by Jesse Frazier
BOSTON, Mass. — Times have changed in Boston. At this time last year, the expectation among fans was set on Banner 18.
After a 2017-18 playoff run that took LeBron James’ Cavaliers to Game 7, the prospects for the following season were promising. Kyrie Irving would return for a full season of health, another year of veteran leadership under Al Horford, a comeback year with Gordon Hayward, and the development of young forwards Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. For the first time in more than a few years, a championship was both possible and realistic.
Injuries, inconsistent play and disgruntled leadership brought these expectations crashing down, with the Celtics falling in the second round of the playoffs to an upstart Milwaukee Bucks team. The disappointing season and outside factors contributed to turnover in the roster the following offseason.
Kyrie Irving first promised to stay with the Celtics at the start of the season, but his tune changed during the season with the death of his grandfather and the leadership struggles of the team. Irving instead signed with the Brooklyn Nets.
Al Horford, the Celtics’ starting center, offensive creator and defensive anchor, was not as committal as Irving. Horford opted out of his previous contract and signed with the rival Philadelphia 76ers for a greater offer than Boston’s. This was arguably Boston’s most impactful loss not only for Horford’s versatility, but for his signing with Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and the Sixers, Boston’s direct competition in the Eastern Conference.
Backup point guard Terry Rozier and forward Marcus Morris also signed elsewhere, leaving the open roster spots to be filled by star point guard Kemba Walker, center Enes Kanter and new rookies Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford and Grant Williams.
Whether it was dysfunctional leadership, too much talent, or biased coaching, an accumulation of many things was to blame for last season. The multi-year rebuild carefully constructed by Danny Ainge lost two key parts moving forward in Horford and Irving. The sudden changes in the roster teaches talent on paper does not win games unless it coexists, and that talented players are ultimately human.
In Kyrie Irving’s place, the Celtics signed All-Star point guard Kemba Walker to a four-year max deal worth $141 million. The former National Champion with the University of Connecticut left the Charlotte Hornets to return to New England. Walker is a scoring guard that is also team-oriented like Irving, though how that scoring ability and creation happens with different skillsets. Having a guard like Walker at the helm is important for the development of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
A second big acquisition was the move to sign big man Enes Kanter in free agency. Kanter is an offensive-minded player expected to fit in the pick-and-roll on offense like Horford did, though Kanter’s defense is a potentially fatal flaw. Kanter plays with his back to the basket, and the hope is that Kanter will space the floor at a competent level compared to Horford.
In replacement of center Aron Baynes, whom the Celtics traded to Phoenix over the summer, Boston signed 7-5 undrafted center Tacko Fall from the University of Central Florida. Fall earned the Celtics’ attention with an excellent senior season and March Madness, and his dominance in the Las Vegas Summer League earned him a roster spot. The center is a work-in-progress that must add weight to his frame and improve his hands to earn minutes off the bench for Boston. The Celtics also drafted Romeo Langford, an athletic guard and forward from Indiana University with the 14th overall pick, and Grant Williams the big man from the University of Tennessee with the 22nd pick in the NBA Draft. The Celtics also traded up in the Draft for scoring guard Carsen Edwards to resume Terry Rozier’s former role off the bench.
This Celtics team is going to be an interesting mix of young talent and veteran leadership with Kemba Walker leading the way. Expect greater usage and development from Tatum and Brown as the Celtics decide whether or not to offer these former high draft picks a second contract. The fun starts October 23 in Philadephia to take on old friend Al Horford and the 76ers on opening night. The Celtics look to move closer to their ultimate goal of Banner 18.