While we all wait for Gordon Hayward’s departure to finalize, a question to ponder: Are the Boston Celtics better than they were at the end of last season?
The simple answer is no. You don’t lose an All-Star talent like Hayward and suggest that your ceiling got higher. But the discussion is a bit more complicated than that and might require the benefit of time.
The Celtics most certainly got better on the margins. Tristan Thompson is a championship-owning boost at the center position and Jeff Teague is a necessary lift at the backup point guard spot, particularly given the concerns about Kemba Walker’s knee.
Time will tell if first-round picks Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard can help this team but, if their skill sets translate from the college level — and whispers from first glimpses inside the Auerbach Center were encouraging, particularly for Pritchard — the first-rounders have potential to boost a previously inconsistent Boston bench.
There’s an argument to be made that Hayward’s health woes were so perpetual that his absence doesn’t leave quite the void that might be perceived.
We’d push back on this a bit.
Hayward's presence, sporadic as it was, differentiated the Celtics. No team in the East had a fourth option quite like him. What’s more, the numbers showed that Boston played some of its best basketball when Hayward was on the floor alongside the core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Walker.
That said, Hayward missed 47 percent of Boston’s regular-season games during his three-year tenure (111 out of a possible 236 games) and 68.9 percent of the team’s playoff games during that span (31 of 45 postseason games). He deserves credit for trying to gut it out at the end of the bubble -- missing the birth of a child in the process -- and yet nearly all of Boston’s postseason success in the 2018 and 2020 playoffs came with Hayward sidelined.
We’ll see how the Celtics and Hornets resolve Hayward’s departure. If the Celtics are able to land a trade exception in a sign-and-trade deal then there’s a pathway to eventually replacing Hayward, softening the blow of his exit and potentially shifting how we’ll reflect on how this all played out.
That said, we wouldn’t expect the team to strike immediately with the exception and patience will be required to maximize the return.
Boston needs some time to acquire or develop the sort of assets that could pair best with that exception and deliver the most impactful talent. Boston’s treasure trove of first-round picks is barren — beyond the team's own picks — and the Celtics will need draft assets or desirable young talent to make any trade partner consider moving a top-tier player.
But you can peruse any list of NBA players that make up to $28ish million and let your mind daydream about who might eventually land on the trade market.
In the short term, the Celtics will have to get creative in replacing Hayward. Boston can elevate Marcus Smart to a starting role but his ideal role is almost certainly coming off the bench. Boston can go big and shuffle Grant Williams into the starting lineup but would need the second-year big to sustain his 3-point shooting from inside the bubble. Romeo Langford could eventually help fill the void if he can get healthy, and stay healthy.
Here’s the real key to whether Boston is better this season: Tatum and Brown. If those two continue their ascents, then the Celtics have a legitimate chance to compete for a title. A lot of things would still have to break right, including better long-term health for Walker and Langford, and development from recent draft picks, including Robert Williams.
Earlier this week, Brad Stevens sent up caution flags about Walker’s status for the start of the year on a CLNS podcast. From what we’ve heard, the Celtics put Walker on a plan after the season designed to strengthen the leg — this after multiple opinions confirmed no surgery was needed — and with a goal of having him ready for a potential January start. Then the NBA hit the accelerator and moved the start of games to late December. Now, if the Celtics elect to stick with the original plan, Walker will almost certainly miss time over the first month of the season.
That’s less than ideal when the team already has to replace the starter void left by Hayward’s departure. But the bubble reaffirmed how important it is for Boston to have a healthy Walker. The team has to balance whether being cautious in December and January could be beneficial in May and June. Walker doesn’t like missing time but must get that knee right.
If Boston's heavy lifting is complete this offseason, are the Celtics better than they were after their bubble exit? Probably not. But being better in December doesn't win titles. The 2021 playoff Celtics could be better than the 2020 version, but it’s going to take time and effort.
Just rewind to a year ago when, in the aftermath of watching Kyrie Irving and Al Horford walk away, the Celtics were supposed to take a step back, especially on the defensive end. Tatum rocketed to All-NBA status, Brown muscled into the All-Star conversation, and the Celtics actually improved on defense, despite not having a typical backline anchor. Which is to say it’s probably best to just take a wait-and-see approach, especially with another unique season ahead.
All that said, the East is undeniably better. There are a lot of question marks for Boston to answer as the 2020-21 approaches. And it might simply take some time to truly answer the question of whether they got better from last season.