One of the fun facts that came out of last year's playoffs was that Steph Curry beat out all his fellow NBA first teamers: Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, James Harden, and LeBron James. It's an impressive feat for Curry, but also indicative of what it takes to be successful in the playoffs: stars and preferably, superstars.
The Celtics scratched and clawed their way to the 7th seed, finishing the season 20-9 after acquiring Isiah Thomas and Jonas Jerebko at the trade deadline (and Jae Crowder two months prior). In the playoffs, they sputtered against a Cleveland team that was still whole with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving (even more superstars!), but put up a valiant effort with their ragtag roster whittled down by 11 trades that saw 40 different players wearing the green.
After an underwhelming summer, Boston returns most of the same cast plus a bevy of new vets and promising rookies, but for what? The hope was that Danny would somehow find a way to consolidate players and draft picks to bring in a star. Well, that didn't happen and instead, Brad Stevens has to yet again work his magic with a roster that is now arguably more talented, deeper, and younger.
There's no longer the token veteran presence of a Gerald Wallace on the team. There aren't any trade casualties or holdovers from Doc's regime (outside of maybe Jared Sullinger) to manage and generate trade value. Every player on the roster is now a visionary member of the rebuild and a case for playing time could be made for almost everybody.
ESPN's Bradford Doolittle put together a ranking of the conference's teams based on star quality, dividing up players into seven categories: elite of the elite, superstar, upper-tier starter, starting quality, rotation reserves, deep reserves, and fringe players. Boston rated 11th in the East with this brief review:
Tier score: 11
Breakdown: Elite: 0; Superstars: 0; Upper-tier starters: 0; Starters: 3; Second-unit: 5; Deep reserves: 2
The addition of David Lee gives the Celtics a third starting-caliber player, and there aren't a lot of major holes on the depth chart. Boston has no one projected for one of the top three tiers, and it's the search for that kind of player that drives Danny Ainge these days.
No Celtic ranked in the top-3 categories (my guess is Isaiah Thomas and Jared Sullinger made the "starters" list even though Kelly Olynyk and Marcus Smart were RPM darlings), but they're certainly deep and a star could emerge by the end of the season. For a fan base starved for a bona fide star, "depth" and "versatility" are just code for "mediocre" and ".500 basketball," but Team 69 proved that they can win without a marquee name. Brad Stevens and his players have found success creating a team first culture in the locker room and more importantly, on the floor. The Celtics ranked 9th in total passes and 4th in assists last season. They weren't exactly barnburners, but they took care of the ball, especially after the arrival of Isaiah Thomas at the trade deadline. They ranked 5th in turnovers in their final 30+ games, only giving up the ball 13.0 times a game, and 12th in scoring (3rd in the Eastern Conference) during the playoff race. Defensively, Boston was also playing some of the league's best D. They ranked 5th in points per 100 possessions and 4th in creating turnovers without an intimidating rim protector on the roster.
This was a team that played greater than the sum of its parts and this summer, Ainge added even more parts for Stevens to work with. The team will be better and they'll win more games, but the nagging questions will still remain: Can Ainge cobble together enough assets and trade them for a stud? Can a star rise from the rubble of the rebuild? Can the Celtics' egalitarian style of play attract a big free agent who might want the ball in his hands a lot?
However, for me, the biggest question that doesn't get asked enough is do the Celtics need a star? I don't necessarily think so, at least not a superstar. Sure, Atlanta had four Hawks (Kyle Korver as an injury replacement) in the All Star game last season, but Al Horford, Jeff Teague, and Paul Millsap were rewarded for their winning team record rather than their individual accomplishments. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili have always been considered The Big Three of San Antonio during their run of four championships, but it's always been the Spurs' Way and team concept that won them those rings.
Maybe we're getting ahead of ourselves by mentioning these Celtics with a Hawks team that won sixty games and more so the Spurs, the model franchise of the last two decades, but these are the organizations that Ainge & Co. have modeled the Celtics after. While the front office has teased fans' expectations with promises of fireworks, they've methodically brought in players that fit the culture they've been cultivating since 2013.
Over the rest of the off-season, CelticsBlog will take a look at the chances of a star emerging from this roster. We'll examine topics like:
- Who will lead the team in scoring and is that player enough to attract free agents to Boston?
- Can a glue guy be the team's MVP and "best" player?
- Have the Celtics been aggressive enough in player development?
- Who is a bigger draw: Boston's supporting cast or Brad Stevens?