We’ve been reluctant to even entertain the idea of the NBA resuming the 2019-20 season because of the many hurdles that seemingly exist to ensure it can be done in a safe manner.
But it’s also undeniable that — amid reports Tuesday that NBA owners and executives emerged positive about the league’s momentum towards a possible return after a Board of Governors call with commissioner Adam Silver — your mind naturally wanders to the possibility of basketball’s return.
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So let’s create a scenario where, after a three-month break in play, the NBA announces later this month that its season will resume and, after a short period for players to ramp up activities, the Celtics take the floor again with a chance to compete for a title.
Here are five storylines that intrigue me most about the back-to-basketball Celtics and their chances to truly contend in a resumed season:
1. How is Kemba Walker’s knee?
Walker, who celebrated his 30th birthday last week, battled left knee soreness starting in late January and missed 10 games in a six-week span. His absence was diminished by Jayson Tatum’s star turn but Walker simply was not the same All-Star player he was at the start of the year.
A three-month break would certainly afford Walker the opportunity to rest a balky knee but, remember, it’s not like the team has been actively able to help him treat and rehab that knee during this stay-at-home period. The question becomes if the downtime was enough to alleviate the lingering soreness and, maybe more importantly, how the knee responds to a quick ramp-up back to NBA action.
Boston’s hopes for playoff success would hinge heavy on having a full-strength Walker.
2. Can Jayson Tatum regain his momentum?
The freakout over Tatum’s lack of basketball activity during quarantine was a bit overblown. Danny Ainge downplayed it after playfully chiding Tatum on social media.
It’s unlikely that, even with limited basketball activities, Tatum would lose all of the magic that propelled him to All-Star status and beyond. But it’s also undeniable that Tatum’s momentum had snowballed just before the season got suspended and it’s fair to wonder if he can pick up at quite the level he left off.
Tatum was playing with an obvious confidence and swagger, all while displaying a killer instinct that was far less prevalent before his emergence. Tatum showed in that span what type of player he can be; now the challenge is showing that he can not only get back there, but continue to build.
3. How good can the Celtics be at full strength?
Boston played only eight games with its top seven healthy before the season was suspended.
After Enes Kanter hurt his leg in the season opener, Boston didn’t have its top dogs again until after Christmas. Only twice in February did it happen. So just how good can this team be when it has everyone upright?
For all the consternation about an inconsistent bench — something that tended to dominate the conversation before the season was suspended — it always felt like Boston’s potential to lean on its top players in a shortened playoff rotation could ease those depth concerns. Still unanswered: Just how good can this team be when it has its preferred starting unit and primary reserves?
4. What can a healthy Robert Williams offer?
Full disclosure: we’re card-carrying members of the Robert Williams Fan Club. Maybe even the president.
For all the obvious strides he needs to make to fully harness his potential, we’re convinced that he can be a legitimate X-factor for this team. The Celtics simply don’t have another big man like Williams, a gravity-defying rim-runner whose skill set meshes particularly well with the shooting talent the team can deploy around him.
Williams missed nearly three full months and 37 games with a sore left hip before returning in early March. He logged four appearances before the season was suspended. Can six months of limited wear and tear position Williams for a sustained stretch where he can finally assert himself?
In the short term of a resumed season, a healthy Williams could give the team a jolt off the bench and allow Stevens to get creative with lineups. In the bigger picture, we’d like to see more Williams so the team can simply assess if he can be a rotation presence or if they need to further address their center spot.
5. Which rookie is ready to break through?
The back end of Boston’s roster is thin on experience and, after largely underwhelming regular-season results, it’s hard to envision Stevens having the confidence to lean heavily on any of the team’s rookies in the postseason.
The stoppage in play provided an opportunity for those players to evaluate their early NBA returns. Any erosion of depth could thrust a young player into key playoff minutes.
Can Grant Williams keep opponents honest with his shot so that Stevens can take advantage of his other skills? After injury starts and stops, can Romeo Langford more consistently show the flashes that made him a lottery pick? Can Carsen Edwards overcome his pro shooting woes to give an offensive spark?
The rookies need to be ready for the big stage.