Before the Boston Celtics played their final game on March 10, Brad Stevens lamented how, "We haven’t been fully healthy very often. It almost always feels like we’ve had one of Kemba [Walker], Jayson [Tatum], Jaylen [Brown] or Gordon [Hayward] out.”
In fact, you would have had to rewind another month before that to find the last time the Celtics played with their top 7 players healthy.
What’s more, Boston had that top core rotation intact only eight times in the 64 games the team played before the coronavirus pandemic forced pro sports to shut down. One of the common refrains from the Celtics — both before the season paused, and in this awkward period since -- was a desire to find out how just good they could be when their top players are fully healthy.
Maybe they’ll actually get a chance to find out.
The NBA announced Saturday that it is in “exploratory conversations” with Disney about restarting the season in Orlando in late July. Even as momentum seemed to be growing about a potential resumption, the league’s acknowledgment made it seem just a bit more real.
There are undoubtedly plenty of hurdles to navigate — coronavirus testing, chief among them — before the NBA can truly position itself to resume games but it feels even safer to start thinking about that day now.
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The news definitely will energize Celtics players. Even with mix-and-match personnel due to injuries and illness, the Celtics still owned the fifth-best record in basketball before play paused. They had the fifth-best offensive rating, the fourth-best defensive rating, and fifth-best net rating. Boston had positioned itself for a top 3 spot in the Eastern Conference and showed that, when healthy, it could compete with any of the league’s elite.
After Enes Kanter hurt his leg on opening night, the Celtics didn’t have their top 7 healthy again until after Christmas (Dec. 28 vs. Raptors). A three-game stretch from Jan. 8-11 was the longest clip with its core healthy and Boston went just 1-2 in those games. Still, when Boston had its top 7 intact on Jan. 20 against the Lakers, it produced one of the team’s signature wins of the season.
We already ran down some of the biggest questions the Celtics will face if the season resumes. Sustained health is no guarantee, even if players will have had roughly three months to heal up before teams start to reconvene.
But the big fear the past two months is that these Celtics wouldn’t even get a chance to see how good they can be. That all the positive vibes and all the potential of the 2019-20 squad would be lost if the season was unable to resume.
It goes beyond the mere potential of the team. During a Zoom conference with Celtics reporters on Thursday, rookie Grant Williams noted the initial suspension of play stung Celtics players because, “especially with this group that we have, who enjoy each other, we enjoy being around each other, we were having so much fun during the year.” Players have openly craved simply getting back in the gym together because of how much they enjoyed each other’s company.
Players have made it clear that safety must be the first priority. If the league can ensure that and the season can resume, we can all embrace getting to see this team again. Before the season paused, the big question was whether the team had enough talent to truly make a push (with some lamenting the team’s lack of deadline and buyout activity).
All Celtics players ever wanted was a chance to answer that question, to see how good this roster could be at full strength. There will be some new variables in the equation given the unique circumstances of a restart but, as optimism about a restart grows, these 2019-20 Celtics might finally get their chance to determine their potential.