Can you believe that it has been less than 6 months since the season began? Here we are with roughly a week left and the Celtics are sitting in 1st place. That alone makes this a positive experience, but we’ll have to wait for the playoffs to write the final narrative on the season.
Meanwhile, I thought I’d go back in time (as is my tradition) and look at the preview article I wrote back in late September and see how my perceptions stacked up to reality. Here’s the article—feel free to read the whole thing and come back here for highlights and my updated reflections.
After talking about the obvious additions and subtractions, I predicted some improvement as a result of cohesion.
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.
A steady string of injuries to key players has limited this team from being able to gel on a consistent basis. But that hasn’t stopped players from making improvements in their games to help the team as a whole.
Isaiah Thomas went from being an All-Star replacement to an MVP candidate. Avery Bradley posted career highs in points, assists, and rebounds (doubling his career rebounding average from 3 to 6.2 per game). Jae Crowder set career highs in shooting percentage (including 39% from 3 point land). Marcus Smart upped his scoring and assists while slightly increasing his shooting percentage (still just 27.5% from 3, but that’s an improvement from 25% last year).
As a team, the Celtics are shooting better from long range than they were a year ago as well (36.1% good for 14th in the league vs. 33.5% which was 28th last year).
Next I looked at the team’s expected 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.
For the first half (or more) of the season, it appeared that the Celtics had completely flipped the script. Instead of a defense-first team, it was an offensive-minded team that hemorrhaged points. However, they’ve worked hard to regain some of that defensive swagger and pulled themselves up the rankings. They got as low as the bottom third of the league but are now back in the top 11 in defensive rating. Hopefully that means they are peaking at the right time.
How about 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’ve raised their OffRtg up to 8th in the league (at times they were top 5). Why? Well, at least one thing I think I called correctly...
Al Horford should help the offense a great deal. His picks and court intelligence will create more space for everyone.
It sure seems like the addition of Horford helped everyone raise their game.
The big question headed into the season, as it has been for a few years now, was if Danny Ainge would finally make a big trade.
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.
I was surprised that so many stars were available (DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmy Butler, and the real surprise Paul George) but with the exception of Cousins, I think the price was awfully steep to add those guys. So Ainge punted till the offseason, and we’ll play this waiting game again.
One of the headline questions headed into the preseason was how Brad Stevens was going to fill the void left by Evan Turner (mostly as an offense-generating shot creator).
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.
Rozier did indeed see an increase in his minutes and usage and as a result posted better numbers across the board. Other players I tabbed as helping fill the void were Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Gerald Green. Of the three, I was most pleasantly surprised by the rookie’s progression throughout the year. Now he’s playing key fourth-quarter minutes, and the coach trusts him as a late-game defensive specialist.
My prediction seems within reach, depending on how the playoffs shake out.
52 wins and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The team has 50 wins already with 5 games left, so there’s a chance to top that win total prediction. Can they get to the ECFs? It will be fun to find out. Who’s ready for the playoffs?