Call me a biased homer, but I was of the belief that this year’s Boston Celtics team would contend for an NBA title. After adding a true superstar in Kyrie to a collection of other All-Stars and potential future All-Stars, combined with the brilliance of HC Brad Stevens, this team had a shot. 6 Minutes into the season, all of that most likely changed with one snap of an ankle. The injury was not pretty, so gruesome that the Cavs bench who sat no more than 15 feet away were forced to turn and run towards their tunnel. But for now, we can only hope that Gordon Hayward will be able to resume his elite basketball career at some point, whether that is this year or further into the future.
After spending last night feeling badly for Hayward, today we are also forced to re-evaluate the Celtics as a basketball team, after losing their clear #2 option, and the most highly anticipated Free Agent signing in Franchise history in such devastating fashion. Many fans initial reactions were to throw in the towel on this season, and continue to wait until Lebron hangs them up to contend in the East anyway. Those fans are wrong. This team can still contend in the East, and while a realistic title shot may need to be put on hold, here are some reasons why this Celtics team will still compete and have a strong season.
- Brad Stevens is an ELITE coach. We have heard it ever since he came into the NBA, but the more Celtics games you watch, the more you recognize how true it is. There is no one that gets more out of his players by putting them in the best possible positions to succeed. That is what the best NBA coaches do, it is what Greg Poppovich has done for so long in San Antonio and it is what Stevens has done ever since coaching 1 and 2 star recruits to back to back final 4s at Butler. Think Evan Turner, Jonas Jarebko, Amir Johnson and all of the journeyman bench players that Stevens has turned into major rotation pieces and key contributors. This year it may be the Morris twin, or Aaron Baynes or even Shane Larkin, but whoever is plugged into the Celtics rotation will play well and that has a lot to do with the coach. Kyrie has said it since coming to Boston, that Stevens is intellectually leaps and bounds above most other coaches, and that will allow to Celtics to remain competitive without one of their stars.
- Kyrie Irving is an ELITE player. The next reason the Celtics will remain competitive is the same reason why I thought they would get over the hump in the East in the first place, Kyrie Irving. He is still underappreciated as a basketball player, and I think should be considered a top 10 player in the game. He wanted the keys to a franchise, and now it is clearer than ever that this team will go as far as he can take them. 30 shot attempts a game would not be a stretch, and the Celtics will encourage him to take every one of them. Hayward would have made things easier on Irving no doubt, by spacing the floor and drawing the more elite defenders, but it will be up to Kyrie to figure out how to handle the added pressure. Isaiah Thomas got this team to 54 Wins without a player of Haywards caliber by his side, and we all agree that Kyrie is a better player than IT. He will figure it out, and have the Celtics competitive in the East.
- The young guns will step up and we can thank the Brooklyn Nets and Danny Ainge for this one. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum both look like complete studs that can step in and play major minutes at the 2, 3, or 4 spots. Brown was probably the Celtics best player in their pathetic showing in the Eastern Conference finals last year, and he is showing early that it was no fluke. He is still working on his outside J, which will get more consistent over time, but there is little he can’t do on the floor. He defends, he rebounds, he cuts hard off the ball and he can jump out of the gym. Physically he is a beast and his minutes increase without GH, so does his All-Star potential. Same can be said with increased minutes for Tatum. The rookie out of Duke became the first Celtics player to record a double-double in his debut since Larry, and he did a lot of that with Lebron on him. We knew he was a polished scorer coming into the league, but it was great to see him help out on the glass. At just 19 years old, the sky is the limit for JT and while being thrown in the fire isn’t ideal, he will be forced to grow up and contribute right away. It may be too early to say for sure, but it appears that those are back to back draft picks that Danny has knocked out of the park to have the Celtics in great position not only for this year, but years to come. I would also throw Marcus Smart in that conversation as well. He is not as gifted as those two offensively, but there is no arguing the heart and soul this dude brings to the court. He is a bulldog defensively, and always gives them a spark when he is takes the floor. It would be great to see him work on his shot selection and accept the fact that he is not a knock down three point shooter, but if he continues to spark this team, they are in good shape.
- The Eastern Conference is Weak. Sure the Celtics were a good team last year, but them getting the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference is a direct result of the rest of said conference being so bad. Other than Cleveland, there is still no team that I would put clearly ahead of Boston. Washington, Toronto and Milwaukee are going to be tough, but are any of those teams better than a Kyrie led Celtics team? The Wizards took the C’s to the brink last season, but a lot of that had to do with the mismatch they exploited with whoever IT was guarding. That doesn’t exist this year, and Kyrie can go toe-toe with John Wall on both ends. Toronto didn’t get any better and neither did anybody else in the conference. If the Celtics play anywhere close to level they played last night’s 3rd quarter at, they will be right back in the ECF with or without Gordon.
- A possible Hayward Return. This seems highly unlikely judging by the appearance of the injury, but early reports are that it shouldn’t be ruled out. Apparently the fracture was “clean” and the ankle dislocated. I am no doc, nor did I pass high school Biology, but I guess this means there was no ligament or nerve damage. Being that it happened in the first game of the season and the way the NBA season is mapped out, a late season return is not out of the question. Google doctors say a broken tibia comes with a 3-6 month recover time. Even 6 months puts us in April, which is right at the end of the regular season. I am sure we will find out a lot more in the next few days after the surgery, but there is some hope that Hayward will be available for post-season action. I am sure the Celtics will not rush him back, as they have a large portion of their franchise invested in him, but if all goes well in recovery, the team will be back to full strength to make a run at Cleveland once again.
So there it is Boston. Try to focus on the positives and watch this team and its young pieces grow throughout the year. The season is not lost and if Hayward is somehow able to make a miraculous recovery…then who knows what can happen. Even if not, this team will hang around near the top of the weak-ass East and be as exciting to watch as ever.