May 21, 2020, 1:07 am
The Celtics were coming off of one of the most disappointing seasons in their franchise’s history and were desperately looking to improve the culture and chemistry by any means. Their 2019 offseason featured the departures of Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris, who were four of their eight primary players during the 2018-19 season.
Irving had promised at the start of the season that he would re-sign, but as things progressed and the locker room derailed, his entire mood and opinion on the situation shifted. Horford and Rozier were simply unaffordable for the Celtics as they both wanted contracts above $15 million annually, which was not doable with the current roster. Morris was seemingly unhappy with how the year went and knew that he needed a change of scenery. With those four gone, the youth movement had begun in Boston.
All that remained before free agency was Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart. It was looking like the Celtics were on a downhill slope and that some semblance of rebuilding may be in order. However, Trader Danny had other ideas and decided to swing big in free agency.
He offered Kemba Walker a max contract with the money that he saved from shedding four big salaries. It seemed like love at first sight as Walker signed fairly quickly and was ecstatic to be signed with one of the most successful franchises of all time.
Aside from the Walker signing, Ainge decided to give Enes Kanter a contract to platoon at center with Daniel Theis. Although I had only mentioned those four main guys above, Theis turned out to be a solid starting center. The roster was starting to take shape and it did not seem like rebuilding was on Ainge’s mind at all.
The last element of the offseason was the NBA Draft, where the Celtics selected Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, Carsen Edwards and Tremont Waters. All four of them were signed, as was undrafted free agent Tacko Fall. Fall quickly became a fan favorite and everyone in Boston absolutely loves him.
With the roster set, the season was underway and the Celtics immediately jumped off to a better start than expected. They started out at a masterful 10-1 and inserted themselves into the Eastern Conference championship debate early. Although they had two separate stretches during the season where they lost six out of eight games and four out of five games, the confidence and chemistry never seemed to waver. There was no arguing and no blaming one another, just basketball.
The Celtics ended at 43-21 before the NBA season went on hiatus and were the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Things were going great and there was some continuity in their success as long as the injury bug did not hit them. The season was going much better than expected and many Celtics fans were confident that they would face the Bucks in the ECF and could even beat them. Let’s get into five elements of the Celtics’ season that stood out to me.
Jayson Tatum’s Evolution
Jayson Tatum was already loved by Celtics fans despite his down sophomore season, but his eruption into an All-Star was better than any fan could have expected. He started his career off with dunking on LeBron James in the ECF in 2018. Many fans believe that Tatum was here to stay as soon as that moment occurred. The 2019-20 season proved them right as Tatum made a tremendous leap at just 21 years of age. His numbers this season are phenomenal and he has thrived in his role with increased responsibility.
Tatum is averaging 23.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.9 blocks in 34.6 minutes per game in 59 games played. He shot 47.9 percent from inside the arc and 39.8 percent from 3-point territory. It seemed like every element of Tatum’s game was improved and he was becoming the new face of the franchise that everyone hoped he would become. It’s been even better in fantasy, where Tatum is posting second/first-round value in 8/9-cat leagues, and he may be pushing for a first-round ADP next season as he continues to develop.
There are some signature moments that have highlighted his leap during his age 21 season. Among those moments is when he crossed up Paul George and hit the game-tying triple with 10 seconds remaining against what was supposed to be the best team in the NBA, the LA Clippers. He also crossed up RJ Barrett and hit a go-ahead jumper with under two seconds remaining. Horford caught Tatum’s wrath and got dunked on when the two met in Boston. Tatum was beginning to look like the guy who would have the ball in his hands for the last shot rather than Walker.
However, Walker is one of the best teammates in the entire NBA and is completely okay with sharing the spotlight with you guys like Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Tatum is beginning to garner the label “clutch.”
One could even say that Tatum made the leap from young starter to superstar in just one season. It may be early to put the superstar label on him, but all he needs is a ring and clutch play in the playoffs to make that next step.
Jayson Tatum has arrived.
