BOSTON — Brad Stevens wasn’t going there. Marcus Smart, either. Last season? They addressed that mess in May, after the Celtics were bounced from the playoffs by Milwaukee, punctuating one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history. They did it again last month, when the team gathered for media day and the subject of bad chemistry and Kyrie Irving’s role in it came up. Oh, you can try to get them to further autopsy what went wrong. You just won’t get many meaningful answers.
“For me, I went straight to working out,” Smart told SI.com. “So for me it was really just getting back in the gym and really kind of putting my mind back in a space where it needed to be. Last year I think everybody could tell you that it wasn't what we wanted, but that year is over and we got a new year and we're glad to have a new year to start over.”
Said Stevens: “One of the things that we've done a good job of in this building is not dwelling on it. We don't talk about it. You know, we don't, I haven't mentioned last year in a team meeting, but maybe once or twice. I think it's more important to focus on who we have now. A lot of these guys weren't here so it doesn't really matter. And you know, from our standpoint what matters is getting ready to play a season.”
Indeed. So what about this season?
A year ago, the Celtics entered training camp a reigning conference finalist with two injured All-Stars rejoining the mix.
This year? The team is down to one All-Star (newcomer Kemba Walker), a decimated front line and virtually no expectations.
Spend a few days with the Celtics and you will sense a decidedly different vibe from last season. Is it the lack of pressure? Maybe. Boston is still considered a playoff team, perhaps even a top-four seed contender, but a tier below Milwaukee and Philadelphia in the conference. Is it chemistry? The young players who led the Celtics to the conference finals in 2018—headlined by Smart, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown—now represent the core of the team, with Walker, fresh off an All-NBA season in Charlotte, the new face in the mix.
Walker says he couldn’t be happier with his decision to sign with Boston. The four-year, $141 million contract didn’t hurt. He says he loves the competitiveness the team has in practices. He has embraced his role as a playmaker whose responsibilities include helping Tatum and Brown take their games to the next level. He says he has no problem changing his game—even if coaches and teammates are encouraging him not to.
“[Stevens] is actually trying to get me to be myself more,” Walker told SI.com. “So are our guys. They want me to be myself and play like I played in Charlotte. Obviously, my shot numbers might go down, which is fine, but they still want me to be really aggressive and make plays, which I'm excited about. But I'm also excited to sit back a little bit and let these guys work and find me, so I can get some spot ups and open shots and stuff like that. So it's a good mixture.”
Watch Boston, and you can see the offensive potential. Walker is an elite pick-and-roll player and a dangerous outside shooter. Tatum’s ascent stalled last season but there remains a league-wide belief that he will develop into an elite scorer. Gordon Hayward had a rehab-free offseason and, says Stevens, “just looks like himself.”
Defense is the biggest question. Boston has ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency in three of the last four seasons, including the last two. But the Celtics frontcourt was gutted over the summer, with Horford signing with Philadelphia and Aron Baynes, one of the NBA’s best defensive centers, traded to Phoenix. Boston added offensive–minded Enes Kanter and Euro League veteran Vincent Poirier, while returning springy, second-year big man Robert Williams and Daniel Theis.
The Celtics still have Smart, arguably the NBA’s best wing defender. Brown has proven to be solid on the wing, too, while Stevens praised Tatum’s commitment to defense in rebounding in the preseason. But teams will attack Kanter and Walker in pick-and-rolls and physical teams will try to bully the Celtics on the inside. Boston’s level of success could hinge on its ability to establish a defensive identity.
“We're not a very big team,” Smart said. “But our advantage is that we're very athletic and we're very quick. So we've got to use those to our advantage and really make other teams who are bigger than us really play our ball. So our biggest thing is going to have to be up and pressuring guys. And like I said, we have the guys to do it.”
There is a chippiness to this Celtics team. Stevens saw it this summer, when players showed up in droves to work out at the practice facility. “A lot of them were here, which I thought was a big kind of signal that we're in this to get better and get ready to compete,” Stevens said. “We're in this to get any bad tastes out of our mouth.” He saw it at USA Basketball camp, where Walker, Smart, Brown and Tatum had a chance to work together and develop early chemistry. “For me, I've always felt like the closer you are off the court, man, it translates on the court,” said Walker. “You want guys to play for each other. And I think that's how it'll be for us.”
And for Stevens? Last fall, Stevens got 47% of the votes for best coach in the annual GM survey, the most of any coach. This season? He didn’t get one. Stevens isn’t interested in dissecting his role in last season’s collapse. He says he was reminded by fellow coaches that Boston did win 49 games and advance to the second round and “there's a lot of teams that would trade for that.” In an interview, he keeps the focus on the players. But the players know this season is important to him, too.
