Celtics will be top-four seed in ’21-22: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown the stars; defense, depth Boston’s bedrock


In some ways, the 2021-22 Boston Celtics feel like, and are, a completely different organization from last season. Brad Stevens, who coached the Celtics for eight seasons, guiding them to three conference finals appearances, moved upstairs to replace Danny Ainge as the new basketball of operations, while Ime Udoka replaces Stevens on the bench. A big name in Kemba Walker is out, traded to the New York Knicks. A familiar face in Al Horford is back, joined by Dennis Schroder, Josh Richardson and Enes Kanter as the most notable additions. 

It’s a different team, particularly from a depth standpoint. 

But at their core, the Celtics are unchanged. They’re going to ride the continued ascensions of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. As long as Marcus Smart is around, the Celtics will always feel like the Celtics. It almost seems like Horford never left. Below is a look at Boston’s 2021-22 roster along with three reasons to be optimistic about the upcoming season. 

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Boston Celtics roster

1. The Jays

Bottom line: The Celtics will go as far this season as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown take them, and that’s an upper-class two-way duo to hitch your wagon to. Tatum could be a fringe MVP threat if Boston finishes in the top three of the conference, while Brown is a solid All-Star (whether he actually makes the team in a very talented Eastern Conference is kind of beside the point). 

Together, the Jays gave Boston over 50 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and two steals per game last season. They are both top-shelf defenders, and Brown has quietly become a borderline go-to scorer in his own right. With Marcus Smart set to handle more of the point guard duties, Tatum and Brown will be a clear 1-2 punch from the start, as opposed to previous seasons when they had to balance their aggression with high-scoring point guards in Walker and Kyrie Irving

Tatum was set to be a No. 1 scorer all along, but Brown, I think, really benefits from the clarity of less mouths to feed. Horford will connect a lot of the movement, and when Horford is at the five, the Jays should have pretty good spacing to work with. 

Remember, there was a time last season when Brown was playing like one of the early MVPs front-runners, and Tatum is a guy who averaged 30 points per game in the Celtics’ first-round loss to Brooklyn, putting up a 50 spot in Game 4 while averaging almost 41 points over the final three games of the series. I am higher than most people, at least that I’ve seen and heard, on the Celtics, and that optimism begins with the Jays. They are flat-out studs. 

2. Defense

Boston has the makings of a top-five defense. Length. Versatility. Rim protection. Imagine trying to score on a potential closing lineup of Marcus Smart, Josh Richardson, Tatum, Brown and either Robert Williams or Horford. Williams could be one of the real breakout players this season. He’s a monster shot-blocking athlete. 

Last year, Boston’s two-big lineups were maligned, but Williams and Horford, should Udoka go that route, is not the same thing as Tristan Thompson and Daniel Theis. Horford spaces the floor and remains a connective team defender, and Williams give you more athletic options than Thompson. I don’t think the Celtics will play that lineup consistently, but there are so many different variations Udoka has at his disposal no matter the matchup. 

He can go super small with Grant Williams at the five. He can play one big. Two bigs. Aaron Nesmith fits the 3-and-D bill. Whatever the matchup dictates. And all the while, Smart, Tatum and Brown will be anchoring the units. I’m not sure about Boston’s offense; if I knew Smart, Horford and Richardson were going to have relatively good shooting seasons, I’d feel a lot better, but that’s a wild card. The defense, on the other hand, should be Boston’s bedrock. 

3. Depth

Boston’s bench was a problem last season, and Stevens did well to arm Udoka with a much deeper roster that could realistically go 11 or 12 deep, which is a big part of regular-season success with injuries, load management and sheer attrition costing most teams handfuls of wins. 

An intriguing question is whether Udoka will start Schroder and/or Horford. To me, it’s too enticing to bring both those guys off the bench, solidifying second units alongside at least one of the Jays. This allows Schroder — a high-usage, score-first guard — to just go after buckets rather than trying to appropriately defer to Tatum and Brown in the starting lineup. 

Payton Pritchard, Romeo Langford, Nesmith and Enes Kanter will all see time and they can, and will, all help. We’ll see if Jabari Parker, who has a non-guaranteed contract, makes the final roster. 

I like the idea of starting Richardson alongside Tatum and Brown to limit the necessity of his shooting. He’ll see the worst defender and will get plenty of open looks, but if he doesn’t knock them down it’s not as big a deal as if he’s dragging down bench units that already lack punch. However Udoka plays it, he has plenty of good options. No coach in the world will ever turn that down.  

Prediction

A lot has been expected of the Celtics in recent years, which, mostly, has led to a perception of underachievement. In a strange way, it feels like a lot of people have given up on Boston, as though its run with this core has hit a ceiling. To me, it’s just getting started with Tatum and Brown. 

The Bucks are the defending champs. Brooklyn is a super team. Philadelphia has all the Ben Simmons hoopla. Trae Young and the Hawks are everyone’s darling. Miami made a splash addition in Kyle Lowry. In the background of all this, there’s the Celtics. I think this under-the-radar element will serve them well this season. 

Because of the defense, depth and Jays, I think the Celtics are a top-four team in the East. Brooklyn and Milwaukee are the clear top two. From there, two of Boston, Atlanta, Miami and Philadelphia will secure home-court advantage in the first round. My bet is Miami and Philadelphia end up No. 5 and 6 in some order, with the Hawks and Celtics finishing 3-4. 

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