NBA

Celtics’ Early-Season Success Shouldn’t Be Surprising

The Celtics lost their two best players in free agency. But with a talented, versatile roster buying into each other and Brad Stevens’ system, Boston’s success shouldn’t be surprising. Jack Winter writes.

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Updated 12 months ago on
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It was clear months before reports emerged that Kyrie Irving intended on continuing his career elsewhere that he wouldn’t re-sign with the Boston Celtics. A season that was supposed to cement his future as the next in a storied line of franchise icons – even ending with a championship, maybe – went off the rails almost as soon as it started, with Boston’s dearth of on and off-court chemistry superseding its enviable wealth of all-around talent.

By late May, after Irving played the most vexing, listless basketball of his career in a second-round loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, his imminent departure wasn’t the one supposed to doom Boston’s hopes of legitimate contention in 2019-20. Even if the Celtics hadn’t ultimately replaced him with Kemba Walker, there was a legitimate argument to be made that his exit could prove addition by subtraction.

Al Horford’s was far different, and not just because it came as a relative shock. He re-emerged as Boston’s two-way linchpin in the playoffs, just as he’d been the previous season when the precocious, undermanned Celtics came within a victory of the NBA Finals despite the absence of Irving and Gordon Hayward. Making matters worse was that Danny Ainge did nothing to address the gaping hole Horford left on the roster other than signing the one-dimensional Enes Kanter.

It’s Boston’s ability to basically render Horford’s departure moot so far that’s most surprising about its start. But the more you think about the Celtics’ stellar early-season performance, the more obvious it becomes that their 10-4 record and current status as Eastern Conference contenders shouldn’t be that surprising at all.

Coming into 2019-20, the Philadelphia 76ers’ starting five was broadly considered the best in basketball. The LA Clippers’ combination of top-tier talent and quality depth was unmatched, and it was difficult to imagine a roster more cohesive than the Milwaukee Bucks. A month into the regular season, none of those assumptions have been disproven. But what has is the notion that Boston lags far behind those title-chasing teams in terms of personnel.

Walker is perhaps Irving’s equal, and has already been a far better fit both in the locker room and on the floor for a team littered with proud young talent. Hayward, another year removed from that devastating leg injury, was rounding into his previous All-Star form before breaking his hand on Nov. 9. There’s debate on the most-likely trajectory of Tatum’s career, but even amid major struggles at the rim and from mid-range, he’s been the Celtics’ on-off panacea. Jaylen Brown has taken a mini-leap as a ball-handler and playmaker while continuing to play borderline all-league defense. Marcus Smart is launching threes with newfound abandon and is an early favorite for Defensive Player of the Year.

Should those developments register as anything close to a shock? The impact of Walker and a healthy, confident Hayward needs no explanation. Tatum and Brown were on the fast track to stardom before Irving’s presence, tangible and otherwise, stunted their growth. Smart made significant strides from three last season and is just entering his prime in a modern NBA that increasingly values his unbelievable defensive versatility on an annual basis.

Still, it’s tempting to give Brad Stevens the lion’s share of credit for his team’s hot start. He certainly warrants praise for keeping the Celtics together in the midst of last season’s debacle and putting his players – from Walker and Tatum to Brad Wanamaker and Javonte Green – in the best position to succeed.

But even a subpar coach would understand the benefit of exploiting the switchability of a roster with defenders like Smart, Brown, Tatum, Hayward, Grant Williams and Semi Ojeleye. It’s not like Boston has reinvented itself into an egalitarian outfit offensively without Irving, either. The Celtics are running more pick-and-roll this season, and both passing the ball and holding it for longer than they did in 2018-19. Their shot profile, despite an uptick in shots at the rim to just below league average, is hardly some paragon of expected efficiency.

The story behind Boston’s play thus far is actually pretty simple. This is one of the most talented, versatile rosters in the NBA, with impactful veteran leaders, budding stars and young role players who have fully bought into a system maximizing their individual and collective ability.

Whether the Celtics’ play through the first four weeks of the season portends true contention remains to be seen. They’ve labored offensively without Hayward, struggles that will only be mitigated to a certain extent at full-strength against the postseason defenses of Milwaukee, Philadelphia and the Toronto Raptors.

Tatum probably needs to scrape his ceiling for Boston to score consistently enough come spring to beat teams who can match or exceed their talent. Maybe Hayward reverting back to a more measured version of his days with the Utah Jazz would be enough; lineups featuring he, Walker, Tatum and Brown boast a 116.8 offensive rating in an admittedly small sample size.

Regardless, it’s indicative of the Celtics’ likely staying power toward the top of the Eastern Conference that those prospects are worth broaching at all. Just as tellingly, that reality serves as yet another reminder that Boston’s success, despite the offseason loss of its two best players, shouldn’t have been hard to see coming.

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Jack Winter is a Portland-based NBA writer & reported with Basketball Insiders. He has prior experience with DIME Magazine, ESPN, Bleacher Report, and Sports Illustrated.

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