2018-19 Celtics Predictions (That Might Make Me Look Foolish)
Updated: Dec 11, 2018
The new NBA season opens tomorrow so it's time to go on record with a bunch of predictions that will mostly be wrong and can be used against me in the future.
1. Kyrie Irving will make 1st or 2nd Team All NBA
Had he stayed healthy last season I think Kyrie would have made 2nd Team, though he was probably the second guard on the team and so may have fallen to 3rd. Regardless, he's only made one All NBA team in his career (3rd Team in 2014-15), in part because he's only played over 70 games in three seasons.
This is a prediction based on the idea that going through the extra procedures last year will give him a more healthy season this year, and that the narrative of being the leader of what should be a good team will garner a lot of votes. I'm tempted to say that he'll finish top-5 in MVP voting, but that award is a bit too narrative-based; it's hard to predict what stories the voters will grab on to.
2. Al Horford will average less than 12 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists per game, but (deservedly) make the All Star Team
Last season Al went for 12.9 / 7.4 / 4.7 per game but my guess is that his points go down with, hopefully, more games from Irving and Gordon Hayward and higher usage from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. He'll play more center but hasn't broken 8 rebounds per game since 2013-14.
If he is voted an All Star with those box score stats, he'd be only the fourth player since the 1960's to do it. From the other three, Kareem Abdul-Jabar and Yao Ming made it basically as lifetime achievement awards; Kareem was 41 and Yao played five total games in his final season when he was voted in.
The only player to really make the team with numbers that "pedestrian" was Roy Hibbert in 2014 when the East was as shallow in talent as it's ever been. If Al does make it this year that will be six appearances to go along with two NCAA titles and could put him into the Hall of Fame.
3. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum will finish within one PPG of each other
I think most people expect Tatum to take a bigger step forward than Jaylen, at least in scoring, but Brown has looked aggressive in preseason and seems to know his role a bit more clearly than Jayson. That could absolutely just be preseason quirks, like how Tatum looked like the player he did at Duke in his rookie Summer League before instantly becoming a hyper-efficient spot-up threat in the real games, but it's at least worth monitoring.
Jaylen has beaten my expectations in each of his first two seasons, which means I should increase my expectations for year three. While Irving and Horford should continue to be the most "important" Celtics, Jaylen's variance could be what determines exactly how far Boston goes. If he takes another step up in offensive efficiency (just get those turnovers down and the playmaking a bit better!) and into All Defense consideration, the Celtics could be special.
4. Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier both finish the season as Celtics
If the Celtics were projected to be the sixth best team in the NBA I would bet on trading Terry (or on having already traded him) but with possibilities as bright as they are and trade values for players in these contract statuses as low as they are, my guess is that the team just plays it out with these two.
In-season trades of non-star, pending restricted free agents have simply not commanded a big price. They're rarely traded to begin with, but when they do the returns aren't great. The Jazz are certainly happy with their swap of Rodney Hood for Jae Crowder, but Crowder had been terrible in Cleveland up to that point. Unless the Suns or Magic are over performing expectations at the deadline, it's hard for me to see a team sending Boston enough to make it worth the incremental hit on their title chances this season.
Smart will become eligible to be traded mid-season but lots of teams are hoarding cap space for 2019-20 and so aren't looking for players with a contract like his. Maybe you could flip him for a player with 2-3 season remaining on their deal (especially if you think that player would be more attractive to New Orleans in an Anthony Davis offer next offseason) but it's just a lot of money to shift for a player who a lot of teams probably wouldn't have paid that much to in the first place.
I don't expect both players to be Celtics in 2019-20, but I'd say it's closer to 50/50 who is here than conventional wisdom states. Most people seem to expect Rozier to move on to a starting job somewhere else, but will Danny Ainge really let Terry walk for nothing when he could trade Marcus for an asset and then negotiate with Rozier holding the hammer of restricted free agency? Both paths seem possible, and are further complicated by the amount of uncertainty that the team has next summer.
5. Boston does not finish the regular season with the best record in the East
This is just me playing the odds. I think the Celtics have the best chance of finishing first of any single team, but a less than 50% chance overall. I'd say that there's a ~90% chance that the one seed comes from Boston, Toronto, or Philadelphia. Within that, and sticking to round-ish numbers: I'd set the odds around 35% Boston, 30% Toronto, 25% Philly.
6. The Celtics will play in the NBA Finals
By the same logic I should not be making this prediction, but I think that the team is just too well built for the playoffs to not advance.
