Finally, it’s opening night. And with a new season means more Q&As. Picking up where we left off last year, on the morning of each Sixers game you should expect a three-question Q&A with someone who is an expert on the opponent here at LB. We’re hoping to help you all feel better acquainted with whoever the Sixers are playing against on a given day.
We in the Sixers universe know a lot about Al Horford’s game from the many battles he’s had with Joel Embiid. But what’s one thing we may not know about Horford as a player?
Al Horford’s premiere skill, above all else, is his ability to fill gaps in a lineup. That might sound a little reductive, but I feel it’s the best way to describe what he brings to the table. Is the ball not moving enough on offense? You can run your offense through Al. Is your floor spacing getting too cluttered? Al is a 37 percent 3-point shooter. Is a particular forward or center causing your defense trouble? Odds are, Al can probably cover him. He’s the Swiss Army Knife of NBA players.
It always feels a little cliche to talk about “doing the little things” in professional sports, but Al Horford does all the little things, and he does them a lot. It’s what I’m going to miss most about his game, and what the Celtics are going to struggle to replicate with their new center-by-committee approach. He just does it all. Brett Brown is going to have a field day coming up with new ways to deploy Horford in the Sixers’ rotation, and I’d imagine most of them will be a success.
After a disappointing sophomore season, Jayson Tatum is entering a pivotal third year in the NBA. What are your expectations for him?
“Disappointing” is a fair descriptor for Tatum’s second NBA season, but it also doesn’t really equate to “bad.” Tatum was still quite good last season, especially on the defensive side of the floor, where he’s blossoming into a highly versatile and impactful team defender. He struggled to find his offensive niche, but that statement could also apply to just about everyone else on last season’s roster. We often forget that player development is not a linear process, and the more clearly defined pecking order of this season’s team should help put Tatum in a better situation to grow. As such, my expectations are still quite high.
Given his defensive prowess, there’s a real possibility that Tatum finishes the season as one of the two best players on the team. But to achieve that ceiling, he’s going to have to show he’s ready to take on a featured scoring role in their offense. Kemba Walker is the team’s best offensive player, but he’s far more willing to defer to his teammates and operate off the ball than Kyrie Irving has ever been. There are going to be a lot more consistent touches available for Tatum this time around, and his growth will be even more crucial in the absence of Horford. His shot selection needs to improve, especially when it comes to getting to the rim: a player as long and athletic as he is needs to be shooting far more than just three free throws per game.
The Celtics underwent an interesting transformation this summer. They became much more fun and easy to root for, but also went from potentially contending for a championship to simply being a good team. How have fans reacted to these changes?
Among Celtics fans, the vibe around the start of the Kemba Walker Era has been extremely positive. It’s pretty hard not to be, considering how miserably frustrating last season was. I don’t think many fans were terribly upset to see Kyrie Irving head to Brooklyn, and while Horford’s departure was a blow, Walker’s deal has generally seemed to keep spirits pretty high. I think everyone’s looking forward to the simplicity of rooting for a team with lowered expectations, a likable star and a bunch of promising young prospects.
For the good vibes to last, though, this team is going to have to win games. This is still Boston, after all -- these fans aren’t exactly known for their patience. Any prolonged slumps or growing pains will have people starting to feel a little angsty. Gordon Hayward will have a particularly large target on his back: he mostly avoided widespread criticism last year due to the team’s general dysfunction and the fact that it was his first season back from injury, but if his struggles continue into the new season, patience for the $32 million man is going to run out quickly.
If the Celtics hang around the upper half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, finish in the neighborhood of 47 to 50 wins and avoid any major locker room controversies, I’d suspect most Boston fans will be satisfied. Anything less than that, though, and the pressure will start to build.
Thank you to Daniel for kicking off our Q&A series for the 2019-20 season!