“They love you when you're doing great, they hate you when you're doing bad,” Smart said. “So this is how it is. Have a great year this year, they'll be talking about him again as one of the greatest coaches. His mentality and his attitude with us, he's been great. He went through some things last year just like us for the first time he's had to deal with it and we all learned together. So we're in this together and I'm happy for him. I'm happy that he's got a clear mind. I'm happy to see him smile again and I'm excited to have him as a coach.”
A New Season for Caris LeVert
BROOKLYN — Last month, Caris LeVert hopped up on a perch at the Nets practice facility and said something surprising. “Last season, “ LeVert told SI.com, “was probably one of my favorite seasons.” Really? The 2018-19 season, of course, began with LeVert taking a leading role early, averaging 18.4 points into mid-November, before a gruesome looking ankle injury sidelined him for nearly three months. He struggled to regain his rhythm early but hit his stride again in April (15.8 points) and peaked in the playoffs, averaging 21 points in the Nets' six-game loss to Philadelphia.
“I kind of experienced every emotion with basketball,” said LeVert.
This season, LeVert will adjust to a new role. D’Angelo Russell, LeVert’s backcourt mate the last two seasons, is gone, replaced by Kyrie Irving. There are similarities between Irving and Russell. Both are high–usage rate players comfortable in the pick-and-roll. LeVert worked well with Russell and sees no issues figuring out how to play with Irving.
“Both of those guys are extremely high-level IQ guys,” LeVert said. “They really know the game. They get easy shots for their teammates. They both attract a lot of attention out there on the floor. So playing with those guys you've got to be ready at all times, whether that's backdoor cut, spotting up for three, you have to be ready because the ball can come at any time.
“I've had talks with Kyrie and his whole thing is just be aggressive. I think the more aggressive I am, the less pressure is on him. Because everyone's going to be keyed in on him, obviously, because he's such a great player, such a big part of our team. There's going to be a lot of eyes on him and all the time.”
Still: Irving struggled mixing his talent with Boston’s young stars last season. And the Nets have a very Celtics-like roster, with LeVert headlining a young group that includes Jarrett Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Taurean Prince. LeVert, though, says he has seen nothing early that makes him concerned.
“Every situation is different,” LeVert said. “Everybody's different. Obviously, I know Kyrie's game a lot, I watch him a lot, but playing with him on the court is a lot different as well. I feel like our offense is good for a two guard front. Me and D'Angelo made it work last year, D'Angelo and Spencer made work last year, and I feel like it'll be no different. I feel like we can make it work.”
The challenge of incorporating Irving’s talents into the Nets mix falls on Kenny Atkinson. Asked about parallels between Irving’s situation in Boston and Brooklyn, Atkinson reminds a reporter that “they looked pretty good together that first year.” He likens LeVert to a slot receiver in the NFL, with many different responsibilities.
“Let's face it, Kyrie's going to have the ball in his hands a lot,” Atkinson told SI.com. “They have to find that balance and I think D'Angelo and him just found that chemistry between them where they're sharing the responsibility. The great thing is Kyrie's great off the ball too, so it is just going to evolve, I think.”
LeVert is nothing if not resilient. He was a four-year star at Michigan who slipped to the 20th pick in the draft in 2016. He has adapted to changing roles in his first three seasons. And he overcame a horrific injury last season which, says LeVert, was the most mentally challenging hurdle he has had to overcome. Throughout it all, Atkinson’s message to LeVert has been simple: Work hard. Be consistent with your habits. Bring the same energy level every single day.
Whatever challenges the new-look Nets bring, LeVert says he is ready for them.
“Our offense is pretty much the same as it was last year,” LeVert said. “We just have a couple of new pieces, but as a player, we're kind of wired to be prepared for any moment out there on the floor.”
It’s extension season in the NBA. Thoughts on three notable extensions that were agreed to this week.
Buddy Hield, Sacramento (four years, $86 million): Hield, 26, was surprisingly candid about his extension talks in recent interviews, declaring that if he didn’t get the deal he wanted, he was prepared to move on. There are an extra $20 million in incentives in Hield’s deal, per multiple reports, which will give Hield the opportunity to cross the $100 million threshold. It’s a good deal for Hield, who emerged as an All-Star caliber guard last season. And it’s a strong deal for Sacramento—Kings owner Vivek Ranadive’s love of Hield dates back to his college days—which locks down a key member of one of the NBA’s best young backcourts. The Kings have endured some turbulent times in recent years. The Hield deal gives them some needed stability.
Jaylen Brown, Boston (four years, $103 million, with sizable incentives)
The Celtics aren’t big on rookie-scale extensions—Rajon Rondo, in 2009, was the last player to get one—so it was notable that the Celtics sweetened the offer for Brown enough to get a deal done. It’s also notable because signing Brown now makes him difficult to trade in-season, and Boston boss Danny Ainge likes to keep his options open. It’s interesting to see the Celtics be financially committed to Brown and Hayward, with Tatum headed for a likely max-level extension next summer. It could be a signal that the staff believes that Tatum, who added muscle to his 6’8” frame, is ready to log minutes at power forward. Or it could mean that Hayward, who can opt out of his contract next summer, could be the most likely swingman moved. Boston will be on the lookout for frontcourt help this season (Marc Gasol has generated interest from the front office in the past) and may need a big contract to do it.