Hayward should improve as the season goes along and be peaking closer to the playoffs. Kyrie and Kawhi are the two most proven playoff performers in the conference. Horford's game has been established as a better fit to the playoffs than the regular season. All the kids have a run under their belts.
The Raptors are scary but Kyle Lowry's playoff track record isn't great. Kawhi's defense can erase a player but the Celtics' strength on offense is depth, not individual brilliance. They can run groups that are stifling on defense but OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Serge Ibaka don't scare me on the other end. I'd take Boston's versatility on both ends in that series.
Philadelphia has to prove it to me before I believe that they're a scary playoff team. The Celtics's scheme-based dominance last season is too much for me to get over. Giannis and the Bucks are still terrifying but they have too many holes to jump all the way to the Finals.
7. Marcus Morris will be vaguely unhappy but not a disruption
Of all the players on the roster, Mook's role is the most likely to diminish. Before last season started one of the things that stood out to me was how many fewer shots he was going to have to take than in seasons past. Then Hayward got injured and the "problem" resolved itself.
I'm back to thinking that again, but this season we have to add in that Morris is in a contract year. No one is going to weep for him having "only" made $29M in his career by the end of this season, but he'll be 30 next year and so he probably has only one major contract left in him.
Taking minutes and shots away from him may not go over all that well, but I think his seemingly good relationships with Brad Stevens, Tatum, and his bench buddies should keep him from going too public with his concerns. If he acts out it may be by short-circuiting offensive sets to hunt for his own shots, but that won't be distinguishable from his normal game.
He also seems like a person who has learned the lessons of NBA professionalism. The decisions made with the Suns didn't work and he's been traded twice since. He knows that stats are generally what gets paid, but he also should know that he plays a position of high demand in what should be a sellers' free agency market. Even if he plays 1,500 minutes and sees his usage drop into the high teens he should be an in-demand player. Rekindling the old Morrii reputation of being a troublemaker would likely hurt his future earnings more than that.
8. Robert Williams will make Daniel Theis expendable
Naturally a lot of discussion around the future make-up of the team has been focused on the pending free agencies of Irving, Horford, Rozier, and Morris. However, Theis will also be a restricted free agent next summer and if he returns to the form he showed just before getting injured he should get offers above the minimum. For a team potentially carrying a heavy tax burden that might be a non-starter. Daniel will already be 27 years old and no one would begrudge him taking every dollar he can get.
Robert "Timelord" Williams got off to a rough start on the public relations front but has shown real, useful skills in preseason. He looks like an intelligent interior defender (for a rookie) and not just a physical freak. He's also already flashed some Clint Capela-esque perimeter switching skills. On offense we know that he's a potential scheme changing lob finisher but it's been his passing instincts that portend a future spot for him in a Brad Stevens system.
If Williams looks like a piece for the future it makes it easier to let Theis walk away. It's conceivable that they might not even tender him a qualifying offer if they decide that the roster spot (remember, there could be as many as four 1st round picks to account for next season) and salary space are simply better spent elsewhere.
That Theis leaves in the summer is a rather easy prediction. The question may be if he even makes it that far. As a player with a two year minimum contract he's very easy to trade because any team can take him in with the minimum exception without sending any salary back. That's not the case for, for example, Semi Ojelye. If the Celtics make moves to get under the luxury tax, which has been made more difficult by Jabari Bird's legal issues, being able to ship out a contract like Theis could be a part of the calculus. If Williams is ahead of the curve and looks playable, and Stevens cuts the big man rotation in the playoffs anyway, trading out Theis and just dropping down to 14 players could help in putting off the future repeater tax for an extra season.
9. Boston will not have a top-3 defense but will have a top-10 offense
The Celtics look poised to play smaller and faster this year. The team's best defensive line-ups last year included Aron Baynes. The assumed starting line-up for this year does not include Aron Baynes. It's reasonable to expect teams like Utah, Toronto, and Philadelphia to jump them in the defensive rankings.
That's totally fine if the offense comes up more than the defense goes down, though. With (hopefully) more games from Kyrie and (please God) more minutes from Hayward that's absolutely what you would expect. The Cleaning The Glass definitions had the Celtics with the best defense and 18th best offense last season. I would guess they come in at 4th on defense and 9th on offense this time around.
10. Eight months from now, the Celtics will hold two lottery picks after losing in six games in the NBA Finals, and will be trying to trade for Anthony Davis
Why not, right?