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Best Case, Worst Case: Boston Celtics

With Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward in tow, the quest for ring no. 18 begins

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

NBA back! To prepare for a new season, we’re breaking down one team per day, each day, until tipoff on October 17.

Team: Boston Celtics

Coach: Brad Stevens (fifth year)

Last Season: 53-29 (first in Eastern Conference)

Notable Additions: Kyrie Irving (trade), Gordon Hayward (free agency), Jayson Tatum (draft)

Notable Subtractions: Isaiah Thomas (trade), Avery Bradley (trade), Jae Crowder (trade), the 2018 unprotected Nets pick that had incubated in Danny Ainge’s roost for so long it was speaking in paragraphs and enrolled in Cambridge’s Wildflower Montessori before being told it was headed to Cleveland (trade)

Vegas Over/Under: 56.5

Best-Case Scenario: Nothing less than becoming the 2017-18 NBA champions. Everything has come to a head for the Celtics: The team traded a true folk hero, relinquished its most valuable trade asset, braved the backlash of Hayward’s blown Players’ Tribune deadline, and adopted a woke pseudoscientist as its flagship star. It was all done in hopes of bringing home trophy no. 18 in 2018, the 10-year anniversary of their last title.

There’s a lot to like with the Celtics’ new roster construction. In Irving, Brad Stevens ostensibly has another Thomas, but without the inherent liabilities on both ends of the floor of being 5-foot-9; look for Irving to diversify his game and pick up a lot of the dribble-handoff pet plays the Celtics loved to run last season to free Thomas for open 3s. Hayward’s slithering pick-and-roll play at his size will be essential to the team’s identity, which will involve exploiting as many mismatches as they can create for themselves. Al Horford moves a slot down in the pecking order, which suits his strengths perfectly; he’ll continue to be a steadying two-way presence and one of the best distributors at the 4/5 spot.

The Celtics have submitted their proposed blueprint for how to survive in the modern NBA: shot-making facilitators at nearly every position up the chain, with tall, young, and athletic wings filling the gaps. Losing Bradley’s defensive wits hurts from a technical standpoint, but there was always a cap to how effective a Thomas-Bradley backcourt could be on that side of the ball—the two were always running up against the narrowest margin for error because their average height was under 6 feet. Now, the Celtics will employ a Bucks-ish strategy of creating five-man lineups that are almost uniform in size and skill. It’s a stark shift, but one the team had been gearing up for since last season. It just didn’t have the right personnel until now.

If all goes well, the Celtics will get to say, “We told you so.” If all goes well, the Celtics will have successfully installed the first post-Warriors team in the league.

Worst-Case Scenario: The Celtics watch helplessly as the Cavaliers make their fourth no.1 overall draft selection in eight years, one month after losing in the Eastern Conference finals to a Cavaliers team that soldiered on through the postseason with Thomas glued to the sidelines.

It seems awfully reductive, but the Celtics will likely spend much of the season figuring out whether Kyrie is a superstar. He’s certainly flaunted an aura this offseason, but the fact is none of the Celtics’ three most important players have shown the ability to lead a team far into the postseason (if at all) as the undisputed focal point. There is a lot of possibility being projected onto Kyrie, but there is a strong chance that the player we saw in Cleveland with LeBron is the version best suited to his talent. LeBron enabled Irving to be one of the most lethal one-on-one scorers in the league. How much more can he be? There is a level of versatility to Hayward and Horford’s games that is easily projectable within Stevens’s system; we’re still waiting to see the ways in which Irving can diversify his play.

Adding Irving and Hayward (and Tatum, who has miraculously become an afterthought) are incredible wholesale changes this summer that will supercharge an offense that was already top-10 in the league, but have the Celtics addressed their most glaring issues? Boston was one of the five worst rebounding teams last regular season, and its rebounding percentage plummeted to laughable rates against stiffer competition in the playoffs. We can marvel at the team’s theoretical switchability up and down the roster all we want, but if they can’t lock in a rebound, it’s not going to matter. Ball security will be an issue to keep an eye on; it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Celtics’ turnover rates increase with all the new personnel occupying the floor together. The Warriors’ season-long mantra last year was win the possession battle. For the Celtics to reach the heights they’re hoping for, they’ll have to do the same.

TL;DR: It’s ring or bust; Ainge didn’t sacrifice one of his darlings for anything less.