In years past, as Celtics seasons came to a disappointing close, chatter and rumors inevitably swirled about the direction and future of the team.
Can Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown play together? Yes.
Is Marcus Smart an elite starting point guard? Yes.
Can this core contend? Yes.
You had to have an opinion on all three or you couldn’t fit in at the family barbecue.
This offseason, those questions should (hopefully) be in the past. The Celtics have everything they need, outside of perhaps a bench scorer or two, and less is more as they try to take that one final step.
What’s more important this offseason than any trade or any signing is individual and collective growth. Many Celtics grew significantly this season, and their improvement was on full display against the Nets, Bucks, and Heat.
In the Warriors series, it was as if they lost their superpowers. Part of that was because they were up against a team with championship experience that simply wasn’t to be denied, but part of it was on the Celtics. They lost their identity and their poise and unraveled in critical moments, squandering a major opportunity. Winning a championship is well within reach, but it requires more discipline going forward.
“There are levels, and you can see the difference in Golden State that’s been together for a long time,” head coach Ime Udoka said after Game 6. “Let’s all come back better from this experience.”
The Celtics were almost always elite defensively, but they were streaky and somewhat limited at times offensively. Here’s one specific way each player on the roster can improve heading into next season to help their chances when it matters most:
Stevens: “There should be a bitter taste, even after a great season. That can propel you into next season. I don’t think anyone is satisfied with where they are. We have to take those individual improvements and add them to the team .”
—Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) June 21, 2022
Jayson Tatum: poise
Some of the Tatum slander on Twitter these days has been ridiculous. No, he didn’t play to his potential in The Finals, but yes, he can absolutely be the best player on a championship team. Tatum has every skill necessary to do so, but he needs to work on his poise.
When the Warriors doubled him and got in his face, Tatum froze and coughed the ball up. Poise also includes shot selection, decision-making and not complaining to the refs as often. This experience could end up as the best thing to ever happen to him. It’s his chance to go from great to invincible.
Jaylen Brown: dribbling in traffic
Let’s be very clear about this as well: without Jaylen Brown, the Celtics wouldn’t have come anywhere close to The Finals. He carried them in so many games and was their most consistent scorer against the Warriors. He’s a terrific player who’s only getting better.
Having said that, the turnovers continue to be a major issue. Brown turned it over an average of 3 times against the Bucks, 3.3 vs. the Heat and 3.3 in the Warriors series. He has the ball in his hands frequently and is asked to do a lot, but he often puts his head down and invites a double team without thinking about the potential consequences beforehand. It’s tricky, because in a way his strength of playmaking is also his weakness, but cleaning up his handle would go a long way for both Brown and the Celtics.
Marcus Smart: shot selection
Smart had a stellar season, so anything here is nitpicking and anything more he can provide is gravy. Making him the definitive starting point guard was unquestionably the correct decision, and he proved that he can be a facilitator at the highest level. His defense is always outstanding, and now he has the hardware to prove it.
His shot itself was honestly pretty solid as well for the most part, but his shot selection continues to be head-scratching at times. The Celtics are elite when Smart is the third or fourth option offensively and is prioritizing passing. There are still a few too many questionable 3’s early in the shot clock in key moments that can easily be erased.
Robert Williams: mid-range 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. Many players with his skill set chuck up bricks from the free-throw line, but Williams shot it at a very solid 72 percent.
The next step in his development is getting his mid-range jumper to a point where he feels confident taking it more regularly. That’s not to say he should be hoisting 3’s every night, but those 12-footers are shots he can make. If he can bring shot blockers away from the rim, that will continue to open up the paint for Brown and Tatum to drive without as much resistance. If defenses have to respect Williams out there, watch out.
Al Horford: Stay young
This one is less of an area of improvement and more of a wish for the Celtics. Horford was a breath of fresh air all season. On a scale of 1 to 10, his performance was honestly an 11. Who the heck could have anticipated he would play that well?
Does he have enough in the tank to run it back and play at just as high of a level? He certainly thinks so, and it appears the Celtics do as well, but only Father Time knows for sure whether he can replicate his Herculean effort.
Derrick White: hitting and defending the 3
White was an excellent pickup that fits in perfectly with everything the Celtics are doing. He had some strong playoff games but had others where he either blended in or disappeared. White scored combined 3 points in the final two games and was essentially a non-factor.
The next step for him offensively is becoming more of a threat from 3-point range. He shot a career-low 30.6 percent in his time with the Celtics, and the Warriors were content more or less leaving him open. He doesn’t need to be an assassin from out there, but he does need to be capable.
Defensively, White struggled getting around screens and stopping Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Granted, he’s far from alone here, but he was often a step or two slow and looked confused about where to be when. He’s regarded as an elite defender, but he 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 inside the arc. This season, that number was at 33 percent. That’s in part because he randomly decided to shoot like Curry, but it’s also because he stopped looking to score inside.
Make no mistake, a 3-point shooting Williams is the best Williams, but the Celtics need him to get back to playing bully ball in the paint while also adding a mid-range and floater game to his repertoire. If teams view him as a sniper, he would benefit greatly from sprinkling in an upfake, drive and mid-range bucket or two a night.
Payton Pritchard: not letting teams pick on him
It’s inevitable that teams are going to look to isolate Pritchard in the paint – particularly because the Celtics are so strong defensively elsewhere. He fared admirably for the most part, but there were times where he looked outmatched. Pritchard needs to keep getting stronger and hold his own as much as possible.
He’s earned his spot in the rotation, and he doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Udoka cares about defense more than anything. Improving on that end will help Pritchard earn even more minutes, which will help him get into even more of a rhythm offensively.
Daniel Theis: invites the officials for coffee
But seriously, has any player in NBA history gotten a worse whistle? Theis is often late in his rotations, and defenders salivate when they see him in front of them. Continuing to improve his mobility and agility is important.
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 pep in his step, but his shot just isn’t there. As he alluded to, finding it would go a long way toward earning him minutes.
Other players: figure out a way to contribute
Sam Hauser (rebounding), Nik Stauskas (driving), Luke Kornet (agility), Matt Ryan (shot selection), Brodric Thomas (passing), Juwan Morgan (mid-range shooting) and Malik Fitts (guarding bigs) are unlikely to crack the rotation, but improving specific parts of their game could help their long-term future in the NBA.
The Celtics’ roster is just about set. Now it’s about taking the next step.
“There should be a bitter taste, even after a great season,” President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens said. “That can propel you into next season. I don’t think anyone is satisfied with where they are. We have to take those individual improvements and add them to the team.”