There’s one, simple goal: Improve. That goes for everyone, at every position. From Rondo to Phil Pressey to James Young to Brad Stevens. Everyone on this team. Everyone in the front office. Everyone has to improve something this year.
The Celtics have to take a step forward. The 25 win season is over. The tanking is done with. These guys need to improve the deficiencies in their games, and improve their late-game execution and win more than they did last year. Rondo needs to improve his game, become more of a scorer than he’s been, and more of the face of this franchise. Jeff Green needs to improve his game and make it more consistent. Sullinger needs to improve his 3-point shooting (which he has this preseason) or scrap it. Marcus Smart has to improve every month of the season.
Everyone has something to improve. They need to do it. If they can, then trades can be made, contracts can be signed, and the progress can continue into next year. If they take steps backwards, then the rebuild gets delayed another year, and the team suffers through a mentally defeating morass of a season.
I would say that the goals for this second year of rebuilding is growth and evaluation. The Celtics will be watching for growth in their young players in particular and in the team as a whole. Also, the coaches and the front office will need to evaluate which direction the team will go in. Will they build with youth and grow into a contender or will Danny use the young players and draft picks to bring in veterans to speed up the process. They also must which players will stay long term in their push to become a contender and which players will become trade chips to bring in the players who will fit into their plans for the future.
To determine who fits into the club's long-term plan, and figure out how to move on from those who don't. Ideally that would include developing Olynyk and Sullinger into an effective tandem in the post, and building a solid three-guard rotation with Rondo, Bradley and Smart. If that happens Boston might look like an attractive location for a star to come to in 2015-16.
2013-14 IN REVIEW
4th in Atlantic Division - 12th in Eastern Conference
The 2013-14 season was one of the strangest in Boston Celtics history. General manager Danny Ainge had finally cashed in aging veterans Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett for a package of future draft picks, in what turned out to be a heck of a return, and Celtic nation was forced to accept the fact that The Truth wasn't going to play his full career in Boston. That alone was hard enough to swallow, and then Doc Rivers shocked the basketball world as he up and left for Los Angeles to accept new challenges and flip the page to a new chapter of his career. What?
Nobody saw that marriage coming to an end quite like that, but it didn't turn out so bad for the green in terms of finding Doc's successor to begin a new era of Celtics basketball. Ainge was able to replace him with a gem in Brad Stevens, who lead Butler University to back-to-back Final Four appearances in 2010 and 2011, where the Bulldogs fell short in the championship game both times.
Generally speaking, coaches tend to struggle making the jump from the collegiate level to the NBA, as Celtics fans learned the hard way via Rick Pitino. However, Brad Stevens walked through that door and impressed everyone from top to bottom in terms of his intelligence, work ethic, even-keeled demeanor, teaching and potential to develop into a big time professional head coach. There's a reason he was given a six-year deal. You've got to feel good about Stevens going forward.
Of course, the 37-year-old didn't exactly sign up for a winning situation right away. This was going to take time, both in terms of his transition to the NBA and the restructuring of the roster altogether. Not only was Stevens immediately dealing with a relatively young and inexperienced squad, he had to operate without the team's leader and best player throughout the first 40 games of the year.
Rajon Rondo was welcomed back into the lineup slowly, as he initially played limited minutes and sat on the second night of back-to-backs as he recovered from the ACL he tore on January 27, 2013 in Atlanta. The unorthodox star point guard wasn't quite his electric self from a physical standpoint, but grew increasingly productive as time went on and showed many flashes of the Rondo we all know and love. Rondo put up 11.7 points, 9.8 assists and 5.5 rebounds through 30 games, and started looking spry to close the season. From February 24 through April 14, the four-time All-Star averaged approximately 13 points, 12 assists and six boards per contest while flirting with his triple-double ways on multiple occasions. Only time will help him fully recover, but his comeback performance was promising considering the circumstances.
Filling in for Rondo was a guy that not many people ever expected to be given a shot as a starting point guard - Jordan Crawford. For a guy that came in with the reputation of an overly cocky gunner, he did a heck of a job. In 35 games as Boston's starting point guard, Crawford put up 14.2 points and 6.1 assists per game in a stretch that took many by surprise. However, he would later be dealt in mid-January along with MarShon Brooks, who never really got a chance in Boston, to the Warriors in a three-team trade with Miami that brought the Celtics Joel Anthony and a pair of future first round picks.
