BOSTON – At the outset of the 2018-19 season, I predicted that the Boston Celtics would be the Eastern Conference champions. I just thought a lineup with Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown could not possibly lose. Ultimately, they showed us that they were more than capable of losing and now, a year later, the team looks quite different.
Hayward, Tatum, and Brown are still around and the Celtics will undeniably be relying on their trio of forwards to play to their full potential. If they can do so, there is no doubt that the Celtics will be contending for the Eastern Conference title once again. I am just not comfortable predicting that is what is going to happen.
I do believe that Brown and Tatum are primed to make their own leaps to super-stardom as young athletes in the league, but I have been burned by Hayward too many times to trust that he is "back." All of his teammates have said that Hayward is in his peak form once again and while I can see that it could take two years to fully recover from his injury, I struggle to buy into it this time. They all said the same thing last year! Hayward will be a contributor, but I am not sure if his All-Star days are not behind him already.
The major difference maker is going to be Kemba Walker. Enes Kanter will go down as an underrated free agent signing for the Celtics, but Walker is a bona fide star who has already changed the culture of this Celtics team. Even if they are not as competitive without Irving leading the charge, the Celtics are going to be way more likable this year with Walker at the forefront. He is the kind of player Celtics fans can rally around. If he continues playing at an elite level, he might be a strong contender for the Celtics' top All-Star this season, too.
Ultimately, however, I do not think the Celtics have enough weapons to be true contenders in a strengthened Eastern Conference. The young core of the roster is primed for success in the future, but I believe the 2019-20 is going to go down as a season defined by the team regaining the fans' love. There is no doubt that Boston will make the post-season, but I feel confident in predicting them as the fifth seed in the East.
Above the Celtics, I project the Philadelphia 76ers to nab the number one seed with the Milwaukee Bucks in second. I think the Miami Heat, newly led by Jimmy Butler, will sneak into the third seed thanks to an easier schedule. Additionally, I believe the Orlando Magic have evolved into a legitimate good team, as well. I think they secure the fourth overall seed.
If the Celtics reach their potential, their season could have boundless hope. However, this will likely be a pseudo-rebuilding year for the team. My overall prediction for the season is that the 76ers will top the Los Angeles Clippers in the NBA Finals, but I certainly would not be opposed to seeing the Celtics make a deep run either.
Image via Wikimedia Commons / Paul Keleher