Team Name: Boston Celtics
Last Year's Record: 48-34
Key Losses: Evan Turner, Jared Sullinger
Key Additions: Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Gerald Green
1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
The Boston Celtics were a good-not-great team last year, and they got a lot better in the offseason. The headlining move was adding perennial All-Star center Al Horford. He’s the kind of superstar that helps you in innumerable ways and fits like a glove into the team dynamic that Brad Stevens has developed over the last few years.
The more subtle improvement comes from player development. The first couple of years after Pierce and Garnett were traded, the team roster resembled an amusement park attraction, with crowds of people getting on and off the ride and several feeling woozy after the fact. But this summer provided coach Stevens a great deal of continuity, as most of his rotation players have been brought back. Most of those rotation guys are still young and developing their games as well. So, in theory, improvement should happen across the board.
Ainge also added a top-three pick to the mix. Jaylen Brown has the same kind of positional flexibility and defensive intensity that has defined this team recently. So he should fit in nicely. If he can develop his shot and learn the NBA game quickly, he could be a great building block for the future. With that said, the team will be preaching patience with this young man. Throwing a rookie into a playoff rotation doesn’t always look pretty in the short term, but the experience could be very valuable in the long term.
Finally, Boston’s front office added Gerald Green to provide more wing depth and shooting. He returns to the team that drafted him, but he may only get a chance to contribute if and when injuries occur.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
Defense, defense, defense. This was a top-five defense last season, and the Cs added an amazing defensive center in Al Horford to the mix. Avery Bradley was First Team All Defense last season, and Jae Crowder got some votes for that award too. Marcus Smart is already a stellar defender, and Amir Johnson is a solid defensive veteran in the paint.
Those are the stars of the defense, but the rest of the team plays Brad Stevens’s scheme exceptionally well. Many considered Isaiah Thomas a negative on defense, and Kelly Olynyk wasn’t considered much of a defender, but both contributed to the defense in positive ways last season.
Speaking of Stevens, he might still be the biggest star on this team, and he certainly is the most important figure moving forward. He’s widely respected around the league and considered by many to be the next “superstar” head coach.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
While this team will lock down their opponents for long stretches of games, they also tend to fall into their own scoring droughts. They were only a middle-of-the-road offense (ranked 13th in OffRtg) that relied too heavily on Thomas and the now-departed Evan Turner to generate points.
They also had the third-worst three-point shooting percentage in the league, headlined by Marcus Smart’s historically bad shooting (though Jared Sullinger did his fair share of damage as well).
Al Horford should help the offense a great deal. His picks and court intelligence will create more space for everyone. Even if you simply give all of Jared Sullinger’s shots to the much more efficient Horford, the offense will benefit greatly.
4. What are the goals for this team?
A good first-step goal would be to make it out of the first round of the playoffs, but this team surely has higher hopes for their near- and long-term future.
Brad Stevens preaches every day improvement. He doesn’t get caught up in the highs and lows of each game, but he keeps the team moving in the right direction and gets them prepared for the next day.
However, the key to how far this team can go likely depends on what Danny Ainge does next. Which brings me to...
5. Will Danny Ainge finally cash in his chips to trade for a star player?
The Celtics finally landed an All-Star free agent in the offseason. Isaiah Thomas made his first All-Star game last year, and he keeps working on his game. The team has made solid progress the last couple of years. However, it still feels like this team is one big move away from getting into the conversation for championship contention.
The Celtics have made no secret of their desire to make one more move, insisting that they are “not done” building the roster. The problem is that star players do not become available very often, and when they do the price is very steep. So for the moment Danny Ainge continues to walk around with trade assets burning holes in all of his pockets.
6. How will the Celtics fill in the hole left by Evan Turner’s departure?
There’s no one player on the roster that can simply step in and replace everything that Evan Turner provided for the Celtics, but a number of players can step up their contributions to make up for his absence. Terry Rozier in particular appears to be ready for a larger role this season. His ball handling and bursts of speed should create some opportunities for the offense to generate good looks at the basket.
Marcus Smart continues to improve many aspects of his offense. For as much attention as his shooting gets, if he can simply improve that aspect his game to close to league average, the rest of his offensive game should have the opportunity to shine brighter. His court awareness, pick-and-roll execution, and driving ability have all improved steadily during his first two years. Expect Al Horford’s presence to help him develop even more.
Also, rookie Jaylen Brown and prodigal son Gerald Green could potentially step in to give some scoring punch in bursts over the course of the season.
Conclusion and Prediction
The Celtics are done rebuilding. They are a legit playoff team that keeps getting better. The next step, however, could be the hardest one. Going from bad to good is difficult, but going from good to great is even harder.
This team has improved since last season, but there remains a feeling of waiting for the next shoe to drop. If that shoe keeps dangling past February, then this team will still be in position to make some noise in the postseason, but the Cavs loom large as a glass ceiling of sorts.
However, if the right player becomes available at the right price, Danny Ainge will not hesitate to pull the trigger and put this team in position to compete in the Finals, both this year and for years to come.
52 wins and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.