We are now hours away from the Boston Celtics officially kicking off the 2021-2022 season. You have heard all the talk about the different storylines and the potential kerfuffles awaiting this team.
Jayson Tatum’s leadership
Marcus Smart as the primary playmaker and what that looks like
Robert Williams III and his health
Brad Stevens and roster construction
Covid-19 and its (major) impact on this team
All those factors will collectively play a role in how far this team goes in a season when expectations are notably lower than they have been in past years.
How the Celtics handle expectations, will ultimately determine how much this team succeeds or struggles this season.
No matter how stacked your roster may be, dealing with struggles and strife of some kind happens to all teams. But the good ones can navigate through it and move on without slowing them down too much or derailing them from their goals.
Look at the Brooklyn Nets, everyone’s favorite to win it all this season.
Instead of talking about how their Big Three looks on the floor, we’re talking more about how their Big Three won’t exist because of Kyrie Irving refusing to take one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine and the Nets’ refusal to have him involved with the team on a day-to-day basis until he’s capable of being a “full participant” when it comes to playing in games.
While the Celtics certainly have their share of issues heading into the season, there’s no doubt that other teams from a potential problem standpoint, are in worse shape.
But the benefit that the Celtics have coming into this season, is that they are squarely in the field with the NBA’s hunters and don’t really have to worry that much about who is after their spot because their spot is far from locked up or guaranteed.
That means the Celtics, in order to compete this year, have to play with a much sharper edge about them.
That’s why Ime Udoka is very much the right coach at the right time for this team.
I have written previously about Udoka’s brand of leadership which has been a definite night-and-day experience for the returning Celtics players.
For this team to play with the kind of toughness they’ll need in order to compensate for areas where they are not as strong as other teams, leadership and toughness will be critical to their success which will at the end of the day, trump any other storyline developing with this team.
And before we leave to get ready for the opener, here are a few Celtics to keep an eye on this season.
THE MVP: JAYSON TATUM
He wasn’t at full strength for most of last season and still dropped 26 points and some change, per game. Look for a buffed Tatum to be even more dynamic scoring the ball and average around 30 points per game this season.
FIRST OFFICER AKA, SECOND IN COMMAND: JAYLEN BROWN
The scouting report says Jaylen Brown will be appreciably better in some facet of his game this season, so what will it be? Look for Brown to emerge as an elite two-way defender. He has the size, strength, athleticism, and desire to be a two-way terror. It’s just a matter of him putting it all together, and being consistent with it night-in, night-out. And yes, I see a second straight All-Star berth for him, too.
THE LEADER: AL HORFORD
The argument goes around and around about who should be this team’s leader. A legitimate case can be made for Tatum and Brown, but Horford is the guy, and here’s why. Too often we think of leadership as being the face of a team, the front-and-center piece of the organization. That’s part of leadership, but true leadership recognizes when to stand out front, and when to create paths for others to lead while taking a step back or two, in order to make that happen. Horford falls into the latter category. He’s going to set both Tatum and Brown up for success as leaders, something that’s much easier to do when you start in the front than it is from the back.
SMART(ER) DECISIONS: MARCUS SMART
The one-game suspension for missing the team play certainly wasn’t one of Marcus Smart’s better moments. And if he were a serious contender for the team captaincy, that incident probably ruined it for him. But make no mistake about it. Marcus Smart will be an integral part of what this team does this season. He wants the ball in his hands more. So does head coach Ime Udoka. They’ll both get their wish this season. But as much as Smart launching 3’s will make some Celtics fans cringe, Smart has to consistently be an aggressive player on offense whether that’s getting to the rim and looking to score, dribble-drive and kick to teammates or from time to time, knocking down a 3-pointer, he has to give the game what it needs at the right time.
EMERGING PLAYERS: Romeo Langford and Aaron Nesmith
If there was a preseason surprise for the Celtics (in a good way), it had to be the play of Romeo Langford. He shot the ball with confidence night-in, night-out. He continued to show why then-head coach Brad Stevens was so high on him as a multi-positional defender. HIs length, lateral quickness and effort (even when it doesn’t look like it), are what’s going to get him minutes now. As for Nesmith, he too had a good camp and showed the high-level shooting that made him a first-round pick. For Nesmith, it’s about becoming a little more sound defensively and losing some of that bull-in-a-china-shop play that in spurts might be good. But if you’re playing extended minutes which is possible for Nesmith, he has to be a more fundamentally sound defender.