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2018-19 Season Preview: Boston’s Potential

The Time is Now for The Celtics.


Oxford Dictionary defines it as “having or showing the capacity to become or develop into something in the future.”

But in the sports world, it’s a far more empty term. It’s a word that we throw around carelessly. It’s a word that we religiously hurl at whatever young, trendy team with “upside” makes some noise during a particular era.

We thought the “Lob City” Clippers had potential. We thought Derrick Rose‘s Bulls had potential. “7 seconds or less” revolutionized basketball, but Mike D’Antoni‘s Suns never quite got over the hump. What about The Thunder? At one point, they started three future MVP’s; only one remains on the roster. The Hawks won 60 games during the 2014-15 season and we thought so much of it that we gave them four all-star slots that year; then, LeBron swept them and everybody came back down to Earth. Need I go on?

Potential can be a dangerous thing to have if you never harness it. With potential comes pressure. And where there’s pressure, oftentimes there’s failure. A team that once seemed to be a future perennial title contender can easily join the NBA’s long list of “What If?” stories if they underachieve.

The Celtics find themselves in that place. They find themselves at the start of something either really special or extremely disappointing. But it’s not entirely their fault.

We’ve made a really big deal out of talented youngsters like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Many of us have crowned Brad Stevens as the game’s brightest young mind. And when you pair that with a superstar guard like Kyrie Irving and an all-star forward returning from injury in Gordon Hayward, it becomes human nature for basketball fans to set expectations high.

The Celtics just tie up their shoes, stretch, warm up, break the huddle, and go compete with maximum effort every night. They just happen to be really good at basketball, but we create the pressure, and we decide who has “potential.”

When we last saw this team in live action, they lost an Eastern Conference Finals Game 7 to the best player of all time. They were led by young competitors who rarely shied from the moment, Brown, 21, and Tatum, 20. They were eight points shy of conquering LeBron James on one of the game’s biggest stages.

But it was clear they missed Irving (24.4 PPG, 5.1 APG, 49.1 FG%), a veteran superstar in his prime who could have helped capitalize on one of Boston’s two chances to put his former teammates away. They were the better team from top to bottom, but they lacked the punch Irving could have provided and the veteran leadership that Al Horford couldn’t quite handle on his own. Had Irving been available, it’s hard to argue they wouldn’t have succeeded. With James off to LA and out of the conference, this emerging Boston team is the clear favorite to come out of the East in 2019.

There’s been very little roster turnover, with the team returning their top seven scorers from last season. According to reports, Hayward (15.6 PPG, 3.4 APG, 44.1 FG%) expects to play in the Celtics’ season opener, two years removed from his first all-star season and one year removed from a devastating leg injury. His availability, and rookie draft pick Robert Williams, are the only notable additions. As for subtractions, the Celtics parted ways with veteran big Greg Monroe, who never quite managed to fit in, and guard Shane Larkin.

The Celtics ranked first in the league in defensive rating last year (103.9), allowing just 100.4 PPG to opponents (third). Brad Steven’s defense was put on full display in the playoffs, as they smothered teams on their way to a 10-1 home playoff record. They should only improve this season, as young wings Tatum and Brown gain more experience and defensive studs like Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier remain in their prime and poised to contribute.

Speaking of Rozier, he filled in admirably for Irving post-surgery and looked like the team’s heartbeat at times. He’ll provide excellent bench depth to a team that could use some work on the offensive end. Next season, they should rank better than 18th (107.6) in offensive rating.

They’ll certainly appreciate the return of Irving’s electric scoring ability, particularly in the playoffs, when they scored less than 100 points eight times and struggled to win on the road. Moreover, they retained the steady, versatile offensive presence of Horford. They’ll also greatly appreciate the continued development of Jayson Tatum, who on many nights was the center of Boston’s offense and looked like a young Kobe Bryant.

“I’ve watched it 25 times,” said Tatum, in reference to Kobe Bryant’s “Detail” feature on him.

Tatum has the makings of a special offensive talent and should take a giant leap forward in 2018-19. The offensive potential of an Irving/Tatum Batman and Robin dynamic is one of many reasons we salivate over the future of this team. In conjunction with the talented Brown, and the full availability of Hayward, Boston’s offense should jump into top 10 territory next season. There’s just too many good offensive weapons, and Stevens is too great of an offensive mind. The Celtics will share the ball and score in bunches.

As for competition in the East, LeBron’s departure and Kawhi Leonard‘s arrival in Toronto change the power dynamic. Cleveland, despite the talent of rookie Collin Sexton, has become largely irrelevant in an instant. However, the Raptors and 76ers can both make a case for being the Celtics chief competition, and sleeper teams like Washington and New York (yes, I said it) make the conference a lot better than most realize.

But the Celtics should come out of the conference without too much of a struggle. John Wall‘s Wizards consistently underachieve. The Knicks are building something, but are one or two pieces away from giving Boston any kind of trouble and Kristaps Porzingis‘s injury creates necessary doubt. The 76ers have tremendous talent at the top with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, but lack the offensive depth of the Celtics, and Ben Simmons will never beat a Brad Stevens-coached team until he develops a decent jump shot.

The Raptors are the most intriguing potential upset. Kawhi is a hungry, motivated superstar who’s trying to get paid on the open market next free agency. He’s the best player in the conference and can give any offensive player fits with his defensive prowess. But one player can’t beat the Celtics unless his name is LeBron, and rookie head coach Nick Nurse will find it very difficult to out-scheme Stevens on a playoff stage. Also, like Philadelphia, the Raptors can’t match the wealth of offensive weapons the Celtics have.

The time is now for Boston to enter yet another golden era. Re-signing Irving before he hits the market next summer is a priority that should remain in the back of their minds, but they have the means to win a championship now. They are arguably the league’s second-most talented team and can beat any Western Conference opponent in the Finals, including the hyper-talented Warriors.

They might be underdogs in a hypothetical matchup, but the Celtics hold a coaching advantage over every team they face. They fly around defensively and have a multitude of talented offensive weapons that can score 25 or more on any given night. The Celtics can’t afford to “wait their turn.” If any team can upset five all-stars, it’s Boston. 

There is no glass ceiling for this team — no level of achievement that wouldn’t be a disappointment other than a championship, no unfortunate injury luck this season that will have us saying “they did well when you consider who they lost” (hopefully). 

That was last year. They’re ready, and they have a leader who knows what it feels like to make memorable plays on the biggest stage and win a championship. As long as they re-sign Irving, this is the start of an era for Boston, an era in which every season is either championship or bust.

The Celtics have what we like to call “potential,” a clichéd, useless, overhyped, wonderful, glorious thing to have. Every team wants “potential,” but can the Celtics seize it?

Edited by Jeremy Losak, Brian Kang, Dani Quintana.

How many Celtics averaged double figures in scoring in 17/18?
Created 9/16/18
  1. 4
  2. 8
  3. 9
  4. 12

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