Celtics

Forget free agency, young core is key to Boston's immediate success

Forget free agency, young core is key to Boston's immediate success

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.

BLAKELY: Pros and cons to signing Kemba Walker>>>

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Celtics vs. Kings Instant Overreactions: C's starting to feel Gordon Hayward's absence?

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AP photo

Celtics vs. Kings Instant Overreactions: C's starting to feel Gordon Hayward's absence?

The Boston Celtics had their 10-game win streak snapped on Sunday as they fell to the Sacramento Kings, 100-99.

It came down to the final buzzer as Marcus Smart's last-second floater hung on the rim, but failed to fall into the basket.

Here are three instant overreactions from the loss, which brings the C's to 10-2 on the season:

1. The C's are starting to feel Gordon Hayward's absence.

Verdict: Overreaction

The Celtics have looked out of sync offensively in their last couple of games. Friday night's close call vs. the lowly Golden State Warriors left plenty to be desired, and their struggles in Sunday's loss didn't do much to inspire confidence either as they turned the ball over 14 times.

If we see one or two more lackluster performances like this on the West Coast road trip, it may be time to start counting down the days until Hayward's return. But for now, I'm willing to give the C's talented offensive unit the benefit of the doubt.

2. Jaylen Brown and Buddy Hield both are showing they're worth every penny.

Verdict: Not an overreaction

Jaylen Brown finished with 18 points and eight rebounds, going 4-for-7 from 3-point range. Once again, he was one of Boston's standout performers on the offensive side and is backing up his statement about his game improving.

As for Hield, he continues to reward the Kings for signing him to a four-year, $86 million contract extension last month. The Celtics simply had no answer for the Indiana product, who dropped 35 points while going 7-for-12 in 3-pointers. Hield also drilled a key 3 late in the fourth quarter to help Sacramento come out on top.

3. Semi Ojeleye is the new Steph Curry.

Verdict: Not an overreaction

OK, fine, it may be a SLIGHT overreaction. Still, Ojeleye surprised everyone by going 3-for-4 from beyond the arc and tallying 11 points off the bench. He was one of the bright spots in the Celtics' disappointing loss.

Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Suns, which tips off Monday at 8 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.

Celtics-Kings Takeaways: C's 10-game win streak snapped in Sacramento

Celtics-Kings Takeaways: C's 10-game win streak snapped in Sacramento

So. Close. 

Marcus Smart’s potential game-winning floater as time expired hit seemingly every part of the rim, paused for a moment before rolling out as time expired in Boston’s 100-99 loss to Sacramento. 

‘It was a good look in that moment,” Boston’s Brad Stevens told reporters after the loss. 

The loss snapped Boston’s 10-game winning streak, in addition to preventing them from being the first team in NBA history to win 11 in a row after dropping the season opener.

Sacramento (5-7), after dropping their first five games this season, have now won five of their last seven with the lone losses being a road game at defending NBA champion Toronto and a controversial defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers.  

After spending most of the first half playing catch-up, the Celtics — in all-too predictable form — swung the game’s momentum in their favor in the third quarter to take a 75-71 lead into the fourth quarter despite the offensive fireworks put on by Sacramento’s Buddy Hield (game-high 35 points). 

In the fourth, Boston’s slim lead didn’t last long with the Kings tying the game at 75 less than a minute into the quarter, only for Carsen Edwards to drain a 3-pointer to put Boston back on top, 78-75.

Things remained close for the rest of the game before Smart’s potential game-winner rolled out as time expired.  

Here are some takeaways from Boston’s one-point loss at Sacramento.

KEMBA IN THE FOURTH QUARTER

We have come to expect the best from Kemba Walker when the game matters most: the fourth quarter. That was not the case on Sunday, with Walker going scoreless in the fourth quarter to finish with just 15 points. You certainly love the season-high nine assists he tallied, but Walker’s greatest impact on this team night-in, night-out is his scoring down the stretch.

BUDDY HIELD 

The Kings gave Hield a four-year contract extension worth as much as $106 million, and he showed on Sunday why he's worth every penny. Time and time again, he came up with one big shot after another while often being draped by Boston's best perimeter defender — and one of the best in the NBA — Marcus Smart.  Hield led all scorers with 35 points on an efficient 14-for-24 shooting performance from the field.

TURNOVERS

One of the biggest keys to the Celtics’ fast start to the season has been their ability to limit their mistakes. They came into Sunday’s game averaging a league-low 11.7 per game. On Sunday, the Celtics committed 12 of their 15 turnovers in the first half alone.

SEMI (OJELEYE) AUTOMATIC

Ojeleye hit a big 3-pointer in the second quarter, capping off a 7-0 Celtics run to bring Boston within four points (36-32) with 6:30 to play in the first half. He would finish the day with 11 points on 4-for-5 shooting from the field, including a career-high-tying three 3-pointers. It was indeed a breakout scoring game for Ojeleye who came into Sunday’s game having scored just 14 points in Boston’s 11 games this season. 

THEIS IS NICE

While his play doesn’t necessarily find a home on the Celtics’ highlight reel, there’s no getting around the impact that Daniel Theis continues to make on this team. Usually he does it by excelling at intangibles such as setting screens, boxing out and rolling to the basket. But on Sunday, Theis’s impact was made in the more traditional sense: getting points. He finished with a season-high 14 points and 10 rebounds for his first double-double this season. It was also the second time in the last three games Theis has reached double figures scoring. 

LINE ‘EM UP

The Celtics did not shoot the ball well against the Kings, but their aggressive play offensively led to a number of trips to the free throw line, which was a huge difference-maker in the game’s outcome. For the game, the Celtics were 21-for-24 from the line, compared to the Kings who were just 10-for-12 at the free throw line, which included Richaun Holmes’ game-winning free throws with 13.3 seconds to play. 

How Tacko Fall, Tremont Waters fared for Red Claws Sunday>>>>>

Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Suns, which tips off Monday at 8 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.