The bright yellow Yankee charter busses rumbled down Route 24 last September filled with a blend of optimism and uncertainty.
The Boston Celtics’ roster had undergone such an extreme summer makeover that coach Brad Stevens joked how his players might need name tags for the first day of training camp, and yet there was no denying the potential of the talent on board.
The Celtics had just completed their Media Day chores on a studio lot in suburban Boston where they straddled that line between confidence and caution. In one breath, Kyrie Irving was telling new teammates Gordon Hayward and Al Horford that they should strut with the swagger of Charlie’s Angels during a laugh-filled first photo shoot together, then Irving pleaded for patience while answering questions about how quickly on-court chemistry might come for these new-look Celtics.
The decision to travel to Newport, Rhode Island for training camp, a page out of the playbook of Boston’s previous Big Three era, was a late audible for the Celtics. The plan had been to stay close to home and let players sleep in their own beds. But the jaw-dropping, late-summer addition of Irving left Boston with just four returning players from the previous season and encouraged Stevens to take the show on the road with a goal of forging chemistry.
But as Boston’s busses spanned the Sakonnet River Bridge, there were no guarantees that this would work, at least not immediately. Completely overhauling a conference finalist is a bold strategy but one that Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge felt necessary if his team was ever going to emerge as a legitimate title contender.
What happened over the next three days inside the shingle-style exterior of Salve Regina University's quaint Rodgers Recreation Center surprised even the most sanguine of Boston staffers. Irving, Hayward, and Horford showed immediate chemistry, their skill sets complementing each other at both ends of the court. Jaylen Brown firmly asserted himself as ready for an elevated role in his sophomore season. And, maybe most notably, 19-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum overcame typical first-day jitters and showed flashes that suggested he could be an immediate impact player at the NBA level.
In those first days of camp, it became obvious that Boston’s most skilled lineup featured that combination of Irving, Brown, Hayward, Tatum, and Horford. And so was born one of the league’s most intriguing five-man lineups.
Call them the Newport 5. And, after playing just five regular-season minutes together last season, Boston’s projected starting group is eager to reintroduce themselves to the rest of the NBA this season.
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It’s no coincidence that the Celtics herded Irving, Brown, Hayward, Tatum and Horford together for a photo shoot during Monday’s Media Day. The snapshots left Celtics fan swooning and even Kevin Garnett chimed in from his Area 21 Twitter account:
While Stevens has playfully teased reporters about how he hasn’t declared his starting lineup, it seems a good bet that the Newport 5 will see plenty of run this season.
Yes, Aron Baynes will slide into a starting role at times this season when Stevens desires some extra heft against opponents with sinewy centers. And it’s hard to imagine that Marcus Smart isn’t going to find his way onto the floor during end-of-game situations, so the closing lineup could vary.
But the Irving/Brown/Hayward/Tatum/Horford combo should be one of Boston’s most-used pairings, and with good reason.
"We can be really, really good,” Tatum said of the starting 5. "We’re very versatile. We get out and run. And just, defensively, we’ve got a lot of guys that can go out in multiple different positions, and I think that’s what is most important.
"When you think about it honestly, everybody’s trying to build their team to be Golden State. It’s not just about outscoring them, you gotta stop them, and having guys that can switch and go hard.”
Golden State, of course, has the Hamptons 5, the championship combo of Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, with a nickname born out of famous Long Island recruiting trip that delivered Durant to the Bay Area.
With title aspirations, the Celtics are well aware that the path to a championship likely goes through the Warriors, who beefed up their own roster this summer with the addition of a rehabbing All-Star DeMarcus Cousins. Unfazed, Irving has already declared that he believes the Celtics could beat the Warriors in a seven-game series. And his fellow starters don’t shy away when asked whether the Newport 5 could go toe to toe with the Hamptons 5.
"It’s going to be tough,” said Tatum, “But I like our chances.”
Even the Warriors have taken notice of Boston’s versatile starting group.
"One through five, they’ve got a team that kind of mirrors ours, as far as their length, guys who can shoot and play defense, and an unselfish way about things,” Thompson told ESPN at Warriors Media Day. "So I think that they are going to be a team to reckon with.”
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Inside the Celtics’ former training center in suburban Boston, photos of some of the franchise’s 17 championship teams decorated the walls of co-owner Steve Pagliuca’s office. A short time after his modern day Celtics bowed on the cusp of an opportunity to play for a title of their own, Stevens plopped into one of the office’s inviting lounge chairs and admitted his team probably didn’t belong on that wall.
“I thought that we did not have the statistical profile of a champion last year because our offense was 17,” Stevens said of a Boston offense that ranked in the back half of the league while averaging 105.1 points per 100 possessions.
“You just have to be a better offense than that to win a title.”
A glance at recent NBA champions supports Stevens’ assertion. Only once over the past decade has a champion landed outside the top 10 in offensive efficiency (the 2009-10 Lakers were 11th). During Golden State’s current four-year reign of NBA terror, the eventual champion has ranked no lower than fourth overall in offensive rating:
|YEAR||CHAMP||OFFENSIVE RANK||DEFENSIVE RANK|
So while the Celtics owned the league’s best defensive rating last season, the injuries that eroded their offensive armaments left them particularly vulnerable. Boston’s defense gave a shorthanded team every opportunity to sneak into to the Finals, but a Band-Aid offense ultimately did not have the necessary consistency to nudge them through.
