Even the most bullish of season projections peg the Boston Celtics somewhere in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket during the 2021-22 season. And it seems fair to say that an awful lot would have to break right for Boston -- and wrong for rivals -- in order for the Celtics to shimmy up into the top 4.
But it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility. These new-look Celtics could seemingly slot third or 10th, and it wouldn’t be a surprise at any spot in between.
So what exactly would have to go right for Boston to overachieve this season?
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Well, any combination of the following might help:
Jayson Tatum elevates to top-10 player
All the offseason player rankings suggest Tatum, a two-time All-Star who probably would have repeated as All-NBA if not for a midseason bout with COVID, is knocking on the door of being a top-10 player.
If he continues to evolve as a playmaker, one that is capable of elevating the play of those around him -- and that’s everyone from fellow All-Star Jaylen Brown at the start of games, to the reserve-heavy units that Tatum will often be asked to help carry -- then Tatum has a shot to make that leap this season. Heck, the ever optimistic Enes Kanter thinks Tatum's goal should be top 5 by the end of this year.
If Tatum uses his new muscles to get to the line more frequently, there’s no reason he can’t be one of the top scorers in the league. And if Boston outkicks expectations this season then Tatum might just land in the MVP conversation.
Brown elevates to a top-20 player
Brown’s leap last season might have been even more remarkable than the continued ascension of Tatum.
Brown is an All-Star now but shows no signs of relenting, this in a league where growth isn’t linear for anyone except a player who’s seemingly been riding a 45-degree arrow for most of his career.
Offseason surgery, and a current bout with COVID, add complications to maintaining that upward climb but in the teeny-tiny preseason sample we got, it sure looked like Brown was ready to showcase some new tricks during the 2021-22 season.
Robert Williams stays healthy
Yup, it’s that simple. If Time Lord stays on the court for 25-plus minutes per night, good things will happen. The Celtics are a different team on both ends when he’s out there. He blocked nine shots against the Nets on nine toes in the playoffs. Imagine what he can do with 10 healthy toes.
Marcus Smart strikes the right balance
The Celtics are going to need scoring outside of the Jays. Smart can help there.
But he has to prioritize playmaking as the starting quarterback, and getting back to being a slam-dunk All-Defense first-teamer, if he’s going to be the best version of himself.
Aaron Nesmith kicks down starting lineup door
Nesmith made a strong impression at the end of his rookie season. We’ve made the case that he should start because his shooting talents might best accentuate the talents of Brown and Tatum.
But if Nesmith simply shoots well enough for us to keep writing articles about his starter potential, and he finds more consistency on the defensive end while not breaking his neck with his full-throttle pursuit of rebounds, then the Celtics could have another key piece of their future core.
At very worst, they’d have a desirable young trade asset that could help infuse a more established talent down the road.
Al Horford turns back the clock
There’s a possibility that Horford is a starter, a captain, and a key cog in whatever the Celtics accomplish this season.
There’s another reality where he’s a minutes-managed reserve who simply makes good things happen in smaller bursts. Even if he’s just somewhere in between those extremes, his veteran savvy and basketball IQ can help a team who desperately missed his presence the past two seasons.
Josh Richardson gets traded midseason
This one sounds a bit cold, but hear me out. If the Celtics are able to stay healthy, and younger wings like Romeo Langford make a strong case for rotation roles, then Richardson’s minutes could get squeezed. It probably won’t happen right out of the gates when his veteran status and familiarity with coach Ime Udoka should make him a familiar piece of the second unit.
But if Langford can provide a similar defensive tenacity, and Payton Pritchard can shoot 40 percent again off the bench, then Boston might be able to turn Richardson into a draft pick from a wing-craving team.
In fairness, if Richardson gets back to the sort of impact talent that we saw during his Miami days, he could stick around and be an important piece for Boston this season and, potentially, beyond.
Dennis Schroder, Juacho Hernangomez, and Enes Kanter are more reliable this season than Jeff Teague and Tristan Thompson last season
Look, Teague gets the last laugh here because he got a championship ring. But the Celtics brought him and Thompson in last year to be reliable veteran presences.
They weren’t, and none of Boston’s younger players could consistently win Brad Stevens’ trust either. After elevating to president of basketball operations, Stevens delivered Udoka a collection of veterans who the first-year coach should be able to lean on with far more confidence.
Boston keeps its head above water early
Seven of Boston's first 10 games are on the road. There’s a brutal stretch against top-tier opponents before the calendar even flips to 2022. The Celtics are likely going to take some lumps early but they’ve got to have to weather the storm.
There’s a stretch with 18 of 26 games at home from mid-December until February. Boston, especially after roles are established and chemistry is built, could make some hay in that stretch.
Adding talent along the way?
Who’s ready for 12 more months of traded player exception chatter?! (This writer eagerly thrusts his hand in the air).
The $17.1 million Evan Fournier trade exception gives Stevens some flexibility to make moves if the right players become available. That might also mean ...
Ownership shows a willingness to stay over the tax line
Look, it’s this simple: If the Celtics don’t exceed expectations then this team is almost certainly going to look to get beneath the tax line at the trade deadline. That would ease future tax burdens and maybe make it easier to add more salary next summer.
But if the Celtics stay above the tax, that’s a sign they’re committed to making a push during the 2021-22 season.