COMMENTARY | Many NBA analysts are predicting that the Boston Celtics are on the verge of a horrific season -- the likes of which we haven't seen in Boston since 2006-2007, the year before Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived and the "Big Three" was born.
Following the departure of All-Stars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the team is destined to be worse than it was last season, but in a top-heavy Eastern Conference where teams with more losses than wins routinely make the playoffs year after year, it is possible the Celtics are still a playoff-caliber squad that has the opportunity to prove the skeptics wrong.
The question is, will they?
Are there eight teams in the Eastern Conference better than the Celtics?
In the NBA, eight teams from each conference make the playoffs. In the Eastern Conference, there are five undeniably better teams that will likely beat up on the young Celtics all season. Those five teams include: the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets, Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks.
Of the 10 remaining teams, only three will get into the playoffs. We can immediately rule out the Orlando Magic, Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets, Philadelphia 76ers and Washington Wizards as contenders for the final three spots, bringing the list of competitive teams down to only six teams.
The future of the Boston Celtics next season hinges on how they play against the five teams they will be competing with for the final three playoff spots: the Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Atlanta Hawks
The two biggest losses for the Hawks in the offseason was allowing Josh Smith to walk away without much of a fight, freeing up a lot of cap space for the organizational rebuild, and losing backup point guard Devin Harris to free agency. The Hawks were a surprising 44-38 in 2012-2013 but after losing their best player and leading scorer in Smith and one of their best bench players, it's hard to argue that the team is going to be as good as it was last season.
The Hawks still have Al Horford playing center, and they managed to pick up underrated veteran Paul Millsap to replace Smith, but the overall talent on the team definitely took a dip. They are, however, helped out by the fact that they play in the NBA's weakest division, which is why it looks like the Hawks will win around 35 games next season, which is likely not enough to get them to the playoffs.
The Toronto Raptors
It may come as a surprise, but the Toronto Raptors have one of the most passionate fan-bases in the NBA, which is why Forbes.com named them as one of the league's most valuable franchises. Unfortunately, for them, the passion in the stands has not led to wins in the standings in recent years.
The Raptors did make significant strides last season, though, after acquiring Rudy Gay from the Memphis Grizzlies, going 18-18 after the deal, an improvement over their 16-30 record before Gay arrived. However, the Raptors did lose their third-best scorer last season, Andrea Bargnani, in a sign-and-trade with the New York Knicks. Bargnani's replacement, the young Jonas Valanciunas, will replace most of Bargnani's production in the starting lineup, but the Raptors' bench will now take a hit as center Aaron Gray's playing time increases. For that reason, you can expect the Raptors to see a slight reduction from the .500 record they put up after receiving Rudy Gay, allowing for an estimate of 38 wins.
The Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland made two significant moves in the offseason -- the Cavs drafted Anthony Bennett with the first pick in the draft, and they took a chance on center Andrew Bynum, who didn't play a single minute last season. If Bynum returns to his former self, it is entirely possible that the Cavaliers could be playoff contenders, especially because Cleveland's greatest weaknesses last year were defensive rebounding, interior defense/blocked shots, and field-goal percentage, all of which Bynum could significantly improve.
With that said, the Cavaliers only managed to win 24 games last year, so getting up to the needed 38-40 win mark may be quite a stretch. Even with a healthy Bynum, the Cavaliers are likely a 35-win team, not quite enough to get to the playoffs.
The Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks, led by two of the most inefficient players in the NBA, Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, fought their way into the playoffs last year by capturing the last available seed. Despite losing both Jennings and Ellis in the offseason, the Bucks were able to make two savvy moves that will make them more successful in 2013-2014. They added the young and very-talented Brandon Knight and All-Star-caliber shooting guard O.J. Mayo. The addition of Knight and Mayo make the Bucks more of a legitimate basketball team than the mess they were last year.
Despite their problems, the Bucks were able to go 38-44 last season, and I would expect them to improve to at least 40 wins this year, making them a definite playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
The Detroit Pistons
The Pistons took a big chance this offseason by hitching their wagon to All-Star Josh Smith to the tune of $54 million over a four-year deal. The Pistons also brought in the highly inefficient, yet extremely talented Brandon Jennings by shipping out Brandon Knight to Milwaukee. Replacing Tayshaun Prince with Josh Smith is absolutely a major upgrade, and it looks like the Pistons may very well end up as the best team of the six fighting to get in the playoffs. Their bench needs some work, and rumors suggest it's possible the Pistons may try to make a trade before the trade deadline this season. But even if the roster remains the same as it is now all year, there is a very good chance the Pistons will be good enough to make the playoffs at the sixth or seventh seed.
The Boston Celtics
As the analysis above shows, several of the teams the Celtics will be competing with for the final playoff spot are expected to improve over their performance from last season. The Bucks, Pistons and Raptors should all fall the 37-41 win camp, meaning that in order for the Celtics to make the playoffs, they are going to need to get to at least 37 wins. How likely is this to occur?
Before Rajon Rondo suffered the ACL tear that ended his season early, the Celtics had a record of 20-23, a winning percentage that extended over an 82-game season would make Boston a 38-win team this year. In order for the Celtics to be a playoff team, they would need, at the very least, to match that pace in 2013-2014, despite replacing Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett with Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries, two inferior players, and despite having an entirely new coaching staff and system to run.
Unless Boston receives a supreme performance from one of its questionable players like Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger or Kris Humphries, it appears that the Celtics will be on the outside looking in when the playoffs start, likely finishing with roughly 35 wins. This is not to say that the Celtics definitely are out of the race, but they are underdogs in an already weak conference.
Don't agree with me? Tell me why I am wrong on Twitter @TheNewRevere or by e-mail at THATcelticsguy@gmail.com.
Justin Haskins is a New England native and a freelance journalist. He has been obsessively following Boston professional sports for 10 years and has been published in numerous online publications and websites.Statistics provided by Basketball-reference.com and NBA.com.
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