Celtics Players Who Will Determine Boston's Ceiling During 2021-22 NBA Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 16, 2021

Celtics Players Who Will Determine Boston's Ceiling During 2021-22 NBA Season

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    Steven Ryan/Getty Images

    The Boston Celtics were Eastern Conference elites until they weren't.

    After making Conference Finals appearances in three of the four previous seasons, the Celtics crashed back to earth during the 2020-21 campaign. They split their 72 games right down the middle, needed the Play-In Tournament to secure their playoff spot and were swiftly bounced out of the opening round by the Brooklyn Nets.

    The Celtics face a step climb back up the conference ladder, but they did reshuffle their roster during Brad Stevens' first NBA offseason as the team president. They will still follow the lead of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but the newcomers in their supporting cast could be just as integral to determining where this club can go.

    The following three players in particular could prove to be the best barometers for Boston's success this season.

Dennis Schroder

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Dennis Schroder's massive loss in free agency could be a big gain for Boston.

    The scoring point guard reportedly left a four-year, $84 million extension offer from the Los Angeles Lakers on the table in hopes of cashing in on the open market. But his free-agency aspirations were dashed when the market dried up around him, so he settled for a one-year, $5.9 million contract with the Celtics.

    Maybe that means Boston would be getting an extra-motivated version of the veteran. If that's the case, he could return to his 2019-20 form, when he averaged 18.9 points on 46.9/38.5/83.9 shooting. He might have first dibs on the Shamrocks' third-scorer gig, and their attack would get a welcome lift if he hits the ground running.

    Then again, maybe he's pressing for his next paycheck this season, and his shooting numbers can't rebound from last year's decline (43.7/33.5/84.8). Given his limitations as a playmaker—4.7 career assists per game against 2.4 turnovers—his offensive value is largely tied to his scoring. If he can't do it efficiently, he might end up with a much smaller share of the backcourt minutes than expected.

Marcus Smart

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    Steven Ryan/Getty Images

    Marcus Smart leading last season's squad in assists felt like an elusive answer in a niche round of modern Celtics trivia. It wasn't quite accidental, but it didn't feel planned.

    Boston has bigger intentions for its bulldog defender this time around. The Celtics plan to weaponize Smart as their primary playmaker, and his ability to find shots for others could help mask the fact that he struggles to convert a lot of the ones he takes (career 37.6/33.0/77.7 shooting slash).

    Smart is the longest-tenured Celtic, and the franchise treated him as such by rewarding him with a four-year, $77 million extension. That's a ton of cash if he struggles to be more than a defensive specialist with severe offensive limitations.

    However, if having the reins for this offense helps him find a more useful identity at that end, he suddenly becomes a much more critical part of this club. His defensive tenacity and high energy level have long proved invaluable, but Boston needs more tangible contributions from him on offense to make this work.

Robert Williams III

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    Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

    When the Celtics brought Al Horford back to Chowdah Country this summer, they could have entrusted him with his old starting spot at center and hoped their other bigs could contribute in complementary roles.

    But they have bigger plans for Robert Williams III, hence his shiny, new, four-year, $54 million contract extension.

    Clearly, the Celtics see like plenty about the 23-year-old, and it isn't hard to see why. He has impact potential as an interior anchor with enough bounce to protect the rim and enough quickness to defend away from the basket. While his scoring range doesn't reach far beyond the restricted area, his encouraging flashes of ball movement give him the chance to handle a bigger offensive role than the typical rim-runner.

    Saying that, there are two major questions with Williams that will define how good he—and, by extension, this entire center group—can be. First, how much better can he get? He struggles with consistency and noticeably lacks a layer of polish. Second, can he stay on the court long enough to realize his potential? The 52 games and 985 minutes he played last season were both career highs (easily).

    A healthy, more seasoned Williams could be a force, but the Celtics need a lot of work and a decent amount of good fortune to bring out the best in him.

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