Hayward Finally Healthy
Gordon Hayward is potentially the most overlooked player on the 2019-20 Celtics roster due to his fall after his time with the Jazz and recent injury history. Hayward is easily the most consistent player the Celtics have and has an insanely high basketball IQ. He takes good shots and regularly makes the winning plays. Although Hayward played just 45 out of 64 games, that is a huge step up compared to what he has gone through the past two seasons. Hayward is appreciated in Boston and is a key cog to their success.
Hayward played 33.4 minutes per game in his 45 contests and averaged 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists on 50.2 percent shooting. This was he Gordon Hayward that the Celtics signed and it finally feels like he is back to playing like himself, with top-50 fantasy returns (per-game) to boot. He is stopping on a dime, popping mid-range jumpers and going to the basket with no hesitation. Clearing the roster spots has put more pressure on Hayward to be the guy that they signed and he has certainly delivered this season.
On November 5th, the Celtics beat the Cavaliers 119-113 in a game that was way closer than it should have been. Hayward put up 39 points with seven rebounds and eight assists on 17-of-20 shooting in 33 minutes. That was the moment that we began to feel that this season could be different for Hayward and he could finally take the next step in terms of both health and performance while wearing the Celtics green. He scored 20 or more points in 19 of his 45 games and consistently shot the ball well whenever he was needed to score.
Hayward’s transformation into an efficient scorer is the reason that some could consider him at his peak form currently. He is shooting the best percentage of his career and is scoring above 17 points per game as the fourth option on a powerhouse offense. This season would have been Hayward’s chance to prove that he is healthy and will perform well in the playoffs for a Celtics team that would have relied on his veteran presence quite a bit. It was encouraging to see such a strong season from Hayward after two miserable years due to injuries and an overcrowded roster.
Ability to Beat Top Teams
The Celtics were 9-6 against top-4 seeds from each conference respectively, which is encouraging sign as those teams are the Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets, Bucks, Raptors, Heat and Jazz. They are 1-1 against the Clippers with both games going past regulation, which could make for an extremely entertaining series if they were to both reach the NBA Finals. Against the East, the Celtics are 2-0 against the Heat, 1-1 against the Bucks and 2-1 against the Raptors. Although 9-6 is not an amazing record, they have proven that they are able to compete with any team.
The only discouraging part about their play against top teams came against the Sixers, the sixth seed in the East. They would meet in the first round of the playoffs and the Celtics are 1-3 against them on the season. The Sixers could end their season quickly and put any thoughts regarding a Celtics Cinderella season to rest. However, the Celtics have evolved throughout the season and their losses were all January 9th or earlier, while their win was when they matched up in February. The Celtics are a better team than they were early in the season as Tatum has evolved and Walker has gotten more comfortable with his teammates.
The biggest concern will be whether or not they have someone to stop Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.Those are the three biggest players of the 2020 playoffs and Jayson Tatum will be faced with a very difficult task if he is asked to guard any of them in a series. The Celtics have a top-5 defense as a team and that is due in large part to Brad Stevens, but guarding superstars is something that the Celtics will struggle with when the postseason rolls around.
Ultimately, if the Rozier-led Celtics could make it to the ECF and take King James to seven games, this much improved Celtics squad definitely is capable of making it to the Finals and winning the Finals. There should be a ton of optimism in Boston as the best days are ahead.
Although this section is titled Balanced Offense, it should be most Balanced offense. The Celtics are the only team in the NBA with three 20-plus point per game scorers with Tatum, Walker and Brown all above the mark. On top of that, Gordon Hayward is at 17.3 points and Marcus Smart has taken a huge offensive leap as well. A lot of the credit goes to these five guys, but there is one man that has taken an immense leap and is a vital part of all successful lineups: Daniel Theis. All six of these guys help attribute to the Celtics’ fifth-best offense in the NBA and any combination of them on the court is typically a success.
The most used and successful lineups are Walker, Brown, Hayward, Tatum, Theis and Walker, Smart, Hayward, Tatum, Theis. Following those two lineups are Smart, Brown, Hayward, Tatum, Theis and Walker, Smart, Brown, Tatum, Theis. Based on minutes, these lineups produce extremely well and all four feature the same six players. Although the Celtics do have depth with Semi Ojeleye, Enes Kanter, Brad Wanamaker and Grant Williams as their next role players, their best lineups are with those six players.
