By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- The Celtics tip off their 2021-22 season tonight in New York. Boston lightly tapped the reset button over the offseason for a soft reboot, rather than ripping the cord out of the wall and completely starting over.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown remain the pillars of the franchise. Brad Stevens is now in the front office in place of the retired Danny Ainge, while first-year head coach Ime Udoka is at the helm on the bench. Gone is Kemba Walker, who is home in New York, with Marcus Smart set to take over at the point for Boston. Al Horford is back to provide some veteran leadership (and a potential trade chip) while the Celtics also tout a vastly improved bench.
But given how last season went, the expectations for these Celtics are somewhat low. And fairly so, considering things went real bad for the most part in 2020-21. COVID and injury issues didn't help, but all teams had to deal with those. Last year, it seemed like the Celtics would take any excuse they could and run with it. They seemed to compete well against the good teams, but then totally flounder against the bad ones. Last year's Celtics were not good enough to run with such a mentality.
But it should be different this year, with a new voice leading the way on the bench. And that low bar heading into the season could lead to a surprising end for the 2021-22 Boston Celtics. It's not going finish with a banner, but this year's Celtics should be a lot more enjoyable to watch each and every night, and should play a brand of basketball that fans are actually happy to cheer on.
Here are a few storylines we'll be following throughout the year.
You've probably heard this a thousand times before, but it starts and ends with Tatum and Brown. Tatum is a superstar in the making and Brown is pretty damn good in his own right. Either can take over a game on a nightly basis, and Boston's success rests on their shoulders.
Tatum was awesome last year, and should be even more awesome this year. He's added some more bulk and showed a lot more power when driving to the basket during preseason action. Those missed layups that usually led to Tatum complaining that he was fouled (and more times than not, he was) will soon become some ferocious dunks. He's going to be able to move some mountains in the paint, which should get him to the line a little more, which should, in turn, increase his offensive production each night. He also got a taste of some championship ball after winning an Olympic gold medal over the summer, an experience that should benefit Boston going forward.
Brown is always adding a new wrinkle to his game, and in the preseason, it looked like he added another gear to his transition game. That will make him all the more dangerous on both ends of the floor. Brown had a career season last year, and was still playing well when it ended early with a lingering wrist ailment. He should be even better in 2021-22.
Year Of The (Time)Lord
Most Celtics fans, and the Celtics themselves, are pretty confident that Tatum and Brown are going to produce and likely do so at a high level.
But we keep asking who that third banana is going to be behind that star duo. If Robert Williams can develop into a legit third wheel, the Celtics are going to be real dangerous for years to come.
Williams has a hefty new deal to live up to, and he has a lot of ways to make his game better than what we've seen over his first three NBA seasons. He needs to be more sound on defense (stop leaving the paint to defend threes!), and he needs to attack more on offense. But the biggest ability he needs to show is his availability. He needs to be out there for at least 70 games this year.
The team plays with more energy with Williams on the floor, and he makes life easier on Boston's two stars. But he, of course, needs to be out there to make his impact.
Please Behave, Marcus
Smart is now the starting point guard in place of the departed Walker, which is a good thing. He'll be in charge of quarterbacking the offense, and hopefully -- HOPEFULLY -- that added responsibility means he won't be jacking up as many shots himself. Smart promised to display a wiser shot selection heading into last season, and then proceeded to take his usual maddening medley of bad shots.
Smart is an excellent passer, and hopefully his play-making abilities are put on full display throughout the season. His new role should give him more focus, and if Williams can become a true third option on offense, Smart will have a nice target down low.
Chances are we'll likely still get a few moments of pure silliness out of Smart. That is just who he is. But Udoka is not messing around -- suspending Smart for missing a team flight during the preseason -- so maybe he'll be able to keep Smart in check throughout the year.
A Better Bench
A severe lack of depth hurt last year's Celtics. Danny Ainge did the team no favors following up the loss of Gordon Hayward by adding only Jeff Teague and Tristan Thompson to the mix.
Brad Stevens has, at least on paper, done a much better job in his first year in the front office. He got Dennis Schroder on a bargain deal while also adding Josh Richardson to the backcourt mix. Enes Kanter is back for some bench work. Juancho Hernangomez is also set to play some important minutes off the bench, and could even get some starts in place of Horford when matchups call for it. Those are two actual big bodies, which means Grant Williams doesn't have to pretend to be a center anymore.
It's also safe to assume that both Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith will make some serious Year 2 strides. Nesmith should especially carve out a role with his three-point shooting and high motor, which were both on display late last season and in Vegas over the summer.
In Ime We Trust
Udoka is leading a team for the first time, so there really is no telling how this will go. But the early signs are promising. He's bringing in a defensive mindset, something the Celtics kind of forgot about last season. He's also made it clear that he wants his players to knock off the whining to officials, and if he can get them to cut that out, then he truly is a miracle worker.
Players told Stevens they wanted a tough coach while the new C's president was looking for his replacement, and it appears they'll get that in Udoka. Now let's hope this fresh voice is the one that the team needs to take the next step. It may not be this year, but it could come very soon with a Popovich disciple leading the way.
A Loaded East
The Celtics hit the reset button over the offseason, and that has expectations for the team rather low. It's not a bad place to be, since it will make it a lot easier for the squad to exceed those expectations.
What won't make it easier is a loaded Eastern Conference. The Milwaukee Bucks are the defending champs. The Nets may not have Kyrie Irving this season, but they still have Kevin Durant, James Harden and an extremely talented group behind them, with many putting them above the Bucks in preseason rankings. The Miami Heat figure to be a Top 4 team in the conference, and the Atlanta Hawks are also in the mix after their surprising run to the Conference Finals.
Then you've got the much improved Bulls, the soap opera 76ers and the Pacers and the Knicks figuring somewhere into the mix. The Celtics are firmly implanted in that second-tier of teams in the East. If things go well, they'll be somewhere around the 5-6 seed. If things go really well for Boston (and not so well for others), the C's could maybe jump to the four-seed. If they really exceed expectations and fire on all cylinders all season long -- we're talking a top defense and Tatum playing at an MVP level -- they could maybe even shock the conference and finish third. That is extremely optimistic, and extremely unlikely. And if things go bad, they'll be back in the play-in tournament.
We're a long ways off from the spring and summer, so for now, let's see how the team comes together in October and November before worrying about how the Eastern Conference standings will shake out. But it should be a wild season in the East, and the Celtics should be battling for a spot somewhere in the middle throughout the campaign.
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