From Deep: Are the juggernaut Boston Celtics suddenly standing on shaky ground?
In August, everything seemed simple for the Boston Celtics. They were on track to enter the season with a firm grasp of their identity, more firepower and a point to prove after falling short in the NBA Finals. The only real question was whether they could put their offensive issues — turnovers, mostly — behind them.
But that was August. September was less kind.
On Sept. 2, the Celtics announced that Danilo Gallinari had torn his left ACL while playing for the Italian national team. On Sept. 20, ESPN reported that Robert Williams III, who’d undergone left knee surgery six months prior, would have arthroscopic surgery on the same knee. On Sept. 22, the team announced that coach Ime Udoka would be suspended for the 2022-23 season.
Udoka, according to The Athletic, had an intimate relationship with — and allegedly made unwanted comments toward — a Celtics employee. In a press conference, team owner Wyc Grousbeck said that an independent investigation revealed multiple violations of team policies and that no decision had been made about Udoka’s future beyond this season.
Joe Mazzulla, a 34-year-old assistant coach who had been promoted to a front-of-bench role in the offseason, is now interim head coach. Williams will be sidelined for eight to 12 weeks, according to the team. Gallinari, who tore the same ACL in 2013 and missed all of 2013-14 because of it, wants to return before this season is over, according to ESPN.
There are a bunch of new questions: Can the coaching staff build on the foundation it laid last season? How can Boston overcome Williams’ absence without wearing down Al Horford? Should the temporary fifth starter be Malcolm Brogdon, Grant Williams or Derrick White? What effects will that decision have on the rest of the rotation?
The Celtics have championship-caliber talent, and the 24-year-old Jayson Tatum and 25-year-old Jaylen Brown are still on upward trajectories. This season is going to look different than anybody thought it would, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to take a step backward. It means they’re in a more complicated situation, and they have some stuff to figure out.
Celtics believer: Did you know that Malcolm Brogdon averaged 19-6-5 in three years with the Pacers and Boston somehow got him for Daniel Theis and a late first? I just wish he’d been on the team against Warriors — the Celtics would be the champs right now!
Celtics skeptic: Interesting place to start. You don’t want to talk about Ime Udoka? What about the injuries to Robert Williams III and Danilo Gallinari?
Celtics believer: Let’s discuss the stuff that will be relevant in the playoffs, at which point we’ll be used to Joe Mazzulla and have basically forgotten about Gallo. Even if Time Lord only comes back at the end of his 8-to-12 week timeline, there will be about four months left in the regular season. Not worried.
Celtics skeptic: Once upon a time, the Celtics had a new coach and some injury issues and started the season slowly. They went on a crazy run over the last three months of the regular season and looked awesome at the beginning of the playoffs, but eventually ran out of gas. Ring a bell?
Celtics believer: 😬
Celtics skeptic: My point is what happens in the regular season affects the playoffs. A healthy Gallinari could have eased the stars’ scoring burden. Losing Time Lord exposes a lack of frontcourt depth. I don’t want to see Al Horford playing huge minutes in October. The man is 36.
Celtics believer: It’s been a rough month for the Celtics, but don’t be a prisoner of the moment. They were dominant last season. They know who they are, so they’re not going to start 18-21 again regardless of what they do with the center rotation. I’m excited about seeing some smallball, by the way, whether that means Grant Williams at the 5 or the coaching staff getting really nuts. Why not take a look at a Smart-White-Brogdon-Brown-Tatum lineup?
Celtics skeptic: Necessity is the mother of invention, but all you’ve invented is a new way for Boston to get obliterated on the glass. Sometimes, bad news is just bad news — I thought the Celtics were the frontrunners in the East a month ago, but now the Bucks are clearly a safer bet. The 76ers and the Nets are interesting, too.
Celtics believer: Milwaukee seemed like the “safe” bet In the East this time last year, and people were picking Phoenix Suns to come out of the West for months because Steph Curry and Draymond Green missed some regular-season games. If we know that some short-term injuries are inevitable, then let’s not overreact to them. The Celtics have insane lineup flexibility and scheme versatility. They have a defensive ceiling unlike anybody else, maybe ever. They aren’t just counting on internal improvement on offense; they added a high-level playmaker. Hey, did you know Brogdon dunked on LeBron and Kyrie in the same game?
