Even with Jayson Tatum’s ascension, the Celtics flew somewhat under the radar as one of the NBA’s better teams until the season suspension. Boston had a top-five net rating. And among lineups that have played at least 150 minutes together, the Celts have two of the ten best in terms of net rating. The team is very good, despite an overhaul in the summer and question marks at the center rotation entering the season.
The core of Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart will assuredly produce a winner for years to com. The key is how to fit the pieces around them to build a championship contender. Kemba Walker has been a perfect complement in Boston, though his injury troubles out of the All-Star break have to be mildly concerning. The real wild card is Gordon Hayward, who was looking like his old self to start the season until a broken hand set him back.
A healthy and productive Hayward pushes the Celtics much closer to contender status. A foursome of Walker, Hayward, Brown, and Tatum—particularly if Tatum continues his meteoric rise—is an absolute force when clicking on all cylinders. But can Boston feel confident in Hayward’s body holding up? Further complicating matters is Hayward’s contract. He has a player option for next year, though I assume he’ll take the security of that season as opposed to testing out the strangest free-agent period in NBA history post-pandemic.
Even if Hayward returns, will next season be normal enough for the Celtics to get a good read on his future? Could the front office get multiple rotation players in return in a potential trade? Hayward has been snakebitten ever since joining the Celtics, dealing with obstacle after obstacle. And he’ll be expensive to keep around for a team not quite 100% sure how he fits with a younger, talented core. It’s these uncertainties that front offices are constantly facing. What the Celtics end up doing with a player like Hayward—keep him, trade him, sign him long term—could have a significant impact on any future title hopes.