In the time-warping year that is 2020, Professional basketball is set to return before J.R Smith’s hands have even left the 2019-2020 Championship trophy. The specter of Covid still hangs over the world and the long winter ahead is driving everyone back indoors and back into isolation. Basketball in the Walt Disney World bubble was one of the few bright spots of a summer that will forever be remembered as one of the most trying and divisive times in our history. Now we will get to watch games again and just in time, it seems. We could use a distraction now, and basketball is as good as anything to fill the void.
So let’s the forget life-or-death questions for a minute, if we can. Let’s think about something truly fun and utterly irrelevent. Let’s think about all the interesting things related to a bunch pituitary cases stuffing a ball through a hoop. In this case, five questions about the Boston Celtics upcoming season.
What is Jaylen Brown’s Ceiling?
Jayson Tatum is the number-one option on the Celtics. That is no longer a question. In the past, it might have been Kyrie Irving or Gordon Heyward or Kemba Walker, but Boston is indisputably Tatum’s team now. With that question answered, the one that hangs over this season is: How good can Jaylen Brown be as Tatum’s number-two.
Brown has been very good in his first four seasons, showing an array of skills that could make him an elite two-way player. By Defensive win shares, he ranked 11th among guards last season. He averaged a career high 20.3 points per game and showed improved shooting ability with a career high in field goal percentage and his second-best 3-point percentage, while averaging more threes a game than in any previous season. His athletic ability has always been his greatest asset, but he has shown improved decision-making and shooting as he has developed. All of these improvements are enticing, but if the Celtics are going to beat teams like the Heat, the Bucks and the Sixers to win the East, Brown needs to level up again. If he continues to improve on both sides of the ball, he and Tatum might be the best one-two punch in the East and second only to Lebron and AD in the league. If this is Brown’s ceiling, however, he is good player and still a valuable starter on a contender, but he is not a superstar and the Celtics will need a few more things to break right to be in the upper echelon of the teams this year.
Can Tacko Fall really contribute?
Tacko Fall has been in the league for one season and he is already beloved. Of course, he is. He is fourteen feet tall and weighs 165. He can grab a quarter off the top of the backboard without jumping, which is good because he has a six-inch vertical. His wingspan is unknown but lies some below that of an F14 and above an Andean Condor. He is the most well-liked teammate since Bill Russell and he has never been seen without a smile. It is easy to assume with all these completely not-exaggerated traits, he would be a dominant basketball player. But the NBA is a cruel place and even exceptional size and length aren’t always enough.
The questions around Brown and a few others are central to how successful the Celtics will be, but the question of Tacko Fall is central to how fun the season will be. Fall still lacks many of the skills and basketball instincts he needs to be successful regular in the NBA but his coaches have been impressed with his development and work ethic. When he is on the court, it is impossible to look away from him. Even in a league stocked with seven-footers, his height stands out. Combined with his magnetic personality, that makes him someone every basketball fan can root for. If he can find a consistent role with Boston this season, it will make the games more fun to watch, plain and simple.
How bad are Kemba Walker’s knees?
When it became clear that the Celtics would need to move of the enigma that is Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker seemed like the prefect replacement. He could boast many of the same scoring and ball-handling abilities and pair those on-the-court skills with a more agreeable personality off the court. Walker might not have been everything that Irving, but he appeared to fit in better with the team in the locker room and he is certainly better suited to playing the secondary option now that Jayson Tatum has emerged as a star scorer.
Unfortunately, he shares one negative in common with Irving- his failing knees. Walker struggled in the later rounds of the playoffs last season after re-injuring his left knee and he will miss the start of the season thanks to that same injury. Back up point guard Jeff Teague will step in until Walker can return, but the Celtics will not be as dangerous without a fully operational Walker bringing the ball up. Walker was the paragon of durability in his first eight seasons with Charlotte. Boston won’t need to depend on him carrying as much of the offensive burden has the Hornets did, so they can bring him along slowly which should help him get back to that kind of dependability, but a smaller guard with failing knees is a recipe for a sharp decline. If Walker’s knees are going to be his demise, the Celtics will be missing a big piece in the puzzle going forward.
Can any of these kids play?
One candidate to step in for Walker long term could be the newly-drafted Peyton Pritchard, who looked great in his first time on an NBA court in Tuesday’s preseason game against the 76ers. The 22-year-old is the latest upside gamble the Celtics have taken late in the draft now that the run of high picks that netted Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum has elevated them back into contention.
That puts him in a group with Fall, Carsen Edwards, Javonte Green, Tremont Waters, Romeo Langford, Grant Williams and the Timelord himself, Robert Williams. All of these players are intriguing, all of them are young and all of them are giant question marks. The Celtics are a strong team one through seven. After that, there are few players who can be counted on. Having one or two guys step into a clear role off the bench could be huge for this team.
How far can Jayson Tatum carry this team?
Maybe Jaylen Brown will become Kawhi Leonard and dominant both ends of the floor. Maybe Tacko Fall will morph into peak Dikembe Mutombo. Maybe Kemba Walker will be Dame Lilliard throughout the playoffs and Grant Williams, Robert Williams and Carsen Edwards will force a three-way tie for the Most Improved Player Award. Maybe Marcus Smart will finally reveal he is, in fact, Thor of Asgard and smote Lebron James with Mjolnir to complete the Celtics sweep of Laker in the Finals.
More realistically, the team will go as far as Jayson Tatum can carry them. Tatum first showed his alpha-dog swagger in his rookie season, dunking on Lebron and helping drag a Kyrie-less Boston team to just a few points away from making the NBA Finals. In his third year, he established himself as a legit star, scoring 23.4 points per game in the regular season and 25.7 a game in the playoffs. He has become an impact defender and a dynamic creator on offense. He carried the team past Toronto in the bubble when Walker faltered on his damaged knee. Against Miami’s tenacious defense, he still managed 20-plus points in all six games, scoring 30 or more twice. He is their best player and when the games matter most, it will be Jayson Tatum who decided how far the Celtics can go this season.