Looking deeper into lineup combinations, the best three-man combos are Smart, Hayward, Tatum and Walker, Tatum, Theis. The best two-man combos are Walker and Tatum, Hayward and Tatum and Smart and Hayward. These numbers are encouraging because you are not going to have Brad Wanamaker or Romeo Langford on the court in the final minutes of a playoff games. The Celtics have star power and their best lineups can match up with the best lineups from almost any team in the NBA.
The dominance of those six guys is evident in their fantasy production, as all six of them range from 12th to 78th in per-game value in 9-cat formats. Tatum sits at 12th, Walker is 42nd, Hayward is 44th, Smart is 57th, Brown is 69th and Theis is 78th.
The Celtics definitely feature the most balanced offense in the NBA as there is not one person that is always expected to carry the load. This versatility would have definitely allowed them to compete for the NBA title with the best teams in the league.
The Smart Effect
Marcus Smart is one player that will always be cherished by Boston fans as they thank Danny Ainge for deeming him untouchable. Smart makes the winning plays and there is always a sense of security when he is on the court. He is one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA and now that he is consistently able to knock down the 3-ball, he is a perfect 3-and-D guard. He can guard any position but center and Stevens would probably even be willing to put him on a center depending on who it is. He makes consistent game-winning and game-saving plays on both ends of the floor and he is definitely one of the most underrated clutch players in today’s game.
This season, Smart has hit numerous clutch triples and has sealed a game against the Thunder with a steal. He set the mark for 3-pointers in a game with 11 when he lit up the Suns for 37 points with five rebounds and eight assists. He has made play after play and has an extremely high defensive IQ. Smart should definitely be the most appreciated player by Celtics fans as he does all the dirty work on both ends of the floor that leads to the stars looking like the heroes.
The Smart effect is a key element of the Celtics success and Ainge seems to see exactly what many fans see when admiring Smart’s game. Fantasy players can appreciate it too, as his always-elite steals numbers are no longer doing all of the heavy lifting thanks to 4.8 assists, 2.4 triples and 13.2 points (the latter two are career-highs) per game. Smart, once a borderline 12-team player, is now a steady top-60 value.
Bonus: Optimistic Future Ahead
The Celtics have Smart, Brown, Walker and soon probably Tatum under team control for the next two seasons and they are all going to be at the top of their game while under their next contract. They should be able to complete for years and dominate the fantasy game as well as they all offer versatile skill sets that translate quite well to fantasy. Although their current rookies do not look like they will be NBA stars, we could see Grant Williams and Romeo Langford develop into solid role players.
They have Memphis’ first-round pick in the 2020 draft and will shed the contract of Hayward after next season, so they will have money once again if they decide to go for a big free agent to team up with Tatum, Brown, Walker and Smart. Although it is wishful thinking that they will keep the team intact for years without making moves, Ainge has shown that he has faith in this group. On the other hand, he did not hesitate to move Isaiah Thomas for Kyrie Irving so anything can happen at any time.
It feels unfair to have written this article without mentioning how much Jaylen Brown has evolved as well. Brown has started taking people off the dribble with confidence and shooting at an efficient clip. He averaged 20.4 points and 6.4 rebounds on 49.0 percent shooting from the field and 38.1 percent shooting from beyond the arc. He was a borderline All-Star and has taken the big step that many feared he would not take. It’s been a big jump in fantasy too, as Brown is a solid middle-round option after being an unrealistic 12-team asset for the first three years of his career. Improved efficiency and extra opportunity has led to the leap, which fits the theme of this year’s improved Celtics squad.
Brown is an above average defender and has now developed into an offensive threat as well. He is just as appreciated and valued as every other member of the Celtics core, and the dynamic duo of Tatum and Brown could wreak havoc on the league for years to come.
Regardless, the Celtics have a ton to look forward to and this season was just a glimpse of how great this team could become.