In Rondo's absence, everyone's eyes shifted to Jeff Green as he was expected to take over as the team's top gun on the offensive end of the floor. He still had a decent year as his 16.9 points and 4.6 rebounds per game fell right in line with his career production, but we quickly found out that he wasn't going to take that next step into becoming "the guy." It simply just isn't in his nature to take over as a number one option. Green is more physically gifted than most but he is a complementary player, not a superstar. Evens so, he went for 20 or more points on 22 occasions, dropped 39 twice and compiled a plethora of highlight slams to give the fans something to get excited about through tough times. Green's problem isn't talent, it is consistency. If he can ever put it together upstairs to maximize his talent, he would be one heck of a player. However, you wonder how much time that "if" sentiment has left on its lifespan. Some things are what they are and in Green's case, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Brandon Bass played the most complete basketball of his career in 2013-14. The nine-year vet appeared in all 82 games and particularly improved by leaps and bounds on the defensive end of the floor, where he has always been able to body up but has now transformed himself into a vocal presence. His basketball IQ has increased since joining the Celtics in 2011, thanks to Kevin Garnett, as Bass has significantly improved his defensive reactions and rotations. That pick n' pop mid-range J is still butter, too. Bass has always been a quality role player, but he is now a two-way contributor at a much more consistent level than ever before.
After finally recovering from dual shoulder operations, Avery Bradley came back strong for his fourth NBA season to deliver his best basketball thus far in his young career. Contrary to the way he began his career as a timid guard that was afraid to shoot and handle the ball, the menacing defensive presence improved by leaps and bounds on the offensive end last season. Not only did Bradley welcome increased usage on that end of the floor, he put up a career high 14.9 points per game and shot 40% from beyond the arc, playing much more efficient basketball than he had the previous year.
Bradley experienced a nagging mid-season ankle injury, but appeared in 60 games and played even better in the second half of the year. After the All-Star break, Bradley shot 47% from three-point territory and even scored over 18 points per contest through his last 11 games of the season.
To help at guard, Danny Ainge pulled off a terrific mid-season trade that sent Courtney Lee to Memphis for combo guard Jerryd Bayless, who gave the Celtics another ball handler while the deal got Boston out of the final two years of Lee's contract, where he is due over $11 million. The C's saved some coin and got some quality production in the process, as Bayless generally shot the ball well and scored 10 points per game as a Celtic.
Perhaps the most comforting aspect of last season was the maturation of Jared Sullinger, who was arguably Boston's best all-around player last season. After rehabilitating from the back surgery that ended his rookie season prematurely, falling in line with his pre-draft red flags, Sullinger came back for his sophomore season and showed everyone why he was originally pegged as a high lottery pick. Sully dealt with a left hand injury all season, which forced him to play with a wrap, but he displayed his toughness and fought through 74 productive games. Perhaps due to the injury, his outside shooting was not as efficient as he would have liked but he still showed his ability to knock down open jumpers and be effective as a pick n' roll receiver in diving or popping actions.
Sullinger put up 13.3 points and a team-leading 8.1 rebounds per game, showing a great deal of promise and was even selected to play in the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star weekend. Joining him in the event would be Celtics rookie Kelly Olynyk, who played somewhat inconsistent minutes to begin the season but earned a heavier role as the year progressed. Through the last 20 games of the season in which he played at least 20 minutes, Olynyk put up 14 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game, while the versatile seven-footer shot above 35% from long distance for the season. The promising Canadian prospect has a lot of work to do defensively and in the weight room, but he is as skilled of a seven-footer as you could ask for.
Through all of the promising flashes of brilliance out of the young core, the Celtics struggled and posted their second-worst record of the last decade, accumulating just one more victory than the dreaded 24-58 squad from 2006-07 that included an 18-game losing streak.
Sure, when Danny Ainge made those franchise-changing deals and constructed a roster that he knew would be incapable of making the playoffs, it was clear where things were headed. Regardless of the circumstances, however, this team never let up the fight. The C's lost a lot of games but they weren't necessarily getting rocked by 20 points on a nightly basis. Lead by coach Stevens, this Celtics team is full of menacing competitors from top to bottom and they never threw in the towel. The losing was tough for everybody to deal with, but they competed.
Despite the inexperience and number in the loss column, the 2013-14 Boston Celtics were not an abysmal team to watch and we witnessed steady growth from multiple young players.
SUMMER OF 2014
Key Additions - Marcus Smart, Evan Turner, Tyler Zeller, Marcus Thornton, James Young
Key Losses - Kris Humphries, Jerryd Bayless, Keith Bogans
The Celtics entered the 2014 NBA Draft lottery with a 10.3% chance of landing the number one overall pick. While the hope was that the C's would move up from the fifth slot into the top three for a chance at Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Joel Embiid, but they ended up sipping to their most likely scenario with sixth pick in the draft.
Although the ping pong balls didn't gift the green a top pick, they were able to come away with an outstanding prospect at number six, where they drafted Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart. Thanks to his defensive skill, competitive nature, work ethic, toughness, NBA body and ability to create with the ball, 6'3" bulldog has a chance to blossom into a high impact two-way game changer. Whether you're wearing green-shaded glasses or not, you can't deny that Smart possesses more defensive potential than most and he will become very dangerous if he can ever become a consistent jump shooter (Does that remind you of any other Celtics guards? Or all of them?).
