Celtics

11 questions for the Celtics before the start of the 2021-22 season

Can Jayson Tatum level up (again)? Can Jaylen Brown make an All-NBA team? Plus more.

Celtics questions
Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum is in action during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat. AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

The Celtics open their season on Wednesday evening against the Knicks with plenty of promise but also plenty of questions.

Here are 11 of the questions that could define the team’s season.

Where does Jayson Tatum rank in the NBA?

To be anything more than a 5 or 6 seed, the Celtics need a huge year from Jayson Tatum. 

That, of course, is perfectly plausible. Tatum nearly made an All-NBA team last year, and if the Celtics had won a few more games, he like would have done so. ESPN ranked Tatum 14th in its annual Top 100 list, and a few simple improvements could vault him statistically into another stratosphere among NBA players. Celtics coach Ime Udoka has hinted Tatum will play more in the post, which adds another element to his bag of offensive tricks, and Tatum seems to realize how much a few more free throws per game would help.

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The biggest issue for Tatum is consistency. He has put together stretches of extreme dominance that suggest MVP potential at times over the last two years. Can he be that good for longer than a few weeks?

Can Jaylen Brown be an All-NBA player?

Brown made an All-Star team last season and averaged just under 25 points per game, fully establishing himself as the Celtics’ second-best player (who becomes their best player at times). 

Can that continue as the Celtics put the ball in his hands more often? If so, the Celtics have a lot of reason for optimism, especially given their reported offseason plans. 

Can Al Horford resurrect his chemistry with the Jays?

The last time Al Horford played for a Celtics team on which Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were the leading scorers, the Celtics stormed their way to the Eastern Conference Finals and came within a game of upending LeBron James. 

Horford’s glue-guy role is perfect alongside the two young stars. He facilitates the offense nicely and is more than willing to step aside and let them both shine. 

Horford is three years deeper into his 30s than he was during that run, but the early signs this season have been promising. He essentially had a half-year sabbatical from Oklahoma City, and he looked rested and sharp in preseason action before a positive COVID test took him out of commission. If he’s good, the Celtics’ potential spikes.

Is Marcus Smart a full-time point guard?

Smart pined for a starting point-guard role in the past, and he showed a lot of promise last year when given the opportunity to be a primary distributor. 

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Playing Smart at point guard opens up a lot of opportunities for the Celtics, especially if Ime Udoka commits fully to a switch-everything defensive system. The Celtics will have some offensive question marks (which we will get to), but if defense leads to offense, Smart as the lead ball-handler could work well. 

Does Ime Udoka have the team’s attention?

There’s little question Udoka knows how to coach — he has long been considered one of the brightest assistant talents on NBA coaching staffs. There’s also little question the Celtics have firepower.

So how will the two parties — Udoka and his new roster assembled by Brad Stevnes — mesh? That remains to be seen, but there’s more than enough talent on both sides.

How healthy will the center rotation be? 

Horford and Rob Williams are one of the better 1-2 punches in the NBA, whether they both start or are staggered in the starting lineup. But Horford — again — is a little older, and Williams has struggled to stay on the floor due to injury issues throughout his career. If they stay healthy, the Celtics are in good shape. If not, the center rotation is a question mark.

How much punch will Dennis Schröder add?

Somehow, the Celtics managed to add a player who averaged 17.4 points per game over his last five seasons for the tax-payer mid-level exception. Schröder will be playing for a new contract all season, but he looked great for the Celtics in preseason. On a team that desperately needed any semblance of depth last year, Schröder’s ability to break down a defense and score in the paint will be an oasis in the desert.

How much does a real offseason help Aaron Nesmith and Romeo Langford?

Langford and Nesmith just got the first full offseason of their young careers, and their performance in preseason suggested that some normality might be all they needed. Nesmith is already putting the ball on the floor more than most draft evaluators expected coming out of Vanderbilt. Langford showed a series of eyebrow-raising finishes in the paint and around the rim, and his rebuilt jumper looks workable especially given how much space he could have spotting up in the corner alongside Tatum and/or Brown. 

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Much was made of the Celtics’ revamped depth, but it’s even better if Nesmith and Langford build on their preseason performances.

How good is Payton Pritchard?

Pritchard is a basketball junkie who runs through complicated ball-handling drills, shoots from 30 feet and — in Summer League and preseason — started making mid-range pull-ups. 

So how good is Pritchard? Could he be a starter by the end of the year? Is he a Schröder replacement if/when Schröder plays himself into a contract the Celtics can’t afford? Is he a valuable trade chip as part of a bigger deal? Pritchard’s value is fascinating entering this season.

How good is the Eastern Conference?

We know the Bucks can win a championship. We assume the Nets can too, although the Kyrie Irving vaccine saga threatens to add an unnecessarily dramatic element to a team that would otherwise be considered preseason favorites. 

After those two, every team has question marks. Can the Sixers figure out their own unnecessary drama and resolve Ben Simmons’s situation? Is 35-year-old Kyle Lowry enough to get the Heat back to the team that made an unlikely run in the bubble? Are the Hawks real, and how will the new officiating rules affect Trae Young’s ability to draw fouls? Is Julius Randle a perennial All-NBA player for the Knicks or was last year lightning in a bottle? The Hornets are incredibly cool, but are they good? 

All of those questions will matter quite a bit for the Celtics, who feel like they could land anywhere from the No. 3 seed to the play-in game.

Do the Celtics have enough offense?

This is the biggest series of questions schematically for the Celtics. On paper, the Celtics have a ton of offensive potential in both their starting lineup and their second unit. But what happens on a night when Tatum is off? What happens if Brown misses time? Is there enough shooting to open up the floor?

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Early indicators are yes, especially if the Celtics can defend. Much was made of next offseason’s plans as the Celtics assembled their roster this summer, but this year’s team is deep and interesting, and — on paper — it looks better than last year. 

The Celtics and Knicks tip off at 7:30 p.m. at Madison Square Garden.

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