Taurean Prince, Brooklyn (two years, $29 million)
In June, Prince appeared to be something of a throw-in when the Nets acquired him in the deal that shed Allan Crabbe’s salary—clearing the cap space needed to sign Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But Prince—who averaged 16.8 points in the preseason, shooting nearly 70% from three—showed Brooklyn enough to reward him with a deal that will keep him under contract for the next three seasons. It’s another tidy move by Brooklyn, which has been proactive about locking down starters and key rotation players (LeVert and Dinwiddie have also received new deals) as they build out a lineup around Irving and, eventually, Durant. Prince has battled for a starting frontcourt spot the last few weeks and is the type of floor spacing big—he shot a career-high 39% from three with Atlanta last season—the Nets need to create space for Irving and Durant.
Five Questions with … Tacko Fall
Tacko-mania has swept through New England. Fall, the 7’6” center who went undrafted out of Central Florida, made a strong impression on the Celtics' summer league roster and did enough in training camp to earn a two-way contract with the team. As he prepares to spend most of the season with the Maine Red Claws, the Celtics G-League affiliate, Fall sat down with SI.com to discuss his path to the NBA—and the cult-like status he has developed along the way.
SI.com: So the NBA is trending away from big men that play like you. Teams are going smaller, with an emphasis on perimeter shooting. Did you wonder if the NBA game would be a fit for you?
Tacko Fall: I've heard that a lot, but I didn't want to put that on me. I knew that I could contribute in any NBA team as long as I kept working hard. And I can bring something that nobody can bring with my size and the way I can move. I'm not the fastest guy out there, but for my size I can move pretty good. And I can make up a lot with my length. So it didn't matter where or how the NBA was trending, if I do my job pretty well, I can impact any game.
“At [pre-draft] workouts, it was about just being able to go up and down the floor. Trying to do a good job in the pick and rolls, move my feet, getting into less foul trouble, and protect the paint as much as I could. On offense, I just really try to keep it simple. Every time I try to get as deep as possible.”
SI.com: Who was the most influential person in your basketball career?
TF: I wouldn't say somebody specific. I would say a few people. Since I started, I was really fortunate that I've met people that have played in NBA. I've met great college players. I've had great teammates. And all of them have really helped me just take my game to another level, especially in college. All my coaches [at Central Florida] starting from the first coach I had, Donnie Jones, through Johnny Dawkins when he came. I spent three years with him, and he and his staff really helped me. From the strength and conditioning guys just pushing me and trying to get my body better, and ready for whatever was coming to my way. I was really fortunate.
“The NBA guys, too. I met Hakeem [Olajuwon]. I met [Dikembe] Mutombo. Those guys have really helped me in some way, as far as giving me advice and showing me a few tricks here and there. And even some people that I've never met, just watching tapes of them on YouTube. I was able to pick up a few things here and there, and try to replicate them on the court.”
SI.com: Was there a point for you in college where you started to believe you could be an NBA player?
TF: Deep down I've always believed that I could do it. There were some days where there was definitely doubts, especially when you have everybody in your ear telling you how the game is changing. The most important thing was just always believing in myself. And I knew that as long as I kept working hard, there would be opportunities that would come my way. And that all I would have to do is take those opportunities and go with it. And now suddenly in the NBA you have got the two-way [contracts], and is this now a chance for me to keep pulling myself, keep getting better. And hopefully make the squad one day and be here for a long time. Because I really like it here.
SI.com: So what do you have to do to stay here?
TF: For bigs, if you can run the floor, protect the paint, rebound, block shots, you can stay. I feel like I can have a really long career. And I've talked to a few people from the staff and I've asked them, what do they think I'm doing [well] and what do they think I need to work on? That's one of the biggest things that they told me, just to run the floor and rebound. Just have that presence, especially defensively. Be patient, and everything else will come.”
“Offensively, I don't want my game to be one-dimensional. I was talking to [Celtics assistant] Jay [Larranaga] earlier, because I was playing one-on-one, and he wants me to go to my hook every time. And sometimes I try to get too crafty, and he doesn't like that. He tells me, ‘don't let players and defense dictate what you're going to do.’ If you know that your right hook is cash every time, go over there every time. So I'm trying to have that mentality. If I know that I can get to one move every time and they won't stop it, just try to go through that. And if they take it away, maybe have a couple of counters and things like that.
SI.com: So are you surprised at how popular you have become in Boston?
TF: Surprised? Yes. I feel really blessed. So I don't know what to say. Sometimes I feel awkward about it, but I guess it's just something God gave me, which I'm really thankful for. And every time I go onto the court, I try not to disappoint.