By Jusneel Mahal
Boston University News Service
Plagued by injuries and saddled with an underwhelming 36-36 record last year, the Celtics are looking to bounce back after an anemic season that saw them eliminated by the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs.
Following the team’s early playoff exit, changes came from the top down, with Danny Ainge stepping down as team president after 18 years. Brad Stevens then moved up from his role as head coach to be the new president of basketball operations.
Stevens, who logged an overall record of 354-282 with the Celtics across his six seasons as coach, made several splashy moves in quick succession during the offseason.
Those moves included hiring the highly sought after Nets assistant coach, Ime Udoka, to take the helm as head coach, while sending the injury-prone Kemba Walker to the Oklahoma City Thunder for former Celtic Al Horford.
Stevens then signed ex-Laker Dennis Schroder to a low risk, one-year contract and used the remainder of the historic Gordon Hayward trade exception to acquire Josh Richardson from the Dallas Mavericks.
The 35-year old Horford is slated to provide playmaking and shooting, which the team appeared to struggle with when it came to the outgoing big-men Daniel Thies and Tristan Thompson from last season.
Before OKC shut him down for the season for tanking-related purposes, Horford was averaging 14.2 points per game on 45% shooting.
The Celtics’ big man-rotation also includes Grant Williams, who has shown flashes of promise when healthy. Williams also came into camp in noticeably better shape and appears to be primed for a breakout season.
Meanwhile, the divisive Schroder is looking to rebound from a poor postseason showing, in which he shot just 30% from three. Just two seasons ago, Schroder averaged 18.9 points on an effective field goal percentage of 53.4%.
Ball dominant players tend to struggle alongside LeBron James, so it’s possible Schroder just needed a change in scenery.
According to Coach Udoka, Schroder will play primarily next to sharp-shooting, second-year guard Payton Pritchard.
“Another thing we’ve talked about that’s worked well in practice, and we want to see if it can translate to the games, would be Dennis and Payton playing together at times,” Udoka said earlier this preseason. “Two playmakers and obviously Payton’s shooting ability. We want to see at times if we can get away with that smaller lineup, especially at the guard spot.”
With all that said, the 2021 Celtics will only go as far as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will take them. Both players are in the prime of their careers and are coming off of all-star seasons in which they averaged career highs in points and assists.
The next leap for Brown and Tatum is in the playmaking department.
The isolation-heavy players have yet to show that they can make their teammates better. As of right now, it’s difficult envisioning this team beating the Nets and Bucks in a seven-game playoff series considering that they wouldn’t have the best player on the court in both match-ups.
Despite this, the deeper Celtics are expected to bounce back and avoid the play-in tournament in the loaded Eastern Conference. Their most-used lineup played just 131 minutes together last season (fewest for any playoff team’s most-used lineup).
But the team’s bad luck appears to have not dissipated yet, as Brown and Horford recently tested positive for COVID-19.
It remains to be seen if the two projected starters will be available for the team’s season opener against the New York Knicks on October 20th.