In years past, as the Celtics season came to a disappointing end, rumors and rumors inevitably swirled about the team’s direction and future.
Can Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown play together? Yes.
Is Marcus Smart an Elite Launch Point Guardian? Yes.
Can this core keep up? Yes.
You had to have an opinion on all three, otherwise you wouldn’t fit in with the family barbecue.
This off-season should (hopefully) make those questions a thing of the past. The Celtics have everything they need apart from maybe a scorer or two on the bench, and less is more when trying to make that one last step.
What is more important than any trade or signing of contracts this off-season is individual and collective growth. Many Celtics have grown significantly this season and their improvement was fully evident against the Nets, Bucks and Heat.
In the Warriors series, it was like they lost their superpowers. Part of that was because they were up against a team with Championship experience that just couldn’t be denied, but part of that was with the Celtics. They lost their identity and their poise and broke up at critical moments, missing a great opportunity. Winning a championship is within reach but will require more discipline in the future.
“There are levels and you can see the difference in Golden State who have been together for a long time,” head coach Ime Udoka said after Game 6. “Let’s all better come back from this experience.”
The Celtics were almost always elite defensively, but offensively they were so-so and sometimes a bit limited. Here’s a specific way each player in the roster can improve next season to improve their chances when it counts:
Stevens: “Even after a great season, there should be a bitter aftertaste. That can propel you into the next season. I don’t think anyone is happy with where they are. We need to take those individual improvements and add them to the team.”
— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) June 21, 2022
Jayson Tatum: Serenity
Some of the Tatum smear on Twitter these days has been ridiculous. No, he didn’t fulfill his potential in the Finals, but yes, he absolutely can be the best player on a championship team. Tatum has all the skills required, but he needs to work on his attitude.
When the Warriors doubled it and got in his face, Tatum froze and coughed up the ball. Posture also includes shot selection, decision making and not complaining to the referees as often. This experience might end up being the best thing that has ever happened to him. It’s his chance to go from awesome to invincible.
Jaylen Brown: Dribble in traffic
Let’s also be very clear about this: Without Jaylen Brown, the Celtics wouldn’t have come close to The Finals. He wore them in so many games and was their most consistent goalscorer against the Warriors. He’s a great player who just keeps getting better.
However, sales are still a big issue. Brown averaged 3 times against the Bucks, 3.3 times against the Heat, and 3.3 times in the Warriors series. He often has the ball in his hands and is challenged a lot, but he often bows his head and invites a doubles team without considering the possible consequences beforehand. It’s tricky because in some ways his playmaking strength is also his weakness, but cleaning his grip would go a long way for both Brown and the Celtics.
Marcus Smart: Shot selection
Smart has had a stellar season so everything here is finicky and all he can offer more is gravy. Making him the definitive starting point guard was undoubtedly the right decision, and he’s proven he can be a matchmaker at the highest level. His defense is always superb and now he has the hardware to prove it.
His shot itself was also pretty solid for the most part, to be honest, but his shot selection continues to be head-scratching at times. The Celtics are elite when Smart is the third or fourth option on offense and prioritizes passing. There are still a few too many questionable 3s early in the shot clock at key moments that can easily be erased.
Robert Williams: middle class jumper
The Celtics need to look for Williams even more than they already are. He’s one of the most unique players in the NBA, and his shot blocking and rim running are elite. Plenty of players with his skills threw rocks off the free-throw line, but Williams shot it at a very solid 72 percent.
The next step in his development is to get his middle-class jumper to the point where he feels safe to take him more regularly. That’s not to say he should pull up 3s every night, but those 12-foot punches are shots he can make. If he can get shot blockers off the rim it will continue to open up the color for Brown and Tatum to ride without as much resistance. If the defense needs to respect Williams out there, watch out.
Al Horford: Stay young
This is less an area of improvement and more a wish for the Celtics. Horford has been a breath of fresh air all season. On a scale of 1 to 10, his performance was honestly an 11. Who the hell would have expected him to play that well?
Does he have enough in the tank to scale it back and play at an equally high level? He certainly thinks so, and it appears the Celtics do too, but only Father Time knows for sure if he can repeat his Herculean effort.
Derrick White: Hitting and Defending the 3rd
White was an excellent pickup that goes perfectly with everything the Celtics do. He had some strong playoff games, but also others in which he either interfered or disappeared. White totaled 3 points in the last two games and was essentially a non-factor.
The next step for him on offense is to become more dangerous from 3-point distance. He posted a career-low 30.6 percent during his time with the Celtics, and the Warriors were content to keep him more or less open. He doesn’t have to be an assassin out there, but he has to be capable.
Defensively, White struggled to skirt the screens and stop Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Granted, he’s far from alone here, but he was often a step or two slow and looked confused as to where he was supposed to be and when. He’s considered an elite defender but didn’t play like one in the Golden State series.
Grant Williams: Mid-Range Game
In Williams’ rookie season, 53 percent of his points came from the arc. This season, that number was 33 percent. That’s partly because he accidentally decided to shoot like Curry, but it’s also because he stopped shooting inside.
Make no mistake, a 3-point shooting from Williams is Williams’ best, but the Celtics need him to get back to playing faceoff ball in the paint while also adding mid-range and floater play to his repertoire. If teams consider him a sniper, he would benefit greatly from throwing in a bucket or two of upfake, drive, and mid-range per night.
Payton Pritchard: Doesn’t let teams let him down
It’s inevitable that teams will try to isolate Pritchard in color – especially with the Celtics being so defensively strong elsewhere. Most of the time he performed admirably, but there were times when he looked outdone. Pritchard needs to keep getting stronger and asserting himself as best he can.
He’s earned his place in the rotation and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Udoka cares more about defense than anything else. An improvement on that end will help Pritchard earn even more minutes, which will help him get even more into a rhythm offensively.
Daniel Theis: Invite the officials over for coffee
But seriously, has any player in NBA history gotten a worse whistle? Theis is often late in his rotations, and defenders drool when they see him in front of them. It’s important to keep improving your mobility and agility.
Aaron Nesmith: Find his shot
Nesmith is probably somewhere between the best shooter in his class and the 27 percent 3-point shooter he was this season. He brings excellent energy and has a solid swing in his stride, but his shot just isn’t there. As he hinted, it would take him a long time to find it.
Other players: Find a way to contribute
Sam Hauser (rebound), Nik Stauskas (driving), Luke Kornet (agility), Matt Ryan (shot selection), Brodric Thomas (passing), Juwan Morgan (shooting from mid-range) and Malik Fitts (defending bigs) are unlikely to crack the rotation, but improving certain parts of their game could help their long-term future in the NBA.
The Celtics roster is about to be finalized. Now it’s a matter of taking the next step.
“Even after a great season, there should be a bitter taste in your mouth,” said Brad Stevens, president of basketball operations. “That can propel you into next season. I don’t think anyone is happy with where they are. We need to take those individual improvements and add them to the team.”