The Celtics are only seven games into the season, but they’ve gotten off to a fast start. Currently leading the Eastern Conference with a 6-1 record, Boston has a lot of reason for optimism right now, but what are the experts saying about their long-term chances?
Is Gordon Hayward back?
One of the early storylines of the 2019-20 season is the re-emergence of Gordon Hayward. It’s been two seasons since Hayward suffered a fractured tibia and dislocated ankle in his first game as a Celtic, and many thought he wouldn’t be the same player. That theory was looking like it might be true after last season, where Hayward averaged 11.5 points per game on 57 percent true shooting.
This season couldn’t be any different for Hayward through the first seven games. His scoring has bumped back up to 20.3 points per game, his highest number since the 2016-17 season, and his true shooting has improved to an outstanding 65 percent. Hayward on Tuesday night against the Cavaliers had an historic night, scoring 39 points and going 17 of 20 from the field, he also tied Wilt Chamberlain for the most two-point field goals made, 16, without missing in a game.
Gordon Hayward was automatic from inside the arc 💯 pic.twitter.com/KUYYs7eI3F
— NBA TV (@NBATV) November 6, 2019
While some may doubt if Hayward has truly returned to his all-star form, experts seem to think he’s made a full recovery. Keith Smith from SB Nation said that the reason for Hayward’s fantastic start to the season is because he is playing with confidence for the first time since his injury.
“But it’s not really about the box score for Hayward. It really hasn’t been about that for over year a now. It’s about how he looks and how he feels,” Smith wrote. “As he has all of this season, Hayward is getting in the paint and making plays for himself or his teammates. He’s driving into traffic all the time now. There is no fear, no worries about his leg. It’s just basketball.”
Jalen Rose of ESPN was asked on his show “Jalen and Jacoby” if the Celtics can rely on Hayward to continue to put up strong performances this season, and Rose responded that “they absolutely can.”
Even Hayward himself thinks that this is the new standard. With the injuries behind him, he believes this should be the norm moving forward.
Gordon Hayward mentioned last night he hopes his #Celtics teammates will stop feeling compelled to dump water on him after every big game.
Translation: This is how he expects to play every night. The injury's behind him. Productive nights shouldn't be celebrated.
— Adam Kaufman (@AdamMKaufman) November 6, 2019
The Celtics haven’t had many problems to open the season, but one glaring issue is at the center position. The Celtics have been rotating between the trio of Enes Kanter, Daniel Theis, and Robert Williams, even giving playing time to 6-foot-6 forward Grant Williams at center. Kanter has only played in one game so far due to injury, and while he is a talented offensive player, he is not known for his defense. Theis and Williams both do some things well, but both are 6-foot-8, somewhat undersized to guard seven-footers like Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic.
This left some experts like Tim Bontemps concerned before the start of the season.
“You look at the center spot. Going from Al Horford to the collection of guys that they have, Enes Kanter, Daniel Theis, Robert Williams — I just really struggle to see how they’re going to stop people enough defensively to be this good,” Bontemps wrote.
While those concerns have yet to fade, they also have yet to impact the Celtics’ winning ways. One reason why is Marcus Smart, and his ability to defend big men. The Ringer’s Haley O’Shaughnessy wrote that Smart has actually been the Celtics’ best defender against big men.
“Boston needs Smart to dominate these matchups,” O’Shaughnessy said. “Against true centers, the Celtics don’t have an answer on defense. But for any player with “stretch” in their descriptor — the lengthy, combo forward scorers that Horford used to extinguish — Smart is more than capable.”
Hayward isn’t the only Celtic off to a good start this season. New point guard Kemba Walker has been electric to open the year, averaging 24.3 points per game and ranking fifth in the NBA in 3-pointers made. Third-year forward Jayson Tatum has also been excellent, averaging 21.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, all while shooting an astonishing 45.8 percent from 3. Smart and Jaylen Brown have also both had great starts to the season. After this group, though, things become a bit dicier.
The Celtics bench is a significant point of concern, and early injuries to Brown, Robert Williams, and Kanter have not helped those issues. Jay King of The Athletic highlights these issues as a reason for concern.
“Without one of their main perimeter guys (in this case Brown), the Celtics did not bring a single wing off the bench,” King wrote. “The Celtics will go as their starters and Smart go. Being top-heavy comes with some advantages. There will be less jostling for touches than Boston had last season, but even after a promising start it’s fair to wonder just how much those key guys can handle.”
WBZ’s Adam Kaufman also highlights the lack of production from the Celtics’ second unit, citing their inability to score compared to the rest of the league.
If you’re looking for a concern for the East-leading #Celtics, it’s still bench production. Fewest point in the #NBA for that unit. Not good tonight either, even with Jaylen Brown back to lengthen the depth.
— Adam Kaufman (@AdamMKaufman) November 8, 2019
Head coach Brad Stevens isn’t concerned, though, saying he feels “comfortable putting everyone in the game.”