The return of Irving and Hayward this year changes everything. It might not be a stretch to suggest that the Celtics now have the closest thing to a super team east of Oakland. Early returns from training camp suggest that offense will not be a problem.
“Oh man, [the starters are] a matchup problem. It’s a matchup problem,” said Celtics backup forward Marcus Morris. "You’ve got five guys that can put it on the floor, create, switch, things like that. It’s going to be special, man.”
Morris and his B.W.A. (Bench With Attitude) cohorts have been tasked with trying to slow the starters at the start of camp. Why exactly is that a challenge?
"The toughest part is that everybody can put the ball on the ground,” said Morris. "So you can’t relax. You know what I mean? Jaylen gets to the basket. JT gets to the basket. Kyrie and G are getting to the basket. And Al down low. It’s tough to match.
"As far as matchup problems and things like that, we gotta be the best in the league.”
Defense remains the priority for Stevens, who expressed some dismay with his team’s effort on the defensive end early in camp. Stevens has repeatedly said his team cannot skip steps if they are to build off what they did last year and you can tell he’s not happy that the defensive intensity has lacked in the first days of the season.
Still, the Celtics have some of the best switch-ability in the league with their starting group, something that can ensure bodies stay in front of opposing scoring threats. And then there’s the luxury of rolling in gritty brawlers like Morris and Marcus Smart, which only make Boston’s defense all the more daunting. Remember, too, that no one in the league had a lower individual defensive rating when they were on the floor last season than Baynes.
It all adds up to a lot of optimism about what the starters — and the Celtics as a whole — can achieve this season.
"I don’t want to put a ceiling on where we can go and what we can do,” said Hayward. “But we have the potential to be good, and for a long time. I just think we have the right [mix of guys].”
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On their final day in Newport last year, the Celtics gathered on the famous Cliff Walk for a brief team stroll. Players then piled onto the rock wall ledge, First Beach in the distance behind them, and posed for a team photo:
Kyrie Irving and teammates posted a photo of the Celtics together at the Cliff Walk as they wrapped camp in Newport. pic.twitter.com/et8UL34law— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) September 28, 2017
By that point, it was already clear just how good they could be. Gone was any circumspection from the drive down three days prior. This was still very much a work in progress but the early returns confirmed Ainge’s belief that the Celtics were now true championship contenders, something he wasn’t so certain about the previous iteration.
Maybe the most notable thing that happened in Newport was Tatum’s emergence. Yes, he was the No. 3 pick and he had a fantastic Summer League, but it’s prudent to remember that he was still pegged as an off-the-bench contributor whose offensive skills might simply spark the second unit.
With Morris on trial in Arizona, it opened a door for increased first-team reps in small-ball lineups. And while Tatum endured typical rookie moments throughout Day 1 in Newport, he had onlookers excitedly texting their basketball friends and marveling at what the 19-year-old was doing in his first days as a pro.
Stevens, as he is wont to do, tried not to get overly excited about the team’s early chemistry.
“The players are so excited for those first few days and some of those times can be the best days — and you’re just hopeful that’s not the case,” said Stevens. “But you knew we were pretty good. Like, you could feel it. You could.
“You could kind of see glimpses from Tatum at that time that were unique and you felt like he wasn't a typical 19-year-old. Jaylen, you could see his growth, you could see that right in front of you.”
Players further aided chemistry by exploring Newport together during their downtime. A collection of Celtics players gathered at The Mooring for a seafood dinner on the final night and veteran Al Horford picked up the tab (his younger teammates then roasted him for a poorly lit group photo the players took outside the restaurant).
Celtics players admit now that it was bizarre how quick chemistry came considering how new everything was. But having high-IQ players and a desire to make this thing work aided that process.
"Guys were working hard but just the intensity of it was different,” said Horford. "And that’s what stuck out to me most about being in Newport.”
Stevens started the Newport 5 lineup by the second game of the exhibition season. But if you want a real glimpse of that unit’s potential, dig up tape of Boston’s final exhibition game against the Hornets. The Celtics are alarmingly crisp on offense and utilize all their playmakers to create open looks all over the court.
Six days later, that same starting group hit the floor for opening night in Cleveland. There was unbridled optimism about what the team could accomplish with hopes that chemistry would further blossom during the season. But little more than five minutes in, Hayward landed awkwardly on an alley-oop attempt and fractured his ankle.
It’s been nearly a year but, as early as Friday night’s exhibition opener against the Hornets, we’ll finally get another glimpse of the Newport 5 together.
Irving smiles each time he references the “high-level” talent the team has and it starts with that first unit. The Newport 5 gives these Celtics an honest-to-goodness chance of competing with a team like the Warriors.
“I think that we have a lot of potential,” said Horford. “I think that, for our group, we want to enjoy this journey. Everyday, working together, getting better. I don’t want to put a limit on how good we can be. We can do it all on the floor — play outside, play inside. Our focus is gonna be on the defensive end. We have to make sure we’re great defensively.
"We have a chance to be very special.”
And, for the starting 5, it all started in Newport.