Boston Celtics Season Preview: Can Kemba Walker Truly Replace Kyrie Irving?


Kemba Walker was all smiles in his preseason debut with the Boston Celtics, but the true test will … [+]

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To put it mildly, things didn’t go as planned for the Boston Celtics last season. They looked like the favorites in the Eastern Conference when LeBron James left to join the Los Angeles Lakers. Instead, Boston displayed a stunning lack of chemistry during the regular season, and their playoff run ended with four straight losses to the Milwaukee Bucks.

While the subsequent departures of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford would have forced most franchises to rebuild, the Celtics were able to lure point guard Kemba Walker away from the Charlotte Hornets. The move ensures that the team will be relevant in the 2019-20 season, but the question remains about just how good they will be.

Which teams look like contenders, and which look like pretenders? Check out Forbes’ full NBA season preview, with best-case scenarios and worst-case scenarios for all 30 teams.

What’s New

Quite a bit! Despite publicly committing to Boston before the start of the 2018-19 season, point guard Kyrie Irving finalized an agreement with the Brooklyn Nets almost immediately after the Celtics’ elimination. The Philadelphia 76ers then offered big man Al Horford both more money and a better chance at competing with a championship than the suddenly Irving-less Celtics. Boston was able to respond quickly by agreeing to a sign-and-trade with the Charlotte Hornets that landed them Kemba Walker in exchange for Terry Rozier, but they had to ship off Aron Baynes to the Phoenix Suns to free up the cap space necessary to finalize the deal.

While the Celtics lucked out by being able to plug the talented Walker into the point guard slot, the losses of Horford and (to a lesser extent) Baynes left them at a huge hole at center. Boston went out and signed Enes Kanter with the midlevel exception, but it’s not certain if he will be starting. They also took a flyer on France’s Vincent Poirier and undrafted free agent/human meme Tacko Fall, who was just given a two-way contract. They also drafted forward Grant Williams along with guards Romeo Langford, Carsen Edwards and Tremont Waters but, at this point, it’s hard to know exactly how head coach Brad Stevens plans to juggle all the new guys.

Best Addition: If Kemba Walker hadn’t been there as the world’s greatest fallback option, this would have been one of the most disastrous offseasons in recent Celtics history. Walker is a legitimate All-Star point guard and there’s every reason to believe that the well-liked guard will be the perfect figure to turn around what was an often dysfunctional locker room last season.

Biggest Loss: Irving’s exit got the most press, but the Celtics will miss Al Horford the most. There is no replacing everything that Horford did for the team during his three years playing in Boston, at least not with a single player.

What’s Coming

The problem when a team loses its two most important players is that it’s fiendishly difficult to predict how they will respond. There’s a possibility that the Celtics might have desperately needed a clean break after their failure to come together as a team last season. There’s an argument to be made that Kemba Walker could end up playing better with Boston’s promising younger players than Kyrie Irving ever did. If nothing else, the 2019-20 Celtics should be an easier team to cheer for than the previous edition.

As much as they may want to move on from Irving, fans need to realize that Walker is not going to bring the same level of production. Plus, there’s a huge question to how the Celtics will move on from Al Horford, whose selfless play on both sides of the floor. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge has been very key to temper expectations. “I think that last year’s questions were more based on, you know, how is it going to jell,” Ainge said at the start of the preseason. “This year,” he continued, “the question is, are we good enough?”

Team MVP: Besides Gordon Hayward, and more on him later, Kemba Walker is the only member of this squad with All-Star credentials. While he may not be quite as good as he’s looked whenever his Charlotte Hornets teams tormented the Celtics in the past, Walker’s still going to be the primary scorer on the team and their de facto leader.

Best Value: Jayson Tatum will be making $7.8 million in the third year of his rookie contract. There’s a very good chance that he will be the team’s second-best player after Walker, who will be making $32.7 million. If Tatum can replicate his numbers in the 2018 playoffs, where he averaged 18.5 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists, the Celtics will be in pretty good shape.

X-Factor: It’s depressing that the one-time star with the Utah Jazz has devolved into a huge “what if,” but that’s where we’re at with Gordon Hayward. If Hayward has fully recovered from his 2017 ankle injury-both physically and mentally-it will be like found money for the Celtics.

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Best-Case Scenario

Kemba Walker repeats his All-Star performance from last season, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown both make the leap, and Gordon Hayward is not only healthy but confident on the court. Head coach Brad Stevens manages to shuffle the pieces around and gets just enough from the center position. It’s nothing but good vibes in Boston as the Celtics make it to the Eastern Conference Finals and manage to push a Game 7.

Worst-Case Scenario

The Boston Celtics’ offense is perfectly fine, but the defense is a complete mess, and as Ainge worried during the preseason, the team isn’t good enough for questions about team chemistry to matter. The Celtics miss the playoffs, and for the first time, there are legitimate rumors about Brad Stevens’s future with the franchise.