A year after being the No. 3 seed and making the Conference Finals, the 2020-21 Celtics took a step back, finishing as the seventh seed before being dominated by the Brooklyn Nets in the first round. Last season promoted several changes in the front office, on the coaching staff and on the roster for the Celtics. The hope has to be that 2020-21 was just an off year in one of the weirdest years in league history.
Projected Vegas Win Total: 45.5
Biggest Addition: Ime Udoka
There are a few ways to answer this question for Boston. Al Horford could be an answer as he returns to Boston. Dennis Schroder is another considering he is functionally replacing Kemba Walker. But the right answer feels like Ime Udoka, who replaced Brad Stevens (now the Celtics’ general manager) as head coach.
Udoka has a strong pedigree coming from the Gregg Popovich coaching tree and should bring a new voice to a team that might need to take a step forward in the Eastern Conference. He’s also coming into a a situation with All-Star players and an expectation to win right now. Among first-year head coaches, Udoka may be the most interesting to follow over the course of the season considering all that will be thrown at him.
Biggest Loss: Kemba Walker
Walker wasn’t ever really at his Hornets-era peak with the Celtics, largely due to injury issues. But he was still a key piece the last few years and it’s unclear how moving on from him to a point guard rotation of Schroder and Payton Pritchard will impact this team.
Without Walker, it’ll be worth watching to see how Udoka organizes the offense. It seems possible that he leans more on Tatum and Brown to lead the offense and create for others. Schroder is also a good pick-and-roll player, so maybe a Schroder-Horford pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop can be a staple of whatever Boston runs on offense.
It’s also worth noting that replacing Walker goes beyond this year. Schroder is on a one-year deal, so he isn’t locked in for the future like Tatum and Brown are. It seems possible that the offense is built not just for right now, but to succeed if/when Schroder is playing somewhere else in 2022.
Biggest Question: Can Jayson Tatum make another leap?
Depending on who you ask, Jayson Tatum is top-10 to top-20 player in the NBA. Last season, he was heavily impacted by contracting COVID-19 and it feels fair to assume that wasn’t the best version of Tatum. He’s also only 23 years old still and is in the age range where he could take another leap and hit an entire new level as a player. If he ascends right now and puts himself in the MVP race, a top-four (or better) seed could be in play for the Celtics.
What Makes This Season A Success: A deep playoff run
The Celtics have done the hard work — they have two All-Stars and have a fairly deep roster around it. There’s some new pieces coming in and it’s not exactly clear what Horford brings in his return at age 35. Udoka also has to hit for this season to reach its full potential. But a deep playoff run that seems Tatum and Brown lead the team to the Eastern Conference Finals would undoubtedly feel like a success.
What Makes This Season A Failure: An early exit from the playoffs
The Eastern Conference is, at least on paper, better this year. Even so, because they have Tatum and Brown, anything like last season would be a failure for Boston. This team should be, at minimum, in the top-six of the East and have a better shot than last year of getting to the second round at least. If they slip into the play-in tournament again or are bounced early, that’s a problem.