Celtics skeptic: You have to stop watching Brogdon highlights. He’s good, but he shot 31.2 percent from deep last year. This is not Mr. Floor Spacer, and he’s not going to have the ball in his hands as much as he did in Indiana Pacers. You’ll probably say that he’ll shoot better in Boston, even though that didn’t happen with Derrick White.
Celtics believer: Cool, you cherry-picked the worst shooting season of his career. I can play with stats, too: In the five seasons that preceded the 36 games Brogdon played last season, he made 42.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s. And in 2018-19, the last time he played on a team like this, he made 47.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s for the Bucks. Brogdon is a supremely overqualified sixth man who is going to make kickout 3s from the Jays and create kickout 3s for them. Tell Mike Miller to watch out because he’s not going to be the only former Rookie of the Year to win Sixth Man of the Year for much longer.
Celtics skeptic: Good point: Brogdon only played 36 games last year. And since winning Rookie of the Year, Brogdon has missed 34 percent of his team’s regular-season games. I’m not counting on him being regularly available for the Celtics, let alone being in the 6MOY race. Also, I can’t help but notice you referenced his catch-and-shoot 3s — maybe he’ll start making those again, but I’ve seen defenders go under screens against him because his pull-up numbers are kind of ugly. That’s a problem if he’s supposed to be the extra playmaker who fixes everything.
Celtics believer: Let me be clear: I would feel good about the Boston’s title chances even if it hadn’t managed to upgrade from Theis to Brogdon. (Again, wow.) People made fun of Grant Williams when he said that the Warriors were the more disciplined team in the Finals, not the better one, but he was right! The Celtics had the series under control before they got all sloppy at the end of Game 4, and they’ve had all summer to think about what happened. Tatum’s going to come back as an MVP candidate and Brown’s going to take another step as a playmaker. I think they can do some interesting stuff with Grant as the backup 5 while Rob is out, but there are options. If Blake Griffin can do what he did in Brooklyn in 2021, he’s an ideal signing. Based on summer league, Mfiondu Kabengele can give them some vertical spacing. Luke Kornet still has 3s-and-blocks potential. Noah Vonleh defended Giannis really well a few years ago, which is a good enough reason to keep him around.
Celtics skeptic: Hey, don’t disrespect Theis — I’d much rather have him than all of these end-of-the-bench guys you’re talking about. It’s a shame that Stevens can’t re-reacquire him unless he goes to another team first. But yes, I agree with you: If Tatum has an MVP-caliber season, Brown makes another leap, Brogdon is the best reserve in the league, Horford’s body holds up, the Grant-at-5 lineup is awesome, Time Lord is fully healthy throughout the playoffs, the coaching staff doesn’t miss a beat without Udoka and the front office has struck gold with one of the scrap-heap bigs, then Boston is absolutely on track for Banner 18. That seems like a lot of ifs to me, but maybe I’m just a prisoner of the moment.
The curiosity: Mfiondu Kabengele
Kabengele was so good in Vegas that Celtics summer league coach Ben Sullivan described him as “phenomenal” twice in five sentences. In those five games, he had enough highlights for the NBA’s YouTube account to post a five-minute reel:
The numbers were impressive — 14.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.2 blocks in 24.5 minutes — and not all that different on a per-minute basis from what Kabengele did for the G League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers last season. The 25-year-old big man, drafted No. 27 in 2019, could give Boston some vertical spacing in Robert Williams III’s absence.
But he’s not just a rim runner. Kabengele shot 33-for-76 (43.4 percent) from 3-point range with the Vipers, and he went 6-for-15 from deep in summer league. He’s signed to a two-way contract and will have to show that he can work in Boston’s defensive system, but there are minutes available for someone with his skill set.
One more thing
Grant Williams said on a podcast that he doesn’t know if he’d take anybody in the league over Sam Hauser in a shooting competition. It was a pretty bold thing to say, considering the podcast was hosted by Duncan Robinson. Hauser shot 43.9 percent from deep in college and a combined 76-for-184 (41.3 percent) with the Celtics and their G League team last season.