The Boston Celtics surprised a lot of fans with a strong second half surge that landed them in the postseason as the No. 7 seed in a weak Eastern Conference. While some fans may have felt the team would have been better off falling into the lottery to acquire a higher draft pick instead of becoming roadkill on Cleveland's path to the NBA Finals, there's no doubt that the Celtics are looking to build on that late season success to take the next step this season.
The time for tanking is over. There's too much talent on this roster for them to be considered a bottom-feeder and Brad Stevens has proven himself as a coach capable of squeezing the most out of his players. Barring a devastating rash of injuries, there's no way this squad could be bad enough to fall into the bottom five, which is the range they would likely need to be to assure themselves a shot at a potential franchise changing player in the draft.
Perhaps they will get that caliber player from the draft pick owed to them from the plummeting Brooklyn Nets, but it won't be their own pick that ends up high in the lottery.
The next step for the Celtics is to move beyond sneaking into the playoffs with a losing record and instead become a threat to make some noise in the East. While that may seem like an optimistic outlook, ESPN's Kevin Pelton sees the Celtics as a likely playoff team that could surprise this season.
"Consider the Celtics a sleeper to claim home-court advantage and/or win a playoff series," writes Pelton. "Boston had the East's second-best record (20-11, .645) and fourth-best point differential (plus-2.9 PPG) after acquiring Isaiah Thomas at the trade deadline. While the Celtics didn't land a star this summer, the addition of veteran Amir Johnson strengthens their biggest weakness, interior defense."
Aside from the Cavaliers, there aren't any teams assured of winning 50+ games in the East this season. Boston is among at least half a dozen teams that reside in the next tier, which includes a mixture of teams trending up and falling down.
Now that the core of this team has built some experience playing together and will have their first opportunity to work through training camp together, we should expect them to take another leap forward under the direction of Stevens. It's conceivable that this Celtics team could find themselves in the top four in the East, especially since Danny Ainge is armed with plenty of assets to use if the opportunity comes along to add mid-season upgrades.
Boston will enter the summer of 2016 with loads of cap space to try to lure a franchise player, but in order to do that they will need to make Boston an appealing place to play. Yes, I'm aware of the advantages that warm weather cities and tax free states have, but believe it or not, some players actually care about winning.
Build a winning culture and show that your team can compete in the playoffs and free agents that believe they could be the missing piece to make the team a title contender will start showing some interest in coming here.
During the early stages of the Celtics rebuilding process we found ourselves hoping to pile up lottery ping pong balls more than we hoped for wins. We are beyond that now. The Celtics are trending in the right direction and looking to take the next step in this process.
Boston may not be a title contender yet, but who knows. They could surprise us.