Will leadership of these Celtics be a team effort?
Who emerges as the leaders of these Celtics?
First in our series of key questions facing the Celtics this season. We'll ask one per day heading into camp, which kicks off with Media Day Sept. 24.
BOSTON – The battle for playing time will begin in earnest with the first Celtics practice next month. But there will be more at stake than simply putting the best five-man units together for the Celtics this season.
They have an embarrassingly overflow of riches – and we’re not talking talent, either.
We’re talking leadership.
While players and coaches agree that leadership comes in various formats from various players throughout the season, there’s usually a clear pecking order.
Although Al Horford was often seen as the team’s leader, he would be the first to tell you – and he did so on more than one occasion – acknowledge that it was Kyrie Irving’s team.
As impressive as Irving was, Boston’s most significant stretch of the season, the playoffs, came with Irving sidelined.
And in that time, it became a team built more around the leadership of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, with Terry Rozier showing signs that he too could be counted upon to assume that role at times.
Don’t forget about Gordon Hayward, who will return this season and will assume a leadership role of some sorts.
Here’s a look at the five most likely leaders for the Celtics this season:
He is the team’s leading scorer, the one player all defenses tend to lock onto in the fourth quarter of a close game, which is as true a sign of respect as you’ll find in an NBA game. Still, Irving holds this position not so much because of what he does, but because of what his teammates believe he’s capable of doing. The way Irving approached the game last season was spot-on for a guy looking to put his imprint on a franchise without coming across as overly selfish. He made a point of not just praising his younger teammates but putting them in a position where they could do what they do best and in doing so, help the team win. Having seen them shine without him, Irving will be even more motivated to not just deliver statistically, but also build upon the role he established as the team’s leader heading into the postseason.
The elder statesman at 32, Horford’s greatest strength in the eyes of many has been his ability to lead. Brad Stevens has often said Horford ranks among the best leaders he has ever coached. And the proof lies in what Horford’s teams tend to do which is play well. An 11-year veteran, Horford has been to the playoffs every season he has been in the NBA. And since joining Boston, the Celtics have improved their overall win total and gone deeper into the postseason each year. The numbers for Horford are always going to be modest in comparison to his overall impact, something that has made him an easy target for critics. Still, the Celtics know all too well, their success in recent years and current position as the team to beat in the East, is hinged in part on the presence and leadership they have received from Horford.
There is no other Celtic whose value is as underrated as that of Baynes. He does a lot of the dirty work defensively that goes unnoticed and seldom gets rewarded other than the admiration and respect of his teammates. Baynes had the best individual defensive rating (97.0) among players who played in at least 50 games last season. And unlike most elite defenders, Baynes doesn’t have a singular outstanding trait like exceptional length, elite athleticism or above-average quickness laterally. He combines all those skills with an understanding of how to defend that few bigs in the NBA have. And that has allowed him to be where he has to be defensively more times than not. And for his teammates, he serves as an example of what they need to do more of to be successful. While he doesn’t put up eye-popping numbers and is far from being the “rah-rah, go team go!” type, there’s no mistaking the level of leadership he provides is high.
From the very moment he was drafted, Jaylen Brown seemed different. And once we got to know him better, he proved to be different on many levels, with his leadership being among them. Despite having just two years of NBA experience, there is no question Brown has become one of the team’s leaders. He has talked confidently about this season being all about getting to the NBA Finals, has been openly critical of himself when he has played well – the kind of honest candor you expect to hear from a leader. And when it comes to leadership, it’s clear that Brown sees himself in this role now and going forward. But with him still so young and older, more seasoned veterans among the Celtics starters and reserves, the leadership skills for Brown might be tempered a bit.
The deeper Boston got into the playoffs, the more Tatum surfaced as being more than just a good rookie, but a player whose future as a leader seems all but a given. However, becoming a vocal leader is not something you get the sense Tatum is longing to do anytime soon. He seems more than capable of embracing that role, but is more concerned with continuing to be the impact player who finished third in the NBA Rookie of the Year voting. The bigger issue for Tatum will be how to mesh his game, and its growth in the playoffs, with the return of Irving and Hayward, whose presence will surely take away a few shot opportunities for Tatum.