horford led the team when it came to assist percentage last year (35.0% and 21.2% respectively), Hayward can look to prove that he can raise his numbers to similar levels with an increased usage rate.
Newfound Cap Space
With all of that talent already in house, the Celtics potential already far exceeds the depleted bottom-half of the eastern conference. However, another silver lining that comes from the departures of Irving and Horford is that they now have the financial flexibility to seek even more additional help.
With that being said, Kemba Walker has emerged as a potential Kyrie-replacement for the Celtics, as he is reportedly exploring his options after the incumbent Charlotte Hornets have apparently low-balled their superstar with a contract well below the super-max deal that he could’ve been given. While Kemba may not have as much talent as Irving, he can be just as good of a go-to option in clutch time. Last season, Walker proved to be one of the most dependable clutch guards in the NBA, posting a clutch player impact estimate of 22.7, putting him in the same tier as most other all-star guards and just barely behind Irving (23.9). Additionally, Kemba can be the type of vocal leader Boston hasn’t had since they traded away Isaiah Thomas, and that presence proved to be essential given the decimation of team chemistry last year and its negative impact on the court.
Even if Kemba doesn’t work out for the C’s, they have plenty of other options to choose from. They can dig deeper into the point guard market, perhaps seeking the services of either Malcolm Brogdon or D’Angelo Russell, or they can invest in potential Horford-replacements like Nikola Vucevic or Brook Lopez. Whichever way they ultimately decide to use their newfound wealth, it will certainly help their cause when stacking up against the other top teams in the league.
What to Expect from the Celtics Next Season
Speaking of Boston’s competition, it turns out that the Celtics aren’t the only eastern conference powerhouse that’s dealing with uncertainty this summer. After winning the championship last season, the Toronto Raptors await Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard’s decision on whether he comes back to defend the title or head west closer to home. Their in-division rival Philadelphia 76ers are also dependent on whether their mid-season acquired stars Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris want to reside in Philly long-term. Even the Milwaukee Bucks, who boasted the best record in the NBA and ended Boston’s playoff hopes last season, aren’t guaranteed to be as good with key contributors Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Brook Lopez, and Nikola Mirotic all being unrestricted free agents.
When we look towards the west, the injuries and looming free agency decisions of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson have made the 5-peat western conference champion and perennial title favorite Golden State Warriors more vulnerable than ever before. With so much up in the air across the entire league, don’t be surprised to see the Boston Celtics continue to be a top contender yet again. Whether it be from a new savvy free agent signing by Danny Ainge or positive regression from the squad’s young core, Boston will still be too internally talented to start rebuilding anytime soon. Therefore, look for this Celtics team to not go away quietly as they look to take advantage of the wide-open title hunt that will be 2019-2020 NBA season.