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Evolution or Revolution: Boston Celtics

 

Evolution or Revolution is a series that analyzes whether a team needs a few tweaks or a fundamental reboot. This edition focuses on the emergence of Jayson Tatum, why the Celtics might have struggled in close games and whether they can take a step forward in the offseason.      

By: Sacha Pisani

This season saw the emergence of Jayson Tatum as a genuine star for the Boston Celtics.

Tatum – the third pick in the 2017 NBA Draft – turned potential into performance as he capped a memorable campaign by making his first All-Star team.

An elite scorer, Tatum was at the forefront of everything good about the Celtics before and after the coronavirus pandemic halted play.

After finishing third in the Eastern Conference with a 48-24 record, the Celtics fell short once again and lost in the conference finals for the third time in four years. This Time, it was the Miami Heat who pushed past them in six games at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando.

Despite all the talent they’ve accumulated in recent years, the Celtics haven’t reached the NBA Finals since 2009-10 and haven’t won the Larry O’Brien trophy since the Doc Rivers era in 2007-08. As the proud franchise reflects after watching the Los Angeles Lakers equal its record for most championships (17), let’s take a look at where the team stands heading into the 2020-21 season:

Tatum became the third player in NBA history to average 25.0-plus points, 10.0-plus rebounds and 5.0-plus assists in a single postseason of 15 or more games.

TATUM JOINS ELITE LIST

As we mentioned, it was a coming of age for Tatum, much to the delight of the Celtics and all those connected with the team.

Tatum cemented himself as one of the best players in the league by averaging 23.4 points and 7.0 rebounds – way up on his 2018-19 averages of 15.7 points and 6.0 boards. The 22-year-old forward also shined in the playoffs, becoming only the third player in NBA history to average 25.0-plus points, 10.0-plus rebounds and 5.0-plus assists in a single postseason of 15 or more games.

Lakers superstar LeBron James (2014-15 and 2019-20) and Boston’s Larry Bird (1983-84 and 1986-87) are the only other players to reach the feat.

DYNAMIC CORE IN PLACE

The Celtics believed they still had a formidable trio when Kemba Walker was acquired to replace Kyrie Irving prior to last season.

After spending his first eight years with the Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets, the four-time All-Star opted for a new challenge via free agency by committing to a four-year, $141million contract with the Celtics. As part of the arraignment, point guard Terry Rozier was sent to the Hornets in a sign-and-trade.

In their first season together, Walker, Tatum and Jaylen Brown became only the second group of three teammates in league history to each finish with at least 20 points and two 3-pointers made per game in a season (minimum 50 games). Walker averaged 20.4 points and 3.2 3s during the regular season, Tatum put up 23.4 points and 2.9 3s and Brown had 20.3 points and 2.3 3s.

The only other trio to do so was the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson in 2017-18.

Brown (above), Walker and Tatum were only the second teammate trio in league history to each finish with at least 20 points and two 3-pointers made per game in a season.

BENCH HELP NEEDED

For all of the positives that came out of its starting five, Boston’s lack of depth was exposed in the playoffs.

The Celtics relied on their starters more than any other team in the postseason with 1,549 of their 1,859 points or 83.3% of their scoring coming from the starting five, ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers (83.1), Indiana Pacers (82.6), Houston Rockets (77.3) and Portland Trail Blazers (76.5).

As for the portion of minutes played by starters in the postseason, the Celtics (75.0%) again topped the list ahead of the Pacers (72.2), 76ers (72.0), Utah Jazz (71.8) and Rockets (70.9). The Celtics had fewer than 25 bench points in each of their last 15 playoff games this year, one of the longest streaks in a single postseason in the past 35 years, only behind the Detroit Pistons (19 in 2005) and Pacers (17 in 2013).

The problem of a thin bench was likely exacerbated by the number of close games the Celtics played in since teams usually need their best players on the floor for longer periods of time in tight encounters. Boston went 3-5 in its eight playoff games decided by five points or less, tied for second most in a single postseason in franchise history.

This was also the second consecutive year the Celtics were plagued by turnovers in the playoffs. After finishing the regular season with the seventh-best turnover margin (plus-1.4), Boston was 13th out of the 16 teams with a minus-1.4 margin in the postseason.

Hayward (20) is expected to exercise his player option and return to the Celtics.

STATS PERFORM’S VERDICT: EVOLUTION

Already over the salary cap, the Celtics figure to look very much like the same team in 2020-21 with Gordon Hayward expected to exercise his player option and Brad Wanamaker (restricted free agent) and Semi Ojeleye (team option) available to be brought back if they so choose.

But Enes Kanter is reportedly considering opting out of his $5 million player option in hopes of landing a multi-year deal. As previously mentioned, that would certainly be a big blow to an already thin Boston bench.

The Celtics could get some help from whomever they land with the No. 14 pick in the 2020 draft on Nov. 18, but they aren’t going to be able to afford a big-ticket free agent player. With Walker an established playmaker and Tatum on a path to stardom, the hope is for Brown to take another leap forward after going from 13.0 points per game two years ago to 20.3 in 2019-20.

 

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