The X-Factors: Boston

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The NBA hiatus is coming to a close. With the season expected to resume July 30, just over a month away, there would appear to finally be a light at the end of this long, long tunnel.

That said, we’re not quite there yet. But, in the meantime, we here at Basketball Insiders will continue to do our best to help make that month-long lead up to the NBA’s return feel as short as possible.

With that in mind, we turn to our X-Factor series. Over the last few weeks, the BI team has looked at each of the 22 teams with a shot at the postseason. Specifically, we’ve tried to highlight each “x-factor,” the game changers that should give each team some sway and make some big-time plays as they either head into the tournament or fight for one of the last spots in the postseason.

Today, we’ll continue that series with a look at the Boston Celtics, the Eastern Conference’s third seed and, after the losses of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford from the season prior, one of the NBA’s biggest surprises. 

So, without further ado, let’s get to it.

Like every team headed to Orlando, Boston’s roster has multiple players that, if given the opportunity, could sway any given play, game or even a series in their favor. But unlike every other roster, the Celtics have Marcus Smart — as unique a player as there is in the NBA today.

With Smart, no single play is taken for granted. Yes, the 2019-20 regular season was arguably the best of his career — but, somehow, the 13.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.6 steals per game box score doesn’t do Smart’s true game-to-game impact justice.

Smart, in the clutch, has consistently demonstrated the ability to manifest the impossible. Need to force a turnover? He’s got you covered. Looking for a steal to seal the game? No problem for Smart. How about a block? He can do that too. A timely charge take? He’ll give you two.

On the whole, Smart is an enigma. But he is one of just a handful of players that can seriously alter an entire game and its trajectory on any given play. With that in mind, and despite a roster loaded with talent, Smart will be the Celtics’ biggest X-Factor come the postseason.

But, again, Smart isn’t their only X-Factor. Given Gordon Hayward’s up-and-down Boston tenure — and despite the emergence of Jayson Tatum — the veteran swingman should prove a major factor on their quest toward the NBA Finals, too.

In his third season with the team, Hayward would appear to be over his gruesome ankle injury; in 2019, he averaged 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists and shot 50.2 percent from the floor and 39.2 percent from three, a season on par with his best in Utah. That said, and despite that return to form, Hayward has continued to fade into the background on occasion — not to say that that’s always a bad thing but, in most cases, the Celtics would want their $40 million man leading the charge.

Whether more aggressive or passive, whichever Hayward the Celtics find in Orlando is going to have a serious impact on the team and their shot at the title. 

If he’s passive, Boston, to its detriment, may have to lean more heavily on an extremely inexperienced bench.

But an unleashed, aggressive Hayward on the road to The Finals? He just might be the Celtics’ swing piece and their ace in the hole when faced with the best of the NBA’s best.

Beyond those two, the center spot may prove the team’s biggest X-Factor. 

Daniel Theis is a strong (if underappreciated) option that can do a bit of everything when on the floor. That said, to compete at the highest level, the Celtics are going to need a bit more oomph from the five-spot. Of course, Boston has no elite option at the position while its depth, unlike Theis, is a bit more one-dimensional — to manufacture that oomph, they’re going to need to get creative.

Enes Kanter should provide a spark on offense and as a rebounder, something Boston has struggled with in the past, but may prove to be a defensive liability. Semi Ojeleye and Robert Williams, meanwhile, could almost be seen as a defensive foil to Kanter — both are strong defenders, but Ojeleye is an extremely streaky shooter (with a career three-point percentage of just 33.3 percent) while Williams is mostly limited to a lob threat on offense.

Then there’s Grant Williams, a rookie that managed to carve out a consistent role in Boston’s rotation for much of the regular season, who may be the first to hear his name called in relief of Theis. That said, and despite his strong regular season play, the 6-foot-6 Williams is just a bit undersized and inexperienced to be relied on as a primary player in a postseason environment right now. 

Luckily, Boston has one of the NBA’s craftiest in head coach Brad Stevens — if anyone can Frankenstein a “true” center out of their rotation, he can. And, as a group, if they can elevate their play to the point where they are able to contain, or even just compete with, players like Brook Lopez and Joel Embiid, it would be a major boon for the Celtics and their title odds.

In its fourth month and counting, it may seem as if the current NBA drought might never end. But every day we inch closer and closer and, before we even know it, the postseason will be upon us.

So keep on the lookout as we wrap up the X-Factor series and, if you haven’t already, make sure to go back and scope out its earlier entries. Stay tuned for the plethora of content on the way between now and July 30, as well.