Boston also owned the 17th overall pick in the draft, where they were pleased to still see James Young's name on the board. Nobody was quite as estatic about the selection as Bill Simmons, but the Celtics got terrific value in the middle of the first round and brought in talented swingman to plug into the puzzle. Young is somewhat raw at age 19, but the long-armed 6'7" lefty is a born scorer with a pure stroke from the outside, with a lot of room to grow based on his athleticism. Young may struggle to find himself in the regular rotation right away, but he is a promising piece that has a chance to develop into a quality rotation wing.
In July, Danny Ainge worked some of his magic in a three-team deal with Brooklyn and Cleveland that brought in Marcus Thornton, Tyler Zeller and a future first round pick (via Cleveland) as a prize for allowing Cleveland to make some things happen fiancially. The Celtics take on Thornton's $8.7 million salary, but it expires at season's end and the temporary commitment to his deal was well worth adding a pick and... gasp... a real center!
Zeller's role was diminished in Cleveland last season, as the seven-foot center played just 15 minutes per game as opposed to the 26 minutes he played as a rookie in 2012-13. With that said, he improved his field goal percentage by 10% and, in spurts, has shown that he can contribute in the NBA. As Boston's only true center, Zeller can play in the pick n' roll, has a solid touch, runs the floor well for a guy his size and while he may not be the most athletic or physically imposing big, he can make plays out to the free throw line extended and provide much-needed size to Brad Stevens' frontcourt rotation.
To cap off the summer, Danny Ainge signed Evan Turner to a two-year deal worth over $6 million in a move that likely brought Boston the most talented free agent they could have stumbled upon this summer. Everyone is well-aware of his struggles to adapt to the Indiana Pacers after last season's trade, but failing to fit into a new situation in the middle of a season is certainly not going to close the book on his career. Like him or not, Turner is a very talented creator with the ball and at a skilled 6'7," coach Stevens can plug him into either wing spot and even ask him to provide sporadic relief at point guard.
Let's also not forget that prior to being shipped to Indiana at the trading deadline, albeit on one of the weakest teams in the league, Turner put up over 17 points, six rebounds and just under four assists per game for Philadelphia last season. Turner may or may not resurrect his career in Boston, but it was a low-risk, high-reward opportunity that gives the Celtics an opportunity to bring in a gem at a reasonable price.
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
C - Kelly Olynyk / Tyler Zeller / Vitor Faverani / Joel Anthony
PF - Jared Sullinger / Brandon Bass
SF - Jeff Green / Gerald Wallace / James Young
SG - Avery Bradley / Evan Turner / Marcus Thornton
PG - Rajon Rondo / Marcus Smart / Phil Pressey
There is a healthy debate amongst Celtics die-hards regarding who will be the team's starting center this coming season. Kelly Olynyk? Tyler Zeller? Go small again with Sullinger and Bass (please don't)?
Brad Stevens has a lot of options, and don't be surprised if we see multiple starting centers at different points of the season. Olynyk opened up preseason as the starting five-man and Tyler Zeller could very well win the spot before the season is over, but if the Celtics want to get value in return for Bass by the trading deadline, we may see him showcased as well. Not to mention, Sullinger played 75% of the team's minutes at center last season.
At any point, Stevens has to feel good about the competition for minutes both at center and on the perimeter.
X-FACTOR - Maturation of Youth
Unless Danny Ainge pulls some kind of miracle trade out of nowhere before February's deadline, the Celtics are unlikely to compete for anything in 2014-15; especially if they end up dealing Rajon Rondo like some rumors suggest. The number one key to their season is the maturation and development of their young core.
You can't realistically expect this year's Celtics squad to make a run in the playoffs, but you want to see the young pups start growing into dogs. Will Jared Sullinger improve his conditioning and take the next step to become a consistent double-double guy? Will Avery Bradley stay healthy and continue his development as a promising two-way threat? Kelly Olynyk has all the skill you could ask for in a seven-footer, but will he build on his physical frame and improve on the defensive end? Marcus Smart looks like he has a chance to be a pretty good player, but exactly how good is he? Can Evan Turner get his career back on track?
If you're a Celtics fan, you want to see the young fellas turn the corner and maximize their potential. When April comes, you want to feel like the state of the franchise is continuously headed in the right direction. Danny Ainge has set up the rebuilding process nicely, compiling a quality group of young prospects and future first round picks. Internal growth is the only thing you can hope for as the front office continually strives to plug the right pieces into their blueprint's puzzle.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2014-15
As stated above, this season is more about the development of Boston's young talent than anything. You can expect a lot of ups, a lot of downs, some growing pains, excitement and a hell of a lot of trade rumors.
Especially with Rajon Rondo in uniform, I think it is realistic to predict more than 25 wins this season. These guys are going to get better. How much better is up for debate and expecting a playoff berth is probably a little overzealous, but it is going to be a fun an energetic year of watching the young guns evolve.
4th - Atlantic Division
12th - Eastern Conference
Keep your eyes peeled for the Golden State Warriors preview, coming later today.