The 2017 offseason was the wildest in NBA history. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are now Eastern Conference rivals. Out West, Chris Paul joined James Harden, while Paul George and Carmelo Anthony united with Russell Westbrook. Ten recent All–Stars changed uniforms, and we haven’t even gotten to Kevin Durant’s strange summer, so let’s get to previewing. The 2017-18 NBA season is finally upon us.
2016-17 finish: 53-29, Eastern Conference finalists
• Offensive rating: 108.6 (8th)
• Defensive rating: 105.5 (12th)
Additions: Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes, Guerschon Yabusele, Semi Ojeleye, Daniel Theis, Shane Larkin
Subtractions: Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, Gerald Green, Tyler Zeller, Jordan Mickey, James Young
Did the summer help at all?
Boston essentially swapped Thomas and Crowder for Irving and Hayward, upgrading at both positions, especially if we believe, as the Celtics probably did, Thomas won’t ever be as good as he was during last year’s MVP-caliber campaign and may never be the same after re-aggravating a chronic hip injury.
Irving came to Boston by way of the most shocking trade in recent history, with the two Eastern Conference finalists swapping All-Star point guards, emboldening a budding rivalry with the Cavaliers and a feud festering between LeBron James and his former mentee. Few players (MVP candidates only) could take the reins from Thomas, who averaged 28.9 points per game and trailed only Russell Westbrook in fourth-quarter scoring last season, and fit seamlessly into Brad Stevens’ system.
Stevens found a way for a 5-foot-9 dude to operate on an extraordinary usage rate, while also working off the ball in an offense predicated on ball movement, and hid him defensively. Tell me a 6-foot-3 guy with the best handles in the game and an extraordinary knack for shotmaking won’t also succeed.
Hayward reunited with his college coach through free agency, providing the Celtics with another All-Star playmaker on the wing, where they occasionally started Gerald Green in the playoffs. So, yeah, that was a smart and necessary signing, but it also cost them Avery Bradley in a salary cap-clearing move. Arguably the game’s most underrated player, Bradley may have been Boston’s best two-way player during a 53-win campaign that ended in the conference finals last year, so that’s no small loss.
A still-developing Brown appears slotted for Bradley’s two-guard spot, and a slimmed-down Marcus Smart will see an increase in his agitator’s role, but Boston will miss Bradley’s knockdown shooting.
The Bradley trade did land recently acquitted Marcus Morris from the Detroit Pistons. Expect the Celtics to vacillate between starting Morris and free-agent acquisition Aron Baynes beside Al Horford, depending on matchups. The toughness of Morris and Baynes and increased length at the guard and quick forward spots, with Horford pulling the strings, should help shore up a defense that dipped closer to league-average levels from a top-five rating in 2015-16 — despite Irving’s apathy on that end.
The departures of Olynyk, Johnson, Jerebko, Green and Zeller turn what was one of Boston’s best assets last season — depth — into a question mark. How much the Celtics get from Brown and Tatum — two top-three picks with star potential who can’t quite legally consume alcohol yet — could provide the answer. Still, if the Celtics plan to roll 10 deep again, they’ll also need someone else from the first-year big man triumvirate of Yabusele, Ojeleye and Theis to fill a role in Boston’s shallow frontcourt.
Best-case scenario: Irving, Hayward and Horford are a tremendous blend of offensive skill, and Boston scores in droves. Slim Smart and Terry Rozier enjoy breakout shooting seasons, and Contract Year Smart is the Sixth Man of the Year. Baynes and Morris do the dirty work. Brad Stevens coaches up everyone from Brown and Tatum to Yabu and Theis. The Celtics unseat the Cavs in the East — Irving’s ultimate revenge — and establish themselves as the Golden State Warriors challenger of the future.
If everything falls apart: Irving’s path toward self-discovery serves only Irving. The Thomas trade disrupts the masters-level chemistry class Stevens put on last season, and the addition of two All-Stars somehow doesn’t equal the sum of those 2016-17 Celtics parts. The loss of so many shooters turns what was already a middle-of-the-road shooting team into a subpar outfit. Smart and Rozier make no strides. The kids aren’t ready. And the Celtics, after finally relinquishing many of their cap and draft assets, are still on par with the Wizards and the Raptors a tier below Cleveland.
Best guess at a record: 56-26
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2017-18 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
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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