Celtics

10 questions that could define Boston Celtics’ season, including James Harden talks and Jayson Tatum

The Celtics have built a team based on Jayson Tatum's trajectory. Will it work?

The Celtics have built their franchise around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

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After a very short layoff, the NBA is back to regular business — the Boston Celtics open their season against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at an empty TD Garden.

Boston disappointed in a pair of preseason games, but those games didn’t count. Here are 10 questions that could define the Celtics’ season when they start playing games that do.

What’s going with James Harden?

Setting aside questionable Twitter reports about Boston’s potential interest in the former MVP, Harden’s future still looms over the Celtics.  

For the Celtics, Harden’s most likely landing spots could be a nightmare. The Sixers would likely have to give up Ben Simmons, but Harden would be devastating next to Joel Embiid (and Embiid would immediately become the greatest player Harden has ever played with). The Nets already look like an offensive juggernaut — so much so that acquiring Harden might have diminishing returns — but a Kyrie Irving/James Harden/Kevin Durant trio would evoke memories of the Oklahoma City Big Three from a decade ago that was split up before it could truly flourish. If Houston was amenable to a trade package built around Tyler Herro, the Heat could construct a team around Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and Harden. 

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Given all of those scenarios, one has to wonder whether the Celtics might kick the tires on a Harden deal just to keep him away from their direct competitors, but a top-five player won’t come cheap. Harden’s future could dictate quite a bit in the Eastern Conference.

Will Kemba Walker’s knee ever be 100 percent?

This is the most important question the Celtics need to answer. The team projected confidence about Walker’s balky left knee throughout last year, but soreness lingered and lingered. After four months off, he was still limited in the bubble, and he never looked right throughout the playoffs. 

Now Walker has undergone a mysterious injection and won’t even be re-evaluated until early January. When he does come back, the Celtics will do everything in their power to keep him healthy, because without a fully healthy Walker, this team might not have the firepower to make a threatening postseason run. 

Will Jaylen Brown make the All-Star team?

Brown’s All-Star candidacy could say quite a bit about the Celtics. Most genuine contenders have two All-Star representatives, and Walker’s limited minutes will likely preclude him from the conversation. 

Brown is absolutely in the mix. He was a borderline candidate last year, averaging more than 20 points per game, and he has gotten noticeably better every year. With a limited offseason, his improvements might be more muted, but he has been a winner ever since he joined the NBA. 

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Now Brown, like Tatum, is a true building block of the team. If he takes another step, the Celtics make a lot more sense.

What does Marcus Smart look like in the starting lineup?

For years, Smart has been billed as the Celtics’ sixth starter — a 30-plus minute-per-contest player who runs the second unit, closes most games on the court and can be used as a utility defender to take on anyone from Harden to Kristaps Porzingis.

Now Smart finally has a chance to join the starters. How will his offense translate?

He’s a much improved shooter but he’s also an outstanding playmaker,” Brad Stevens said of Smart on Monday. “I’ve told him we’ve talked a lot about increasing the efficiency of our team and his ability to make plays for others is a big part of that, putting guys in the right spots to soar with their strengths.”

Smart, of course, is not shy as a shooter. His confidence has drawn some sharp criticism from Celtics fans, but as he noted on Monday, when he shoots great shots, he’s a good shooter. Defensively, he will always be a menace and should perennially be in contention for All-Defense First Team. That’s a starting quality player … if his fit works.

How do the Celtics use their TPE?

The Celtics likely did not trade two second-round picks away to the Charlotte Hornets only to let the biggest traded-player exception in NBA history — generated by Gordon Hayward’s sign-and-trade — fall away unused. They are hard-capped after signing Tristan Thompson to the full non-taxpayer mid-level exception and would need to perform some gymnastics to use the entire TPE before the trade deadline, but they could still add some real talent to the roster. 

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That talent might be necessary — the Celtics are absurdly young and inexperienced for a team hoping to make a deep playoff run. Bringing in a good veteran player could be a major midseason boost.

How much can the rookies do right away?

The Celtics are in an uncomfortable situation — Aaron Nesmith feels like a perfect fit on a roster that needs spacing and wing depth, but how much can they rely on a rookie? And more to the point, how much can they rely on a rookie who has only been a member of the organization for a month? Nesmith and Payton Pritchard have a learning curve steep enough to make a semi-truck lose control, but the Celtics could really use some production from either (or both).

How banged up will the Celtics be all season?

Early returns are not promising. In addition to Walker, the Celtics might be without Tristan Thompson for their season opener against the Milwaukee Bucks. Romeo Langford showed flashes as a defender last season, and he still doesn’t have a timeframe to return. 

In other words, the Celtics’ limited depth is further limited, and the season hasn’t even started. Can an already-banged-up team with even less rest and recovery than most keep itself healthy?

Will Robert Williams earn a rookie-contract extension?

After this season, Williams will be extension eligible. That makes this a crucial season for Boston’s 2018 first-round pick. Can he show enough promise, particularly on the defensive end, to earn big money? Can he string enough of his tantalizing flashes together to turn himself into a potential starting center? That’s his ceiling, and the Celtics would be in a much better position if he can achieve it. 

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Williams will have opportunities. He has a ways to go, however.

What happens if the Celtics disappoint? 

In recent years, the Celtics were able to play both sides — they tried to build a championship contender in the present while Tatum and Brown provided a back-up plan.

Now the Celtics’ back-up plan is just their plan, and it’s still a good one. Two young wings with All-Star potential — both on long-term deals — is an incredible position. If they disappoint, however, the Celtics’ path forward becomes very murky.

Can Jayson Tatum make All-NBA First or Second Team?

This is a tall ask, but that’s the level Tatum has reached. The Celtics were forced to reshuffle, and now everything they do is an attempt to maximize a player who won’t turn 23 until March. 

Last season, Tatum proved that trust was well-placed — he was a top-5 player in February and March, and he was the best player on a team that had a real chance to make the Finals in the bubble. This summer, the Celtics rewarded him with everything he asked for on his new contract: Maximum money, long-term security and even an opt-out on the final year if he wants it. 

So how good can he be this year? Walker turns this team into a contender if he can recover his old self, but the entire operation is built on Tatum. As he goes, so goes this team. 

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