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Boston Celtics commit to young core with new Marcus Smart extension

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 7: Marcus Smart #36 of the Boston Celtics smiles during the game against the New York Knicks on April 7, 2021 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Boston Celtics had a surprisingly disappointing season. No team underperformed relative to their skill level as much as Boston. However, there are plenty of reasons to write this season off as a fluke. Few teams had as many Covid-related struggles as Boston. The injury bug also struck in a significant way. But after a down year, Boston fans seem restless. It becomes easy to forget that this same young core led the Celtics to the conference finals in 2017, 2018, and 2020. On Monday, new GM Brad Stevens inked the heart and soul of the team, Marcus Smart, to a new four-year extension. With that complete, the Celtics remain poised to compete with their three core players under contract through at least 2024.

Reasons for optimism about the Celtics’ young core

The Celtics have plenty of reasons to expect success moving forward. First, they can look back on those three conference finals appearances and see that they’ve had success with this group. Second, their two all-stars are under the age of 25. Jayson Tatum is one of the three best small forwards in the league, trailing only two all-time greats. Tatum can seemingly score at will with a silky smooth jump shot and a deep bag of moves. He can go off for 50 on any given night (as he did multiple times during this year’s playoffs). While some try to compare Tatum’s scoring to his late, great mentor, Kobe Bryant, he has not quite reached that level yet. But the fact that people dare make the comparison speaks to Tatum’s abilities.

Tatum is joined at the forward position by fellow all-star Jaylen Brown. While Tatum was a bonafide superstar from day one, Brown took more time to develop. However, he has established himself as a solid defender and scoring threat. While Tatum can qualify as a superstar, Brown is a notch below. However, he is certainly an elite second option and a luxury for the Celtics to pair with Tatum. Brown is under contract through the 2023-2024 season and Tatum through 2025-2026.

Marcus Smart’s contract is the key ingredient

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 01:  Marcus Smart #36 of the Boston Celtics handles the ball against the Brooklyn Nets in Game Five of the First Round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Barclays Center on June 01, 2021 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
Steven Ryan/Getty Images

The third piece of the Celtics core isn’t a superstar. But Marcus Smart is their facilitator, defensive pest, and tone-setter. Other point guards have perhaps overshadowed Smart during his time in Boston. Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker stole much of the spotlight. But Smart has been a consistent contributor even out of the limelight. He can lock down opposing guards, set up Tatum, Brown, and other Celtics for easy buckets, and occasionally get his own. Most importantly, he always brings an intense competitive spirit. Boston was wise to ink him to an extension. While he might not feature in the most highlights and is a few years older than Brown and Tatum, he is a key part of the young core for the Celtics.

Other young Celtics prospects ready to join the core stars

In the modern NBA, it is not enough to have transcendent stars. You need to be able to find key role players for good value. The Celtics appear to have done just that. This offseason, they brought back center Al Horford (admittedly on a big contract). He, like Smart, did a lot of the little things the Celtics needed on their conference finals runs. His absence was felt greatly once he left the team.

Boston has four promising prospects on their rookie contracts who appear ready to fill a rotation spot this season. Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith have lit up Summer League. Pritchard especially looks ready to fill backup point guard minutes. They then have Grant Williams and Robert Williams III (unrelated) ready to play solid big man minutes.

LAS VEGAS, NV - AUGUST 14: K.J. Lawson #50 of the Boston Celtics high fives Bruno Fernando #55 of the Boston Celtics during the 2021 Las Vegas Summer League on August 14, 2021 at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)
David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

And then, to complement those four young guys, they have a few veterans looking to re-establish themselves in the league. Enes Kanter is an elite offensive rebounder and pick-and-roll threat, although he is a severe liability on defense. Two years ago, Dennis Schroder finished second in 6th Man of the Year voting and then had a bad season. Boston snagged him on a cheap deal in free agency.

Between all of these pieces and a few others who will undoubtedly fill in some minutes (Josh Richardson), Boston appears set to put together a bounce-back year in 2021-2022 and beyond.

Reasons for skepticism

The reasons for skepticism have very little to do with Boston’s track record. The Celtics have experienced so much success with this young core that it would be difficult to bet against them. However, this group may have already reached its peak. It isn’t easy to envision how much better Tatum or Brown could get. However, neither has shown any sign of slowing their development yet.

That said, the bigger issue is whether this team is equipped to compete with the other juggernauts in the East. Milwaukee is coming off a championship year, featuring a bonafide Big Three, including two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Brooklyn looks invincible if their Big Three is healthy. And even Philly has an MVP runner-up in Joel Embiid, although Ben Simmons doesn’t look like he can be a Robin to Embiid’s Batman anymore. The Hawks are emerging as a threat, with Trae Young and the Heat (who beat the Celtics in the 2020 conference finals) just added an all-star caliber point guard in Kyle Lowry. The Celtics look like a solid young core, but is it ready to compete with that group? The 2021-2022 season should answer that question.

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