Before we start looking ahead, let’s start with a reminder of what Jayson Tatum has accomplished since April.
Four 50+ point games in 50 days, including matching Larry Bird’s franchise record of 60 points in a game; a 50 burger against buddy Bradley Beal and the Wizards in a play-in victory; and another 50-point night against Kevin Durant and the Nets in the opening round of the playoffs. Oh, and a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
So, as a new season arrives, what is the next step for Tatum?
“The next step is being more efficient and just dominating,” said Tatum. “Not going out there and being just the best player -- like dominating the game. So people walk away from the game and be like there’s nothing they could do, on both ends.”
Tatum said he doesn’t lose sleep over rankings but he’s well aware that most publications had him knocking on the door to the top 10 this month. A dominant 2021-22 campaign would likely see Tatum take his spot amongst the NBA elite.
We’ll take it one step further: A dominant Tatum would muscle his way into the MVP conversation, emerging as a top-6 candidate if the Celtics are a legitimate contender in a beefed-up Eastern Conference.
The green need a lot to break right for that to happen. Robert Williams has to stay healthy. Marcus Smart has to buy into his new role. Jaylen Brown has to make another leap after making his first All-Star appearance. Boston’s new-look supporting cast has to take some of the stress of the core of this team.
But the quickest path to being a legitimate contender is Tatum emerging as the dominant force he yearns to be.
“I feel like I’m one of the best players in the world,” said Tatum. “I know that I got a long way to go. I understand that, there’s a lot that I have to improve on. I think that’s the exciting part for me. I want to get better. I know that I can get better.”
Tatum learned a lot during his time in Tokyo with USA Basketball. He got a chance to watch how superstars like Kevin Durant operate, had to defend them in practice, and believes that experience will only help him take the steps necessary to be mentioned in the same breath.
“I think spending a month, month and a half in the summer playing with the best players in the world, playing with them in the games, competing against KD every day in practice -- that's what I was most excited about, just knowing that I can only get better from that situation,” said Tatum.
“[Durant is] definitely somebody I looked up to growing up. And getting to have that matchup with him during the playoffs, and then being his teammate and having conversation with him overseas, it's something that I will always remember. I think how you earn the respect of people that you look up to is you've got to compete against them, you got to go at them, for them to give you that respect that you looking for.”
Durant has already offered high praise for Tatum, including suggesting he might someday break his Olympic scoring records. But, in the near-term future, Durant and his teammates are Tatum’s biggest roadblock to an NBA title.
So if Tatum *really* wants that respect, he’s going to have to go out and consistently dominate while willing the Celtics as far as he can take them.
Predictions for the 2021-22 season
Most impactful newcomer for the Celtics?
Al Horford’s basketball IQ and familiarity with the core of this team is going to pay dividends, even if he’s not quite the same player at age 35. But we really liked what we saw from Dennis Schroder during preseason play. He’s going to bring some much-needed spunk to the Celtics’ lineup.
He has a chip on his shoulder after fumbling the bag in L.A. We were leery of the fit when rumbles of Boston’s interest first started, but seeing the way that Celtics teammates recruited him, the bargain price tag they got him at, and the way that Schroder has seemingly bought in (green in his hair!), we can see him emerging a huge piece in whatever the team is able to accomplish. In fact, we’d go so far as to suggest that Schroder could potentially be the most impactful Celtics player not named “Jay" this season (we reserve the right to change that prediction when Robert Williams plays in 70+ games).
If nothing else, Marcus Smart and Schroder are going to annoy the hell out of opposing backcourts, probably get a bunch of technicals, and contribute to numerous in-season dust-ups that leave TD Garden rocking throughout the 2021-22 season.
Biggest surprise for the Celtics?
Maybe we’re just drunk off the news that Aaron Nesmith made 244 3-pointers without missing two in a row at Monday’s practice, but we’ll preface this by noting that we've been on the “Nesmith-for-starter” bandwagon for most of the summer.
Unless the Horford/Rob Williams frontcourt proves to be especially sustainable — and the health of both players could dictate that — we can envision Nesmith emerging as a starting wing whose shooting talents help bring out the best of Tatum and Brown. It might not happen right away, but Nesmith is in the starting lineup by season’s end.
Bartering Brad does (blank) during the season
After a wheeling-and-dealing first summer on the job, new president of basketball operations Brad Stevens barely downshifts during the regular season. He’s already said he won’t wait until February to make moves if there’s ways to improve this team.
If Boston leans heavy on double-big lineups, it could create a need for additional big-man depth. If Romeo Langford and Nesmith emerge as highly reliable and consistent rotation pieces then Josh Richardson could become expendable. All the while, Stevens can hunt the big-splash talent upgrade that might push Boston even closer to surefire contender status.
And if Boston fizzles this year, Stevens will likely need to go the other way and trim salary to get below the tax line (the Celtics are $4.6 million into the tax after waiving Jabari Parker before his contract became further guaranteed on opening night).
How do the Celtics fare in the regular season?
The one thing that gives us pause is the daunting nature of the schedule out of the gates. Seven of Boston’s first 10 games are on the road. All this while Jaylen Brown is still working his way back from a COVID absence, and Al Horford is reintegrated from his own bout with the same virus.
Fortunately for Boston, the quality of opponent doesn’t spike until mid-November so there could be time to figure things out under first-year coach Ime Udoka. Things start clicking in time to maximize the glut of home games starting in mid-December, even as the competition level spikes.
Prediction: 48-34, 4th in the Eastern Conference
How do the Celtics fare in the postseason?
Landing in the top half of the East playoff bracket gives Boston the benefit of homecourt advantage in Round 1. Boston is able to stiff-arm another middling East team (maybe the Hornets or Knicks) in Round 1 then gets a tough second-round draw like the Nets or Bucks.
Unlike the 2021 playoffs, Boston makes things a bit more interesting but bows with hopes that adding some more impact talent in the summer of 2022 makes Boston a true contender in the East.
Prediction: Seven-game exit in Round 2.
2021-22 NBA Predictions:
MVP: Luka Doncic
Rookie of the Year: Cade Cunningham
Defensive Player of the Year: Giannis Antetokounmpo (editors made me delete original pick of Robert Williams but we’ll still get a Celtics player on the hardware list because … )
Sixth Man of the Year: Dennis Schroder
Most Improved Player: Robert Williams (bosses, I’m trying to delete it, really I am)
Coach of the Year: Steve Nash
East finals: Nets over Bucks
West finals: Lakers over Nuggets
NBA Finals: Nets over Lakers