Celtics' Biggest Takeaways from 2021 NBA Season
There's life coming at you quick, and then there's the wave that just washed over the Boston Celtics.
You could still hear the echos of the final buzzer signaling the end to their playoff run when massive, NBA landscape-altering news rolled out of New England. Danny Ainge's tenure as team president of basketball operations is over. Brad Stevens' has just begun, creating an opening at head coach he will have to fill.
It's a whirlwind of change, especially for a team that had advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in three of the previous four seasons. But after posting a .500 record and barely putting up much resistance during a five-game series loss to the Brooklyn Nets in the opening round, perhaps the Celtics felt they needed a reset.
Here's what else they likely learned during an up-and-down 2020-21 season.
A Championship Foundation Is in Place
Stevens will have his hands full with this roster. It might need a total overhaul on the back end—Boston's reserves ranked 28th in scoring—but if the return is right, it could see significant changes near the top through trade.
The next coach will then need to maximize this group for everything it has to offer. The Celtics generally did a good job with that under the Ainge-Stevens leadership duo, though they lost to an arguably less talented Miami Heat team in last year's Conference Finals and generally underachieved this season, even while accounting for injuries and absences.
But Stevens and the skipper-to-be-named-later will welcome this challenge for two reasons: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Each is an All-Star, two-way wing on the right side of 25. In terms of roster-building assets, they have the power and flexibility of a wild card in Uno. When interchangeable wings who play both ends of the floor are leading your roster, you can take the rest of the team in whichever direction you would like.
Tatum and Brown can anchor a championship roster, if not next season then in the near future. The rest of the roster needs to catch up, but their collective ascension puts Boston on the cusp of heavyweight contention.
Kemba Walker Can't Be Trusted
Kemba Walker's stat line can't capture what he lost this season.
Actually, it looks pretty Kemba-esque on the surface. The numbers might be slightly lower than normal, but when you bake in some age regression with the 31-year-old combined with the rises of Tatum and Brown, Walker's stats land almost exactly where you would want them: 19.3 points, 4.9 assists and 3.0 three-pointers per game.
The problem is that Walker lost the one thing an All-Star can't be without: reliability.
Plagued by knee problems that date back to last season, the point guard struggled to stay on the floor and positively affect the game when he was out there. Once an elite scorer, he managed just 38 points in 91 playoff minutes before sitting out the final two contests. Boston was outscored by 54 points in his three postseason appearances.
Maybe an offseason will do his body good. As he told reporters, "I'm planning on a big summer and getting myself feeling good again."
The Celtics can only hope that's the case. They owe him $36 million next season, and he holds a $37.7 million player option for 2022-23. His name might get thrown around on the trade machine all summer, but in real life, a swap may prove impossible without serious concessions on Boston's side. As The Athletic's Jared Weiss reported, front office sources "still view Walker as having negative trade value."
A Healthy Robert Williams III Is a Difference-Maker
When Al Horford skipped town in 2019, his departure left a massive void on Boston's interior. The Celtics spent the past two years searching for a viable replacement, and they finally found a potential solution in Robert Williams III.
The bouncy big man dazzled at times in his third NBA season, flying around the hardwood as a rim-runner and flashing intriguing passing ability (3.4 assists per 36 minutes).
But he was confined to offering only flashes of his ability, as the injury bug again proved a constant thorn in his side. He only played 52 games (nine fewer than his first two seasons combined) and missed the Celtics' final two playoff contests.
Williams, the 27th pick in 2018, is extension-eligible this offseason. Between his impact and ability to answer one of Boston's biggest questions, he seems like a keeper. But how much can the Celtics commit to a player who struggles to stay on the floor? That question quietly looms as one of the most critical for Stevens to answer during his first offseason in the front office.