For a moment, it looked as if the Boston Celtics’ offseason was going to be a disaster. As had been rumored for much of the season, it became apparent that Kyrie Irving wanted out of town. Whatever it was that went wrong, Irving never truly seemed at home in Boston, and despite his sensational talent he couldn’t help the team make good on high expectations in 2018-19. Irving is now set to join the Brooklyn Nets, where he’ll be accompanied by Kevin Durant (who faces a year-long recovery from a ruptured Achilles tendon).
Irving’s departure was something Celtics fans had seen coming, and frankly something they were ready to celebrate by the time it happened. Boston was somewhat blindsided, however, by veteran center Al Horford’s decision that he, too, would be moving on. Horford has arguably been the team’s most reliable player over the last two seasons, and would have been a valuable cog moving forward. When free agency began, however, and an unprecedented flurry of player movement transformed the league, Horford wound up with the Philadelphia 76ers.
By that point, however, the Celtics at least knew they’d be replacing Irving via another move no one could have seen coming even a few weeks prior. Kemba Walker, the star point guard for the Charlotte Hornets, had already made it known that he intended to leave Charlotte to sign a max contract with the Celtics.
So where does all of this leave the Celtics heading toward the 2019-20 season?
As currently constructed, the Celtics now have five players who are, fairly clearly, their best: Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Smart. Because there isn’t a big man among them though, those five won’t form a starting lineup. In all likelihood, Smart will go to the bench; Brown, Tatum, and Hayward will play relatively interchangeably on the wings; and newly signed center Enes Kanter will start, unless second-year forward Robert Williams makes big strides, or another free agent is brought in. Daniel Theis has also re-signed with Boston to play a role off the bench, and head coach Brad Stevens will have a slew of other bench players, as well as new rookies, with whom to organize the team’s depth.
Odds are playing a bigger role in American sports coverage these days, as you may have noticed. With more states legalizing betting, platforms as big as ESPN are running segments about bookmakers’ opinions, and it’s actually giving U.S. sports fans more perspective on what’s supposed to happen in sports, rather than just what the pundits say. And since you don’t have to actually bet, or be on the cusp of an event, to see the odds for it, we looked into where the NBA outlook is pegging the Celtics. Odds posted already at various free betting platforms run in the UK suggest that the Celtics, while not the relative afterthought they might have been were it not for the Walker signing, are also not among the top contenders. For the most part, they’re being given the sixth- or seventh-best odds at an NBA title next season.
The best case for this team, despite the aforementioned odds, is title contention. In an ideal scenario, Walker will lead the team and run the offense the way Irving never did, and improve both morale and on-ball defense in the process. Tatum and Brown will play the way they did in the 2018 playoffs (like rising stars) as opposed to how they played for much of this past season. Hayward – reportedly getting stronger – will look like his old self in his second season back from devastating leg injuries. The chemistry will improve quickly and drastically, the rookies will contribute right away, and a trade involving draft picks and disposable assets will bring in a better big man. The team will make good on 2018-19’s promise one year late and wind up going toe-to-toe with the West’s best team in the NBA Finals.
Unfortunately, the worst-case scenario isn’t difficult to envision either. If things go poorly with these new-look Celtics, it may look like this: Walker will struggle to assimilate, raising questions of whether Irving himself wasn’t wholly responsible for this past season’s chemistry issues. Tatum and Brown will remain inconsistent, making their 2018 postseason breakouts seem like blips. The lack of a starting-caliber big man will hurt early and often, and no significant help will be brought in via trade. Hayward will fail to make meaningful progress, and wind up fighting for minutes. The team makes the playoffs on sheer talent, but bows out in the first round.
In other words, it’s a whole new world for the Celtics, and no one really knows what it looks like. But while that worst-case scenario is certainly plausible, the amount of talent on board, the remaining trade assets the organization has, and the end of the disastrous Irving partnership should collectively offer quite a bit of hope.