While Boston Celtics fans stare at their watches, eager for the start of free agency (Sunday, 6 p.m.) to arrive before any rivals clear the sort of cap space that could make Kemba Walker mull other possibilities, here’s the blunt reality about the 2019-20 Celtics: Whatever the team accomplishes next season likely hinges on the progress of the young core.
Kemba Walker is the perfect Kyrie Irving palette-cleanser and whatever dropoff there is in overall skill going from one All-Star to another could be fully mitigated by the potential turnaround in locker room atmosphere going. The Celtics have obvious voids to fill in the frontcourt in a summer that will see Al Horford, Aron Baynes, and Marcus Morris all relocated, but there is a surplus of serviceable big men on the market this summer that the Celtics can attract with a promise of playing time and ability to contend in what could be a wide-open East.
Boston’s ability to emerge as a legitimate contender falls heavily on what becomes of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. (Well, that and whether Kawhi Leonard heads west). Gordon Hayward will almost certainly find more consistency and should move closer to the All-Star form we knew in Utah, but it feels like Boston’s ceiling this year is tied directly to Tatum and Brown.
The Celtics appear eager to see what that young tandem is capable without the specter of Irving and the “young guys” criticism hovering over them. That’s not to suggest that Irving was solely to blame for any lack of strides the duo made last season but it’s undeniable that younger players — particularly coming off the run the team made in the 2018 playoffs — were stung by the repeated suggestions that they were to blame for Boston’s struggles.
Boston’s young guys will get every opportunity to thrive this year. And that desire to examine that potential could leave the Celtics leery of immediately seeking trades to fill the big-man void. Even with a big payday looming soon for Brown, the Celtics don’t necessarily have to rush into a move unless there’s a big man available that really makes them think hard about a deal.
Boston can navigate the early portion of the 2019-20 season and gauge where the team is at. If there’s early success and the team is one piece away from being a legitimate title contender, there are still assets available, from the team’s young talent to future first-round picks (including that glitzy Memphis pick) in order to thrust themselves into any pursuit.
The conversation keeps coming back to Tatum. The 21-year-old wing didn’t have a bad season last year but, commensurate with expectations, he fell woefully short of what many believed possible. Fair or not, from the moment Tatum dunked on LeBron James in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, it left us all speculating if Tatum could eventually emerge as a top-10 talent in the league and was essentially stamped with the “not available in trade” seal of approval.
It was all a bit premature. Tatum put up a modest sophomore stat line at 15.7 points, 6 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.1 steals over 31.1 minutes per game. But he was still league average in PER (15.1 in 2018-19) and, amid a slight boost in usage rate, his shooting percentages dipped, particularly beyond the 3-point arc (dropping from 43.4 percent as a rookie to 37.3 percent last year). Celtics fans rushed to blame Kobe Bryant for making Tatum fall in love with long, contested 2s after the duo worked out together last summer.
Quietly, Tatum had the best on-court net rating (plus-6.9) among all of Boston’s high-volume players (Irving was right behind him at plus-6.2). What’s more, Tatum had the lowest off-court net rating (plus-1.0), hammering home how Boston typically played its best when Tatum was on the court.
And yet it's undeniable that the Celtics need more out of Tatum. They need him to recognize his talents and play with a killer instinct. They need him to maximize his length and more frequently attack the basket, instead of settling for long jumpers.
Maybe Tatum will have more opportunities this year. Maybe with more freedom and more shots, he’ll blossom into the player most anticipated after his rookie season. The path forward gets a little murkier for Boston if he doesn’t.
Brown is extension-eligible this summer and will be an unrestricted free agent after the season. The Celtics must proceed understanding that he could command big money soon. Maybe more than any other player, the way Brown handled adversity last season and fought through to emerge as one of the team’s more consistent players by season’s end is an encouraging sign of what’s possible.
Brown undeniably had a slow start to the season, maybe more impacted by Boston’s depth than any other player. Brown struggled to figure how he fit into the new-look starting 5 and, when the team scuffled out of the gates, he was shifted to a bench role.
It was Brown who often clapped back at Irving and his “young guy” comments. Amid it all, Brown got himself back on track and played well in the 2019 calendar year. The Celtics drafted another wing with their top overall pick in this year’s draft and the development of 14th overall selection Romeo Langford could factor heavily into Brown’s future (though, at 19, and coming off a thumb injury that hindered his lone season at Indiana, Langford’s development could take some time).
If Tatum makes a leap and if Brown finds two-way consistency, the Celtics will force the rest of the league to take notice. Hayward has to find his old form and consistency, too, and Boston will need Marcus Smart to break out his usual batch of winning plays. But, if all that happens, the Celtics won’t take the step back that most probably expected as Irving and Horford were headed for the exit.
The Celtics always seemed braced for the possibility of having to navigate Plan J. Landing Walker helped the team rebound even quicker than Boston brass might have anticipated this summer. But the path back to title contention still hinges heavily on those young guys. If Tatum and Brown can assert themselves, the Celtics will pry open a window that many thought was closing at the start of the offseason.
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