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Five Celtics storylines to watch as 2023-24 training camp begins



A year ago at this time, the Celtics were a team in the midst of turmoil after the sudden departure of Ime Udoka just days before training camp began. They got through that early adversity to make another playoff run deep into the spring, but a championship ultimately remained out of reach.

There isn’t nearly as much drama following the Celtics as they begin camp this week, but still plenty of questions to answer as they embark on another title pursuit. Here are five storylines to watch:

1. Malcolm Brogdon’s status

It’s been an interesting offseason for Malcolm Brogdon. The reigning Sixth Man of the Year had a disappointing end to his season, when he suffered a partial tendon tear in his right elbow/forearm during the Eastern Conference Finals, which made him a non-factor in the series. Weeks later, it looked like the guard was en route to Los Angeles in the Kristaps Porzingis trade before the deal fell apart, reportedly because there were concerns over Brogdon’s medicals. The Celtics pivoted and traded Marcus Smart instead to acquire Porzingis.

But there were apparently some feelings hurt in the process. In July, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla acknowledged there was some healing to do with Brogdon.

“The organization has had a few conversations,” Mazzulla said. “I think anytime you are in a situation like that and you are in a relationship, you just have to take some small steps into it. There is a healing process, there is a listening process and to see where we are at and where we have to get to. We’ve had some conversations as an organization but at the same time, we understand that the situation that it was and as the healing process goes on, we will move forward as well as you can.”

Now, as camp begins, one of the biggest question marks is Brogdon’s status – both physically and mentally. He reportedly chose not to have surgery on his arm, and Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens told the Globe last week that he’ll be fully healthy and ready for the start of camp. But what about his mindset? ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported last week that any bad feelings Brogdon has toward the Celtics are more to do with the organization’s handling of his injury than being involved in trade discussions. Whatever the case, there will be more clarity about Brogdon’s situation when he speaks at media day on Monday.

2. Kristaps Porzingis’ first camp

This week – with camp beginning leading into next Sunday’s first preseason game against the 76ers – will provide a first look at Porzingis’ fit with the Celtics. The expectation is that the big man, who missed the FIBA World Cup with Latvia due to plantar fasciitis in his right foot, will be healthy for camp this week. He has been working out at the Celtics’ practice facility, as seen through photos and clips on the team’s social media accounts, and looks like he’s moving well, but will they be easing him in during camp?

Porzingis’ health will be a storyline all season after he’s had some trouble staying on the court throughout his career. But assuming he’s a full-go for the start of camp, the first practices and preseason games will give an idea on how the Celtics plan to utilize him. Offensively, they view him as a dynamic game-changer with his ability to space the floor and relieve pressure off Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, while helping them play more double-big lineups that they’ve thrived in over recent years.

3. Who will be the final starter?

As camp begins, it’s expected that Tatum, Brown, Porzingis and Derrick White will make up four of the five starters for the Celtics. Mazzulla confirmed this summer that White will be the starting point guard, and the other three speak for themselves. That leaves a big decision to be made – will it be Robert Williams or Al Horford as the fifth starter?

Horford has started every game he’s played in with the Celtics over his two stints (five seasons), so a departure from that would be a significant change to the norm. There’s a certain comfort level with him in that starting lineup next to Tatum and Brown, he’s spoken in the past about his preference to be in the starting unit and he’s earned that right as a trusted and respected veteran in the locker room. But he’s 37, and he’s logged a lot of miles over the last two seasons after two deep playoff runs. Could he be more effective in a bench role?

Williams, meanwhile, accepted a bench role when he returned from knee surgery recovery last season but was never quite himself consistently. His return to the starting lineup in the playoffs against the 76ers flipped that series, and his presence was a big reason for the Celtics’ run to the NBA Finals in 2022. Williams is entering this camp fully healthy and primed for a big bounce-back year, and his inclusion in the starting lineup could help the Celtics lock in defensively.

There are strong cases to be made for both Horford and Williams to start, and Mazzulla will likely use the preseason to evaluate that decision. Ultimately, both will probably see time in the starting lineup throughout the season. Horford is likely to sit out the second game of back-to-backs again, and Porzingis and Williams aren’t likely to play full regular seasons either given their history. Each double-big lineup combination is likely to be a good one, though, and the strongest one will emerge.

4. A leadership shift

For the first time in nearly a decade, the Celtics will be without Marcus Smart after they traded the franchise cornerstone in June. In addition to his production on the court, especially his defense, it removed the strongest and loudest voice from the Celtics locker room.

“You’re just not going to replace that, so it’s not worth even thinking about that,” Mazzulla said of Smart’s impact on and off the floor.

Still, while certain aspects of Smart’s game and leadership are irreplaceable, there remains a leadership void that will require some to raise their voices. While Horford remains one of the team’s strongest leaders, the departure of Smart is an opportunity for Tatum and Brown, both entering their primes, to cement themselves as the leaders of the Celtics. There’s more responsibility on their shoulders now as they look to lead them to a championship.

“Any time you lose something, it’s an opportunity for others to grow in those areas, and so I think it’s just a good opportunity for our roster now to just develop that identity, to grow in communication,” Mazzulla said this summer. “But like I said, some of the things (Smart is) able to do, you’re not going to replace it. It’s just a matter of the guys who are on our team, how can we maximize them and get the best out of them.”

5. Evaluating the roster

There are several new faces for the Celtics to get familiar with in this training camp as Mazzulla evaluates their fit and his different rotations. Oshae Brissett, Svi Mykhailiuk, Dalano Banton, Lamar Stevens and rookie Jordan Walsh all arrive at their first Celtics camp looking to carve out a role.

While Grant Williams was fazed out of the rotation over the second half of last season, his departure opens up plenty of opportunity in the rotation that could specifically use some depth behind Tatum and Brown. Brissett’s size and defensive versatility should give him a path to playing time. Can Walsh, who had a strong summer league, use his defensive ability to earn a spot, or will the Celtics opt to send him to Maine to get consistent playing time and development?

Payton Pritchard may be the biggest beneficiary of Smart’s departure after his frustrations grew last season with a lack of playing time. Can he take advantage of his opportunity in a contract year? And Sam Hauser, after his first full season in the NBA, enters a big camp. Can the sharpshooter’s defense improve enough to cement a spot in the rotation?

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