The Boston Celtics made the Eastern Conference Finals in three of four seasons prior to 2020-21, but things didn't go as planned for them last season. The C's were routed by the Kevin Durant-led Nets in five games, with only a gargantuan effort by Jayson Tatum in Game 3, when he scored 50 points, stopping a straight first-round sweep. What followed were tectonic changes for the franchise.
Brad Stevens moved from head coach upstairs to president of basketball operations, while longtime president Danny Ainge has completely left the franchise. To replace himself, Stevens looked high and wide until finding Ime Udoka, the former NBA veteran who spent the last nine years practicing his coaching craft in assistant positions in San Antonio, Philadelphia and Brooklyn. Udoka will clearly change certain things up, and the roster was revamped accordingly.
Firstly, forward Al Horford was brought back in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder, which saw guard Kemba Walker go the other way. Unfortunately for the Celtics, Walker could not reproduce his form from Charlotte nor replace star Kyrie Irving, so a parting of ways was somewhat expected. Otherwise, Evan Fournier and Tristan Thompson left the squad during the summer, while Josh Richardson, Enes Kanter and Dennis Schroder joined the roster.
As of right now, the most weight will once again be on star wings Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, but they will not be the determinant factor for the overall success of the Celtics. It is clear that the level of play by these two superstars will remain constantly great, but what the team really needs is for someone to step up. The X-Factor will most likely be either Dennis Schroder or Robert Williams.
Schroder was the butt of many jokes this summer. Schroder reportedly rejected an $84 million extension offer from the Los Angeles Lakers last season, only to sign a one-year, $5.8 million contract with the Celtics. Clearly, this contract is simply to provide the German with an opportunity to ball out and show the world why he deserves the money he was expecting. Schroder should help carry the load offensively, but the problem will definitely be consistency.
While Schroder has shown that he can be an incredible offensive threat, it is clear that he dropped off in his one season with the Lakers. In his last season with Oklahoma City, Schroder averaged 18.9 points on 46.9/38.5/83.9 shooting splits, which is very good for the first scoring threat of the bench. However, the averages dropped to 15.4 points on 43.7/33.5/84.9 shooting splits for the Lakers, and that was followed up by an abysmal performance in the playoffs. In the first-round series loss against the Phoenix Suns, Schroder only averaged 14.3 points per game on terrible shooting, especially from behind the arc.
If Dennis can come back to his OKC or Atlanta days, Boston can truly reach new levels of play in the Eastern Conference. Schroder will be supporting starting guard Marcus Smart, and he will likel have the job of carrying the second unit, which was bleeding on offense last year, even after adding Fournier in the midseason trade with the Orlando Magic.
Another player who can take his game to a different level is Robert Williams. Timelord, as he is known in NBA fan circles, is an interesting prospect who has yet to fully flourish in the professional game. The former Texas A&M man has been in the league since 2018 and just exited his best season, averaging 8.0 points and 6.9 rebounds with 1.8 blocks per game while shooting an incredibly efficient 72.1% from the field.
However, Williams is also very frustrating to follow, especially for Celtics fans. He is full of potential, and it seems like he is making small strides to further improve his play every year. However, he came into the league with focus issues and has dealt with a number of injury issues. He famously made a flurry of errors once he was drafted by the second-most successful franchise in the league, as he was late to the introductory press conference, missed a flight to Boston and then missed the team's first practice. On the availability front, he only appeared in 113 games over his first three seasons, with injuries playing a key role in this.
The talent is there, though, and Williams has a nice NBA body at 6-foot-8 and 237 pounds. Also, his defensive IQ is impeccable, as his blocks have made the highlight reels multiple times in the past. If he can take a leap forward with his offensive game and tweak the defensive part to perfection, Williams could wind up being a legitimate starting-level NBA big man, something the Celtics truly need. He will also have the guidance of NBA vet Al Horford, and if he shows a willingness to learn, only good things will come out of the Boston frontcourt this year.
The Celtics don't currently appear to be in the highest echelons of contention. The Brooklyn Nets still have at least two more years of a superstar core, the Milwaukee Bucks look like a perennial contender with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the West is full of young and hungry teams that look to repeat what the Phoenix Suns achieved last season. However, that does not and should not stop the Celtics from building a respectable team and a possible landmine for contenders coming from the East.
It is somewhat underestimated and undersold how young Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are. The 23-year-old and 24-year-old wings, respectively, have a lot of relevant NBA experience, but are still both a few years removed from their primes. If they can stay together and Boston can add another superstar through smart trades, conservative contracts or a miracle draft pick, the team from Massachusetts can spring into contention in a heart beat.
Of course, it would not hurt that the proposed X-Factors, Dennis Schroder and Robert Williams, have great seasons and surprise everyone in the NBA.