Addition by subtraction. The theory that you can take a single element that is considered a positive, remove it from a system, yet have that system flourish as a result. It's an interesting idea...and it's a concept that the Boston Celtics are hoping will prove true for their 2019-20 NBA season.
The 2017 acquisition of Kyrie Irving was meant to be the crowning moment in a Boston rebuild that began with the historically lopsided 2013 trade with the Brooklyn Nets. Irving was the Alpha: the man that would lead a team loaded with star veterans in Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, young studs in Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Jason Tatum, and a rising star in coach Brad Stevens to the promised land.
General Manager Danny Ainge's master plan hasn't really worked out. On paper, the team he had put together dovetailed beautifully. Horford and Hayward were the low maintenance stars that can fill a variety of roles at both ends of the floor. Tatum, Smart and Brown the uber athletic blank canvases, learning the ropes from their accomplishes peers. Irving was the man who would get that clutch basket – the leader.
Irving found out that leading a championship contender wasn't as easy as former teammate LeBron James made it look. His idea of leadership seemed to change with the tides,leaving his teammates feeling confused, frustrated and often at odds with the self appointed locker room chief.
Irving joined – ironically enough – the Nets this off season, replaced by former Hornet Kemba Walker. The Celtics are hoping that the dark cloud that enveloped the team last season travels to Brooklyn with their former point guard.
On court, the gap in production between the pair is relatively minor:
|Games||Points p/g||Reb p/g||Assists p/g||Steals p/g||3pt FG p/g||3pt FG %||TO's p/g|
Where Boston are hoping to see a major change is away from the hardwood, behind the scenes.
Last seasons Celtics were, considering the talent, a mess. Hayward was a shell of himself for much of the season, after his horrible leg injury in 2017. Horford did what he could, but he started to slow down in his age 32 season. The young tyros clearly didn't gel with Kyrie on or off the floor. Tatum stagnated at best – many believe he regressed – last season. Brown struggled with the reduced offensive load, attempting to force himself onto games, taking his team out of the offence and himself away from focusing on his defensive duties. Terry Rozier's game cratered.
Thus far, all reports coming from Boston about Kemba's integration are positive. From the simple things like making the effort to learn the names of people in the organisation from trainers through to interns, his quite open deference to the existing Celtic teammates despite clearly being their best player, and Walker's generally affable nature seem to have sparked a positivity in Boston that just wasn't there last time around.
Last season, the front office either wouldn't or couldn't make any changes to arrest the slide. In this off season, the decision to stick or twist was made for them by the free agency defections of Horford (to Philadelphia) and Irving. That lead to the sign and trade for Walker (costing the Celtics Terry Rozier, who they have scant interest in re-signing). To make salary cap room for Walker, the Celtics had to trade away valuable Australian centre Aaron Baynes, leaving the team very thin at the pivot. To help fill that hole, Enes Kanter was signed. An undoubted great teammate, he is a 100% offensive centre. Whilst he is a very good rebounder, his slow feet and lack of leaping ability render any defence he offers inconsequential. Backups Daniel Theis and Robert Williams don't offer a great deal at that end either. Human meme Tacko Fall is an imposing 7'6”, but is on a two way contract for a reason.
The defence could prove to be problematic for the Celtics. They have some strong defenders in 2019 All Defensive selection Marcus Smart and Brown is brimming with defensive potential. But the rest of the team doesn't look particularly imposing. Walker works hard, but is tiny. Hayward was a solid defender in his Utah days, but does he have the same mobility now? Combined with the lack of interior protection, Coach Stevens will have his work cut out patching together a workable defence.
At the other end of the court, the Celtics are oozing with potential.
With Irving and his penchant for taking over the offence gone, the multitude of weapons at Stevens disposal can be fully utilised. Walker is a jitterbug ball handler, full of lightning cross overs and dramatic step backs. He carried some woeful Charlotte teams. Tatum will need to break off his toxic relationship with the long two and embrace the three pointer. If he can do that, his combination of strength and agility as well as his innate ability to break down people off the dribble could lead to a breakout year. Brown is a 36.5% career shooter from behind the arc. Combined with his bullocking drives to the basket, he could be a wonderful drive-and-kick partner for Walker and Tatum. Hayward showed some flashes of his old game late last season. One imagines that a lot of his issues at the moment are mental. If he can learn to trust his body again, the Celtics have an all star on their hands. Marcus Smart finally learnt to shoot last season, hitting a career high 36.4% of his 4.3 long range attempts per game. Throw in Kanter, the underrated Theis and flame throwing rookie Carsen Edwards, and the Celtics should be a fun watch.
So where does this leave them? The problem with writing about a team that lost it's best two players is that it's difficult to predict how they'll evolve. It's certainly clear that the club needed a clean break from the ill fated Kyrie era. Unfortunately that cost them an all-world player in Kyrie and their glue in Horford.
That talent drain likely means that the Celtics are no longer a serious contender for the Championship, but they can still push the best. A conference finals appearance is still on the radar, should things break right.
If nothing else, the Celtics will be fun again.