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ESPN's 2014-15 season preview slights the Celtics' improvement

Brad Stevens and Co. know that there is still work to be done, but they also know improvements have been made.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, about two weeks prior to the start of the regular season, the good folks over at ESPN put together an extensive NBA preview detailing what they believe the upcoming campaign has in store for all 30 teams. This year’s edition was released Tuesday and, together, insiders Jordan Brenner, Bradford Doolittle, Amin Elhassan, Tom Haberstroh, and Kevin Pelton collaborated to cover a major storyline for each franchise entering the 2014-15 season and, as is the case with most previews, projected things such as win totals, starting lineups, and potential strengths and weaknesses on the defensive end of the floor.

For the most part, the Western Conference standings remained largely the same with the same eight teams that made the playoffs last year snagging another berth here. The same can’t be said for the East, though, given the massive shakeup that’s taken place throughout the conference thanks to LeBron James’ return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Besides the obvious few – Cleveland, Chicago, Washington, and Toronto – the NBA’s weaker conference is somewhat up for grabs as far as the final four playoff spots are concerned and while nobody really expects the Boston Celtics to be in the running for one of them, there has to be some projected improvement for the Green team, right?

Apparently ESPN’s aforementioned pundits don’t believe so despite the additions of defensive stalwart Marcus Smart, Swiss Army knife Evan Turner, the microwave that is Marcus Thornton, and a healthy Rajon Rondo. Not to mention the expected improvements from guys like Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger, and Kelly Olynyk that are bound to come.

Instead, this particular group of NBA scribes has the Celtics improving by a whopping one win (Vegas has them winning 27 games) while dropping a spot in the Eastern Conference standings. This following a 25-win, 12th seed finish last year.

Boston is technically projected to tie with the Orlando Magic, who are also believed to tally around 26 wins this season. But the Magic received the benefit of the doubt here, most likely due to the fact that they are expected to take the season series from the Celtics.

It’s hard to believe that after all the minor adjustments the Celtics made over the offseason, this team is still thought of as having not improved by very much at all. The addition of a healthy Rondo playing in a contract year should be enough to warrant a couple more wins on its own because, despite the belief of some, the Celtics just simply aren’t better without their four-time All-Star in the lineup.

Sure, they may have gone 6-24 last year with him in the starting lineup but it’s hard to take that sample with more than a few grains of salt. Rondo clearly still wasn’t himself upon returning from the ACL injury he suffered in January 2013. With more confidence in his surgically repaired knee, as well as more weapons around him, Rondo should once again be among the league leaders in assists while wreaking havoc on the defensive perimeter alongside Bradley and Smart. After all, the Celtics did rank fifth in the league in opponent three-point percentage, according to the preview, and adding Rondo will only help maintain and improve that prowess.

The offense should be better in 2014 as well. The Celtics averaged only 96.2 points per game last year, according to Basketball Reference, good (or bad?) enough for 26th in the Association. But when you factor in Bradley’s improved three-point shot (47.4% in the preseason), Thornton’s ability to get hot from downtown (36% for career, 43.3% this preseason, per, and Sullinger and Olynyk’s improving offensive games, there’s reason to believe the Celtics will eclipse the century mark on a nightly basis this year.

Brad Stevens’ club will obviously struggle this year. They still don’t have a legitimate rim protector, although Tyler Zeller is making small strides, and there still isn’t anyone in particular that Stevens can give the ball to and say, "Hey, go get me a bucket," on a consistent basis.

All things considered, though, the Celtics have improved. The weaknesses are still glaring but the strengths are becoming more and more apparent. With that said, I’m not expecting a 10-win leap forward, but a five to seven-win increase doesn’t appear to be out of the realm of possibilities in 2014-15. One thing is for certain, Boston will be better than the 26 wins ESPN has them notching over the course of the upcoming year.

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