Brad Stevens is no stranger to coaching an undermanned roster and he will have to do just that once again at the beginning of the 2020-21 Celtics regular season after the team announced Tuesday morning they would be without multiple players for the first month of the regular season.
The biggest name involved here is All-Star Kemba Walker who met with several specialists back in October after the season ended and received a stem cell injection in his bothersome left knee according to the team. He was put on a 12-week strengthening program to prepare for the upcoming season and is expected to return to on-court activities in early December, with an update on his regular season availability to come next in early January. Seeing that the Celtics are set to begin games on December 22nd, Walker looks set to miss at least a few weeks of the regular season with the team prioritizing his long-term health.
“We are just being very cautious with Kemba,” Danny Ainge told Toucher and Rich on Tuesday morning. “We didn’t have a long enough offseason. He saw a few different doctors just to research what was going on with his knee and why he didn’t feel as good as he hoped. They all said surgery was definitely not needed. If you strengthen your quad, your hamstring and your gluts, you should be fine. He got a stem cell injection. They take stem cells out of your hip and inject them into your knee. It’s a procedure other players have done and it’s worked for some and it can’t hurt. I think more than anything, this strengthening program — which he has been very diligent in so far — we’re encouraged he will be able to return at full speed. We do not want to rush the program since we are starting (the season) so early. I’m not worried about Kemba. He’ll be back and we’ll give an opportunity for Marcus, Jeff Teague and Payton Pritchard to play some minutes at point guard.”
The Celtics also announced Romeo Langford’s rehab from wrist ligament surgery in September is on schedule but the four-to-five month recovery timetable puts him set to return at some point in late January or February. New free agent addition Tristan Thompson is also dealing with a minor hamstring strain (via an offseason workout) and will be limited during the first week of training camp.
BSJ Analysis: A slow start to Walker’s season goes as no surprise after Brad Stevens’ comments last week but is a clear sign the Celtics are going all in to try to ensure Walker is feeling his best for meaningful basketball in the latter stages of the season. According to BSJ medical expert Dr. Flynn, Walker’s stem cell treatment is used in many athletes since ‘stem cells are thought to be effective in improving symptoms of osteoarthritis but the research is ongoing.’
As Ainge said in the interview, the treatment has helped some athletes and the Celtics hope Walker falls into that category after being bothered by the knee issue for close to a full calendar year. Walker’s long-term health is a big question that is a huge swingfactor for this team’s chances and we will take a bigger deep dive into that in the coming days amid his constant knee woes. For now, the Celtics will try to be safe and vigilant with Walker with the added benefit of giving him constant rehab attention for strengthening the knee, something the point guard did not have for much of the NBA stoppage in the summer.
In the meantime, opportunity will be knocking more than ever for the youth on Boston’s roster. It’s also evident that why Teague was willing to take the veteran’s minimum to come to Boston since there will be a chance that he starts or at the least play 20-25 minutes a night in the early parts of the year depending on how Stevens wants to use Smart. Langford’s absence is no surprise but his recovery timetable of 4-5 months takes him out of action for nearly half the season, a huge hit for the team and Langford in what will be a crucial year of development for both sides.
Let’s take a look at the depth chart without Walker and Langford in place to start the year:
Ballhandling Gs: Marcus Smart, Jeff Teague, Payton Pritchard, Carsen Edwards, Tremont Waters (two-way)
Wings: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Aaron Nesmith, Semi Ojeleye, Javonte Green (non-guaranteed),
Bigs: Tristan Thompson, Daniel Theis, Robert Williams, Grant Williams, Tacko Fall (two-way)
It will be fascinating to see how Stevens manages this group early on. Smart appears to be a lock for the starting five with Walker out in some form but there is a question of whether he will play more shooting guard than point guard out of the gate with the lack of experience available on the wing. Brown and Tatum could turn into the starting 3 and 4 in such a scenario with Tristan Thompson and Daniel Theis battling it out for the starting center job in camp (Thompson would be the favorite).
However, another scenario that could be in play would be simply starting Smart or Teague (if he plays great in camp) at point guard, shifting Brown/Tatum to the wing spots and giving Grant Williams or the starting job at power forward (if he earns it). Thompson could technically play power forward too next to Theis in some lineups. That would allow Boston to open up more playing time for the bigs with just two key ones (Theis, Thompson, G. Williams, Rob Williams) coming off the bench, ensuring they get opportunities during every game. Stevens hasn’t used a ton of double big lineups in recent years but it may be where more reliable depth lies on this depth chart in the early going.
A lot of the direction that Stevens goes in on this front may be dependent on what he’s getting out of his rookies. Aaron Nesmith seems to be a lock for bench minutes (at a minimum) to start the year but is Payton Pritchard ready to help right away? Will Carsen Edwards or Tremont Waters beat out the first-round pick for spot minutes? Stevens won’t necessarily need any of those guys on a nightly basis (if the rest of the roster stays healthy) but there will be no better opportunity for them to earn minutes than this December. That chance may help any of them build some value for Boston (or another team via trade) long-term, rather than just sitting on the bench behind a deep roster.
Either way, the focus will be on the young guys during Boston’s shorthanded camp since the door is open for minutes for pretty much anyone in the backcourt or wing if they earn them. It could certainly backfire on Boston in the standings if injuries hit a core player or two besides Walker and the young guys aren’t ready to step up but after Ainge used 11 first-round picks in the last five years, we’re about to see whether some of those selections in recent years will start to pay off.
Evan Turner brought aboard as assistant coach
Danny Ainge confirmed to Toucher and Rich on Tuesday morning that former Celtic guard Evan Turner will be added to Brad Stevens’ bench this year as a player development coach. The 32-year-old last played for the Hawks in 2019-20 and with no roster spot available for him around the league, made a push to enter the next phase of his career in Boston.
“Brad has always been a fan of Evan’s,” Ainge said. “Evan has been a fan of Brad and Boston and he loved his experience here. Knowing how much Brad and Evan, how close they are and how much mutual respect for one another — I checked with Brad and he said I’d love to have Evan on my coaching staff…We found a place for him. He’s going to give coaching a try.”
Ainge believes having a former player that had many fans from both a player and coach standpoint should bode well for his influence on the staff. He should replace Kara Lawson who departed to be the head coach of Duke this past spring.
“Evan has a good way with people,” Ainge said. “He’s a good communicator. The players enjoy him, he works on his game and competed at a high level. I think he was a player that earned the respect of the coaches and the players. That sounds like an easy thing to do but it’s not always. On top of that, Evan was a good player. I thought Brad felt like he could use an ex-player on his coaching staff. A lot don’t want to get into coaching but Evan seemed like a guy who was exciting about coaching and it was even his own idea. We jumped on it.”
Celtics make Thompson and Teague signings official
Boston’s two free agent signings were made official on Monday evening. Thompson will wear No. 13 for Boston while Teague will wear No. 55. Thompson was signed with the full mid-level exception while Teague likely signed for the veteran’s minimum on a one-year deal.