Boston Celtics bold predictions for 2019
2018's been a strange year for the Celtics. They were, arguably, the best story in the NBA in the spring as they reached the Eastern Conference Finals -- and came within one game of the NBA Finals -- without their two best players. And they've been, arguably, one of the league's biggest disappointments so far in the fall and winter, stumbling along with a good-but-not-great record and looking nothing like the championship contender everyone expected they'd be.
That was 2018. What will 2019 bring? Let's take a look . . .
1. C's will have the best record in the East by the All-Star break
Considering how this season has played out, this seems hard to imagine I know. But the Celtics have been an underperforming bunch most of this season and yet they are only 4.5 games out of first in the East. It may seem like a lot of ground to make up, but remember this: Every team in the league has more than 20 games left to be played between now and the All-Star break (the Celtics have 25), so there’s plenty of opportunities to cut into the Raptors' lead. Toronto has had a great start to the season but have been sputtering a bit lately, losing as many games (5) as it has won (5) in their last 10 games. Of course the Celtics will need some help in overtaking the Raptors for the best record by the break (they only play them one more time between now and the All-Star break), but a spot atop the Eastern Conference standings is there for the taking if the Celtics can continue to build off their play recently (Thursday night notwithstanding).
2. Gordon Hayward will return to starting lineup
As we get closer to the All-Star break, I anticipate we’ll see Hayward become more and more comfortable with the first unit of Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Marcus Smart. They have played in 12 games this season, and have a plus/minus of +19.4 per 48 minutes according to nba.com/stats. Don’t be surprised if the Celtics decide to at some point move Marcus Morris back to the bench to strengthen the second unit, which has been up and down since Morris and Smart entered the starting lineup. Morris has shown the ability to impact the game as a starter as well as coming off the bench, so his minutes are still going to be there. The key for Hayward in returning to the first group is to regain that explosive burst to the basket that we’ve seen glimpses of lately. When that returns consistently, Hayward’s play will improve dramatically and make the transition of returning to the starting lineup a smooth process.
3. Al Horford will average a career low in minutes played
The patellofemoral pain syndrome Al Horford has been dealing with has limited his minutes some. But even when the minutes restriction is lifted, look for the Celtics to be very strategic in how they utilize him. He’s averaging a career-low 29.6 minutes this season, and that number isn’t going to change dramatically going forward. In fact, there’s a decent chance that it might take a slightly deeper dip. It isn’t because Horford isn’t getting the job done. It has more to do with the Celtics wanting to best ensure that the veteran big man is ready to log major minutes in the playoffs, which is when his strengths as a player, as a leader, will be in demand far more than they are now.
4. Kyrie Irving will finish in the top 5 for league MVP
Every year it seems there’s a new face to the top-5 mix, often it being a high-scoring guard. We saw it with Isaiah Thomas a couple years ago, and we’ll see it again this year with Kyrie Irving. The scoring he's done since he came into the league, is still there. But Irving’s impact on the game goes beyond just getting buckets now. He’s rebounding the ball, getting it to others, drawing charges, doing so many of the little things that collectively add up to an impressive resume of accomplishments. And doing that along with the team’s succeess, will solidify his place this season as one of the NBA’s top performers.
5. Marcus Smart will be All-NBA first team defense
For years, Marcus Smart has been viewed as one of the league’s premier defenders. Well, that respect is going to be finally honored this season with a spot on the league’s All-NBA Defensive First Team. The difference he has made with the starting unit is undeniable. And that difference is heavily rooted in what he brings to the table defensively and maybe just as important, his defense and how it impacts those around him. He has done all that you’re supposed to do in order to solidify one’s self as an elite defender, the kind of defender that’s recognized as one of the NBA’s best - an honor he will be bestowed with in 2019.