— NBA (@NBA) July 20, 2019
The Boston Celtics were the most underwhelming team of the 2018/19 campaign, failing to match pre-season expectations that have placed them in the NBA Finals. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers had stood in their way for the previous two years, with the brilliance of the forward preventing Brand Stevens’ men from advancing from the Eastern Conference Finals in 2018. The absences of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward played a significant role in the Celtics’ failure to secure a Finals berth – or, seemingly, at the time.
Their respective returns from injury and LeBron’s departure to the Los Angeles Lakers opened up the path for Boston to take control of the Eastern Conference. However, it did not come to fruition as Stevens’ men lacked the chemistry on the court that had been influential in their surge to within a game of the Finals in the previous term. Irving’s attitude and performances bore the brunt of the criticism, with the spotlight focused on his relationship with the rest of the roster. Promising young players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were unable to take steps forward in their development, while Hayward looked extremely rusty following his return from a devastating broken leg.
Kyrie Irving prepares for free agency by “essentially ghosting” the Celtics, per reports 😬
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) June 18, 2019
Boston crawled their way to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and defeated a Victor Oladipo-less Indiana Pacers before being smashed by Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. Irving went back on his initial claim to suggest that he was remaining in Boston and signed a lucrative deal with the Brooklyn Nets, while veteran Al Horford also left the team during the free agency. Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter were signed to replace the two players in the hope of bringing back the unity of the side that reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2018, with the Celtics being backed in the latest basketball odds at +750 to win the Conference.
Walker should bring stability to the point guard position. While he doesn’t have the mesmerizing skill of Irving, the 29-year-old has been just as productive over the last three seasons. Walker played for a Charlotte Hornets side that has reached the playoffs only twice during his eight-year tenure. He now has the opportunity to become a superstar at the TD Garden in one of the NBA’s feature franchises. Walker’s leadership could be more important than his statistics, allowing the young talent to flourish around him. The main criticism of Irving last season was his treatment of Brown and Tatum, failing to bring out the best in his team-mates, putting them under huge pressure. Walker has already made the right noises, although he will need to back up his talk with his demeanor on the court.
Tatum and Brown also need to come to the fore. Both players were outstanding when Irving and Hayward went down in the 2017/18 season, elevating the standards of their performances. Now entering their third and fourth years respectively, they need to raise the bar on a more consistent basis to become the players general manager Danny Ainge and Stevens would have hoped to see when Boston used the third-overall pick in back-to-back years to select the duo. It’s time for them to deliver to guide the Celtics back into the NBA Finals.