Tempering early expectations for the 2020-21 Boston Celtics

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Miami Heat
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The challenges of the NBA’s warp speed offseason might demand some patience for the Celtics as the season gets going.

If you blinked, you might have missed it. The NBA offseason is already nearing its end. Little more than two months after the conclusion of the NBA’s bubble experiment in Orlando, the 2020-21 season will be kicking off in truly unprecedented fashion, after the shortest offseason in the history of the four major men’s sports leagues in the United States.

The warp-speed offseason presents a new and unique challenge for every team in the league. There simply hasn’t been much time to prepare before the games start to count. For the Celtics in particular, this might require some adjusted expectations as the early season progresses.

With Gordon Hayward departed for Charlotte, many have raised questions about how the Celtics find improvement over their Eastern Conference Finals run from last season. Hayward’s absence leaves a borderline All-Star level void in Boston’s rotation, and the Celtics have opted to fill that void internally. Complicating the issue, star guard Kemba Walker continues to struggle with a knee injury that limited him at times last season, and he’s expected to miss the first month of the season. Right off the bat, the Celtics will be down two All-Star talents from last season.

Naturally then, the spotlight has shifted onto Boston’s two first round draft picks: wing Aaron Nesmith and guard Payton Pritchard. Under normal circumstances, the duo would seem a natural choice for increased minutes with Hayward and Walker absent, respectively. They were both multi-year starters in college, after all, and those kinds of players are generally expected to be ready for a greater role right out of the gate than a less experienced player under normal circumstances.

However, these are not normal circumstances. The 71-day NBA offseason brings with it substantial consequences for all of the incoming rookies of the 2020 NBA Draft class. This group of 19-to-22-year-olds is making the transition to NBA basketball faster than any other class before them, without the benefit of Summer League or pre-camp scrimmages or even the NBA’s annual rookie transition program. These might not seem like substantial losses on the surface, but they’re valuable tools meant to help prepare incoming NBA players for the professional game.

The Celtics are aware of these consequences and what they might mean for their newly drafted players. When asked if he felt Nesmith had an opportunity to contribute to the Celtics right away, coach Brad Stevens was effusive with praise, but at the same time, pointedly pumped the brakes on the young lottery pick’s immediate future for these reasons.

“I think he’s had maybe like five shots in live action. There just hasn’t been much opportunity for him to do much. I’m not worried about his shot at all. He just needs to learn as quickly as possible. He’s a good shooter, he’s a smart kid. I think he’ll pick things up very quickly. But there’s a lot to pick up.”

The Celtics aren’t alone in this measured approach to their rookie duo. Coaches around the league have stressed patience with their new additions. Not only do these incoming rookies have little more than a month to adapt to the professional stage, they have to do it without the usual tools put in place to help them make that adjustment. They’re being thrown straight into the ocean of the NBA without a life preserver and asked to learn how to swim.

The “seven-seconds-or-less” pace of the offseason has consequences for more than just the rookie duo. No small part of Walker’s absence is due to the lack of R&R he might otherwise have received in a normal offseason. Second-year players Grant Williams and Romeo Langford are entering their second consecutive unusual NBA campaign, with Langford particularly set back by a series of injuries that cost him most of his rookie year and likely up to half of his sophomore one. Free agent acquisitions Tristan Thompson and Jeff Teague will have to adapt to new schemes in Boston with only a few short weeks to prepare — and Thompson will have to do so without the benefit of most of training camp as he nurses a hamstring injury.

Every team in the league has to deal with these kinds of issues, and they will all find adjustments. Stevens has never been afraid to tinker, and there are options around the rotation that he will consider. The first month of the season could give rise to some unlikely heroes. The two Williamses — Grant and Robert — will have opportunities to build on the flashes they showed in the bubble, and with NBA experience at a premium, two-way contract guard Tremont Waters and reserve wing Javonte Green might be able to parlay their familiarity with the Celtics’ system into bigger roles. Tacko Fall could even find his way on the floor in non-Gino minutes. Everything is on the table.

Still, as currently constructed, the Boston Celtics likely stand to struggle just a little bit more than most in the opening months of the season. Until key players like Walker and Thompson return to full health (along with a valuable depth piece in Langford), it would be wise to temper your expectations for the team to start the year, especially when it comes to the two rookies. Boston has historically brought rookies along slowly even with full offseasons to work with. With only a few weeks to prepare, it would not be a shock if they remained tethered to the bench for the time being.

For now, they key word is “patience.” And remember: a slow start — be it for one of the rookies or the team as a whole — is not the end of the world, and how this team looks at the start of February likely will not be how they look when the playoffs come knocking.