Before the NBA shutdown in March, the two big storylines around the Celtics were 1) Jayson Tatum leveling up and 2) Boston’s lack of proven depth.
Now, as we brace for next month’s restart of the NBA season, both topics will draw plenty of renewed chatter.
Can Tatum regain the momentum he displayed before the season paused? The Celtics gave us 47 seconds of Tatum making jumpers at the Auerbach Center this week and that should satiate most (at least for a few days).
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As for the roster, ESPN reported Thursday that teams will be allowed to fill open spots with free agents regardless of whether they were on an NBA roster this season or not — excluding international players who did not have FIBA clearance at the time of the season suspension — and that will most certainly rekindle chatter about whether Boston needs a bench upgrade.
The Celtics, you’ll remember, let the trade deadline pass without activity then watched Marvin Williams — maybe the only player they truly lusted for on the buyout market — sign with the Milwaukee Bucks. There was a lot of screaming on our network about how Danny Ainge failed his team by not adding a player that could aid a championship run.
We consistently countered that, when at full health, the Celtics had proven themselves capable of competing with the NBA’s elite and we weren’t sold that Williams — or any other available name — would change Boston’s odds of emerging from the Eastern Conference.
Three months later, our opinion hasn’t changed.
Alas, Boston will have another opportunity to tweak its roster later this month when the NBA re-opens its transaction window in advance of teams relocating to Orlando. The conversation will start again: Should the Celtics consider adding a more proven piece to the end of their bench?
A few things to remember here: Boston remains at the 15-man roster limit. Any move would require the team to waive a roster player. Javonte Green, because he’s got nonguaranteed salary beyond this year, coupled with Boston’s wing depth, would be the easiest to part with, though he’s well-respected in the locker room for both his personality and his perseverance in simply earning his NBA opportunity.
Boston will also be allowed to bring 17 players to the Orlando bubble with the league greenlighting the inclusion of 2-way players, which will allow Tacko Fall and Tremont Waters to enter the bubble.
The expectation is that the Celtics will be at nearly full health when players reconvene in Boston this month. Kemba Walker has had time to rest the knee that bothered him early in this calendar year, Gordon Hayward has had time to cure the bumps and bruises that nagged him before that, and a team that had its top 7 healthy only eight times before the season paused could watch that number grow quickly.
Will health alone aid bench production? It can’t hurt.
Boston ranked 29th in the NBA in bench scoring, averaging a meager 27.2 points per game (ahead of only injury-ravaged Portland). Boston’s bench brigade shot just 31.6 percent beyond the 3-point arc (the fourth worst mark in the league).
Admittedly, an injury to a top rotation player could handcuff the Celtics, who are set to bring seven rookies to Orlando. Add in second-year big man Robert Williams, who got only a tiny taste of playoff action last year, and half the roster is virtually untested on the postseason stage.
All of which will fuel the debate about whether the Celtics should go get a proven bench option, regardless of their warts. There will be nostalgic cries for Isaiah Thomas and clamoring for a dice roll with Jamal Crawford, this despite the obvious defensive deficiencies of both players.There will be some who yearn for a big man like DeMarcus Cousins despite three major leg injuries since February 2018.
In-season pickups so rarely alter a team’s trajectory. That’s not to say players can’t help, and maybe the uniqueness of the Orlando bubble, as players will ramp up with an eight-game season, could be aided by having an extra bench option or two. The Celtics might just have to hope that all those fresh legs at the end of their roster are enough while more veteran teams shake the rust.
The roster issue becomes a lesser issue, too, if some of Boston’s supporting cast can play with the consistency they lacked before the shutdown.
Maybe Robert Williams, with nearly six months away from game activity, can emerge as an X-factor. Maybe Grant Williams, after rooming with Kemba Walker during quarantine, has honed his 3-point shot and keep defenses honest. Maybe the fan-less environment of the Orlando bubble will allow another young Boston player to make a leap forward.
Maybe the odds of any of that happening are low. But we’d say it’s more likely than catching lightning in a bottle with any late June addition.