No matter which conference they play in, the Boston Celtics' ability to nab a playoff berth when no one expected them to challenge for one ranks as one of last season's most pleasant surprises. After dealing top (or at least most famous) players Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green before the middle of January, the Celtics and wunderkind coach Brad Stevens rebranded themselves as a high-energy outfit in which every rotation player was essential to the overall structure. Deadline deals for several guys, including a bargain price for point guard and scoring dynamo Isaiah Thomas, lifted the Celtics above an admittedly unimpressive group of contenders to 40 wins and the No. 7 seed in the East.
However, a first-round sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers made it apparent that the Celtics have plenty of room to improve. While Boston lost the last three games by eight points apiece, they rarely seemed to challenge the comfortable Cavs and exited as expected despite plenty of plaudits for Stevens and the team's style of play.
The question is now how the Celtics build on a very successful season now that expectations have been adjusted. With Thomas locked in as the team's top scorer for a full season and reinforcements put in place over the offseason, the Celtics should be able to keep a playoff spot over the duration of the season and perhaps even improve on their positioning. Yet the roster still looks fairly limited in talent, if not the ability to produce an acceptable yield, and it's anyone's guess as to how this incarnation of the Celtics fits into president of basketball operations Danny Ainge's long-term plan. It's easy to feel good about this squad, but it feels like a matter of time before the front office moves various pieces in pursuit of a legitimate star like Kevin Love (didn't work out) or DeMarcus Cousins (wait and see).
It's tempting, then, to advise fans to enjoy this very likable team as long as you can, because they'll either be broken up for a bigger name or stick together long enough that everyone will wonder how the Celtics can best escape NBA purgatory. Another fun regular season might be enough for at least one more season.
2014-15 season in 140 characters or less:
Win or lose, man, Stevens coaches fun #Celtics teams to watch. Even Tommy just said Isaiah Thomas is the most talented Celt since Archibald!
— Adam Kaufman (@AdamMKaufman) February 28, 2015
Did the summer help at all?
Yes, though it's unclear how much. Heading into June's draft with four top-45 picks, Ainge surprisingly held onto all of them and selected Louisville scorer Terry Rozier (No. 16), outside-shooter and March Madness hero R.J. Hunter (No. 28), LSU forward Jordan Mickey (No. 33), and guard Marcus Thornton (No. 45), who will play in Australia this season. While the eccentric Rozier looked like a bit of a reach in the middle of the first round given his projections and the Celtics' glut of combo guards, Hunter and Mickey were solid value picks and have the potential to contribute. Hunter in particular looks like a potential steal and has impressed at both ends this preseason. The draft would have been sexier if a mega-deal to move up to draft Justise Winslow had worked out, but it was a solid night nonetheless.
Things got more interesting for Boston on July 1, when Ainge moved to re-sign midseason pickup Jonas Jerebko for two years at $10 million and added veteran big man Amir Johnson at $24 million for the same length. These deals fit the franchise's situation by prizing flexibility and should help on the court, where Johnson fills a serious need as a rim protector. The Celtics also brought back Jae Crowder, added from Dallas in the Rondo trade, for five years and $35 million as a sort of avatar of the team's high-energy style.
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The biggest move of the offseason came later in the month, when the Celtics traded for NBA champion David Lee in what was essentially a salary dump for the Golden State Warriors. Lee should fit in well as a pick-and-roll scorer and likely will not create too many problems at the other end with so many willing defenders around him.
Overall, the Celtics added usable players in prior areas of strength and picked up two big men who fit clear needs. The only issue is that no one player looks to be so effective as to improve the team's win total by himself. As usual, the Celtics will win games as a cohesive unit and not via any one overwhelming performance.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
The 6-9 Amir Johnson is not known as one of the NBA's best interior defenders, but he will be good enough to improve Boston's rim protection considerably in 2014-15. Johnson is an excellent fit with the Celtics' identity and has cultivated an excellent reputation for working hard within the structure of the team. Although he has never averaged more than 10.4 ppg or 7.5 rpg over a single season, Johnson will immediately become an essential part of this lineup. No other player on the roster has his skillset as the Celtics attempt to marry their outstanding perimeter defense to improved play inside.
The problem with overachieving teams is that the next season often makes what they lack much clearer. For all their pluses as a hard-working outfit that plays with a togetherness and sense of purpose, the Celtics do not have the star power of the kinds of teams that typically challenge for high playoff seeds and win series. While the success of Thomas (19.0 ppg in 21 games) and addition of Lee provide hope for the offense, this team still finished 20th in points per 100 possessions last season and does not have the interior stud that usually turns a good defense into an elite one. Stevens is one of the best coaches in the league regardless of age and could very well maximize his team's win total again, but it's hard to project the Celtics as a national story beyond their status as the team college fans gravitate towards after March. Their ceiling feels lower than that of their closest competition, even if they're far more likely to reach it.
Contributor with something to prove:
David Lee went from an All-Star to an afterthought in two seasons, which says a lot about the depth of the Warriors and his fit with a team at the vanguard of contemporary basketball. While Lee's skills are very real, his defensive lapses and more classically oriented offensive talents have made him a perennial whipping boy of advanced-stats proponents, the sort of player who makes sense only when no better options exist.
It is very possible that no better option exists for the Celtics, a team that could use a consistent finisher. Although it came in the fewest total minutes of his career, Lee did average 15.5 points per 36 minutes on 51.1 percent shooting from the field. The Celtics would have welcomed those numbers and will hope that the 32-year-old Lee recaptures something close to his All-Star form with added opportunities to perform.
Potential breakout stud:
Marcus Smart's offensive stats were unimpressive for a rookie point guard — 7.8 ppg on 36.7 percent shooting from the field (including 4.1 three-point attempts per game) and just 3.1 apg against a 1.3-turnover average. Yet those numbers were acceptable given Smart's play at the defensive end, where he projects as an elite player capable of guarding every perimeter position effectively. If Smart makes strides on offense, he could become a fixture in Boston and team with Avery Bradley to create the best defensive backcourt in the league. The 6-4 Smart can also help cover some of the diminutive Thomas's defensive weaknesses, which should make the whole squad more formidable.
Thomas continues to score like a star, Smart develops into a legitimate starter, Lee adds scoring punch, Johnson improves the interior defense, Ainge engineers a trade for an unhappy Cousins, Stevens makes greater strides to join the coaching elite, and the Celtics upset their first-round opponent to enter the offseason as a budding contender.
If everything falls apart:
Thomas cannot match his post-trade form, Smart fails to develop an offensive game, Lee looks washed up, the interior defense continues to be fairly weak, no trade opportunities emerge, and the Celtics fail to make the postseason in a disappointing season.
Kelly Dwyer's notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
45-37, seventh in the East.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2015-16 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
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