Boston Celtics 2022-23 NBA preview: Eastern champions face challenges this season with coaching change and injuries
Until a month ago, the Boston Celtics were one of the main winners of the offseason, with Danilo Gallinari and Malcolm Brogdon seen as solid additions that would cement their status as title contenders. Then things started falling apart.
Gallinari tore his anterior cruciate ligament while playing for Italy in a FIBA World Cup qualifier and is set to miss the entire season as Robert Williams III’s troublesome knee required a surgery that will keep him out for 8-12 weeks and, of course, head coach Ime Udoka. was suspended for the entire season amid a scandal involving his inappropriate relationship with a member of team staff.
With Udoka out of sight at least this season, and likely for good, 34-year-old Joe Mazzulla – younger than starting big man Al Horford – has been handed the reins as interim head coach. He seems to have the respect of the front office and the players, but his only other head coaching experience was at the NCAA Division II level with Fairmount State.
Injuries, coaching change and title expectations should make the season fascinating in Boston. Will Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown be able to lead this team through turmoil, or will all of this prove too much? We are about to find out.
Top of the list: Robert Williams’ health
If the Celtics want to make it back to the Finals and win the 2023 NBA Championship, they need Robert Williams to be healthy, which right now isn’t the case. The 24-year-old has struggled to stay on the pitch throughout his career, and in recent months his left knee has been the main culprit.
Surgery on his meniscus and subsequent bone bruise limited his playing time and effectiveness in the Finals last season, and a second arthroscopic procedure just before training camp will sideline him for 8 to 12 weeks. It’s likely he won’t play until 2023.
The Celtics will always be an elite team without him, and how they perform in his absence to start the season will be interesting to watch. Do they go small and replace Williams in the starting lineup with Derrick White? Or stay big with Grant Williams or Luke Kornet taking the place? Looking at the big picture, how do they handle Al Horford’s workload without Williams?
Either way, the fact remains that the Celtics need Robert Williams on the pitch to reach their full potential. Their athleticism and baseline rebounds turn them from a solid defensive team into a dominating one, and their passing and vertical threat on the offensive end is understated in its importance.
Williams’ record of never playing more than 61 games in a season will continue, but all that matters to him and the Celtics is that he’s 100% come playoff time. If so, the Celtics will be a real threat to win it all.
Next step: Introducing Malcolm Brogdon
The Celtics won’t see key free agent signing Danilo Gallinari this season, but their other major offseason acquisition is sound and was always going to be more important anyway, especially in terms of playoff success.
After three frustrating seasons in Indiana, where his first number never really took off due to injury (146 games in total), Brogdon will be the Celtics’ sixth man this season. He has played that role well in the past with the Milwaukee Bucks and is ready to rejoin them to compete for a title.
“[Brad Stevens] talked about me coming to Boston and embracing a sixth-man role,” Brogdon said earlier in the offseason. “If I wanted to come to Boston, that would be one of the things I had to embrace. For my part, I made a lot of money. Anything I can sacrifice to get back to this level of the championship, I’m ready to do that.”
Much like Robert Williams, Brogdon’s inability to stay on the pitch in recent seasons is concerning, but as long as he remains healthy he will give the Celtics a major boost. A versatile 6-foot-5 guard, he’ll fit right into their switching defensive scheme, and at the other end he can lead the second unit or play as an off-ball shooter with the starters. His ability to get into the paint, whether for his own baskets, his free throws or to create for others, will give the Celtics a dynamic that they sorely lacked last season, especially in the playoffs.
One last thing: can they fix their endgame issues?
If the Celtics were better in late game situations, they would probably be the defending champions right now. In Game 4 of the Finals, they led four with 5:18 remaining and a 3-1 lead within reach; they scored three runs the rest of the way and would not win another game in the series.
In the entire playoffs, they’ve played 12 games that reached clutch time — defined as under five points with five minutes or less left to play. In those situations, they shot 34% from the field, 23.5% from 3-point field, had a 14.1 turnover rate and a disastrous net rating of minus-14.2. Even their outstanding defense couldn’t sustain such an anemic attack.
Although they still made the final, the fact remains that they need to be better late in the game. Having Brogdon will help tremendously, but most of that responsibility will fall on Tatum and Brown. As potential MVP and All-NBA candidates, respectively, they must find a way to be more effective when the game is on the line.
Oct. 18 vs. Sixers: This one seems pretty obvious. It doesn’t get much bigger than a nationally televised game on opening night against one of your biggest rivals.
December 10 vs. Warriors: In early December, the Celtics will return to the Bay Area for their first Finals rematch against the Warriors.
December 25 vs. Bucks: For the second consecutive season, the Celtics will face the Bucks on Christmas Day. This time it will be a rematch of their hotly contested second-round series that lasted seven games.