The Celtics signed Al Horford to a $113 million contract in July. That much we’ve covered in detail.
The Celtics also own arguably the NBA’s deepest roster. That much we’ve also covered in great detail.
So, what do those things combined mean for a Boston team that’s better than it should be three years into a massive rebuilding effort and not as good as it might be if LeBron James didn’t play in the East?
That much we’ll cover here.
Two years after trading a trio of franchise cornerstones and one year removed from a plucky 40-win campaign that ended in a four-game sweep by LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers, the rise of Brad Stevens and his starless Celtics in 2015-16 resulted in 48 wins, tied for third most in the Eastern Conference, before their shot at a rematch with the Cavs evaporated in a first-round loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
Three seasons into the post-Paul Pierce era, the Celtics, to some, were exactly where they didn’t want to be — too good to tank and not good enough to vie for a title. As the team’s ad campaigns often remind us, everything the franchise does is designed to win Banner 18. Simply making the playoffs isn’t good enough for Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. But competing with the star-laden Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors requires stars of your own, and it’s hard to score those when you’re always drafting from the middle and haven’t signed a big-name free agent in 20 years.
Except, the Celtics were uniquely positioned to capitalize on both fronts this summer. They owned a first-round pick from the Brooklyn Nets, which fell outside the coveted top two but still bore fruit in the form of well-built, uber-athletic and defensive-minded Jaylen Brown at No. 3 overall. And finally afforded enough cap space to offer max contracts in free agency, Ainge & Co. bucked the trend by convincing Horford to leave the Hawks for the team they bounced in the first round of the playoffs.
Does either move put them over the top? Of course not, but they’re closer now than they were a year ago. And with a young core that’s signed at least through next year to some of the most affordable contracts in the league (Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart will make a combined $24.7 million — or just a hair more than New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony’s solo salary — in 2016-17), they’ve managed to maintain the same flexibility next summer, when they’ll have another ridiculously high pick from the Nets and can offer another max contract in free agency.
Like 28 other teams, the Celtics failed to sign Kevin Durant in July, but they’re still the Las Vegas favorite to land a two seed in the East, and it’s hard to build much better than that. So, even if they can’t see the title tree from the middle of the NBA forest, at least they’ve got a map out of the woods, which is a whole lot better than “The Blair Witch Project” they embarked upon three years ago.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
When your watching this Celtics team and you remember they have the Nets draft pick pic.twitter.com/eVSaxj8T1o
— The Don (@JimmyFromTheQ) March 1, 2016
Did the summer help at all?
Did I just write all that other stuff for nothing? Obviously, the summer helped.
The Celtics replaced Jared Sullinger with a four-time All-Star perfectly suited to fit their style of play. As the NBA’s third-most productive roll man last season (340 points in the pick-and-roll, just behind Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns), Horford represents a significant upgrade for a team that ranked fourth from the bottom in points per possession (0.96) from their roll men last season.
Likewise, among centers, Horford led the league in made 3-pointers (88) and converted more mid-range jumpers (148) than all but five players for a combined 40.1 field goal percentage in 2015-16. That should translate awfully well on a team that took the second-most 3’s and eighth-most mid-range jump shots while shooting a combined 36.2 percent in those zones from the five position a year ago.
Finally, the Celtics finished third in the East with a 100.9 defensive rating last season, despite relying too heavily on Amir Johnson for rim protection. With Horford, who ranked among the league’s leaders in blocked shots and attempts contested at the rim as the anchor of the East’s best defense in 2015-16, playing alongside Johnson, Boston should expect a conference-best defense this coming winter. (Not that the incredibly small preseason sample size is ever an indicator of anything worthwhile, but the Celtics have allowed 67.2 points per 100 possessions with Horford on the floor in a pair of games.)
Along those same lines, the Celtics added the ball-hawking Brown to a mix of perimeter defenders that already features All-Defensive First Team guard Avery Bradley in addition to Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart, both of whom also received multiple All-Defensive First Team votes this past May.
So, Boston can now field plus defenders at every position in both small (Smart-Bradley-Crowder-Brown-Horford) and big (Smart-Bradley-Crowder-Johnson-Horford) lineups. That bevy of ball-stoppers should help mask defensive limitations of their 5-foot-9 potent scoring All-Star point guard.
Otherwise, Boston is basically running it back with the same group that beat the Cavs in Cleveland and Warriors in Oakland during the 2015-16 regular season, with the hopes second-year guard Terry Rozier can replace much of what they lost with Evan Turner signing a $70 million deal in Portland.
Potential breakout stud:
Well, it could be Rozier. In summer league and preseason so far, he’s averaged 23.6 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists per 36 minutes while recording a 65.8 true shooting percentage. Naturally, the regular season is a whole lot different, but the shooting numbers are an especially positive sign.
Yet, the Celtics have even better candidates for breakout seasons. Thomas, Crowder and Bradley all enjoyed career years in 2015-16, combining for 51.6 points per game, and they’re all aged 27 or under. Boston would be fortunate if any member of that established trio ends up being better this year.
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The biggest potential internal upgrade for the Celtics is Smart. The former No. 6 pick’s first two years were marred by injuries relating to his reckless abandon and a horrid 29.6 percent shooting on four 3-point attempts per game, but Smart’s 5.5 rebounds, four assists and two steals per 36 minutes are a window into the late-game bursts in which he influences every facet of basketball. His defensive switch onto an unstoppable Paul Millsap in Game 4 against the Hawks, coupled with a 20-8-5 in the box score, is the sort of game-changing effort Stevens would like to see on a more consistent basis.
The darkhorse for breakout stud is Kelly Olynyk. The 7-footer shot 40.5 percent from 3 on 210 attempts and improved significantly on the defensive end last season. He was never quite the same after a late-February shoulder injury, but before missing 12 straight games and toughing his way through the final two months of 2015-16, Olynyk owned a team-best 6.4 net rating on the floor for the Celtics.
The Boston brass believes they were good enough to reach the second round had Bradley, Crowder and Olynyk finished healthy against the Hawks. Now, with Horford in the mix, it’s Eastern Conference finals or bust. Also, with six first-round picks in the next three drafts, another handful of recent picks stashed overseas or on the end of the roster and all those aforementioned attractive contracts, Ainge is still poised to pull the trigger on that blockbuster he’s sought at the past several trade deadlines.
Those DeMarcus Cousins and Blake Griffin rumors aren’t likely to subside, and more are sure to arise — like Gordon Hayward — and if the Celtics ever form another Big Three with Thomas, Horford and Player X, maybe, just maybe, they could compete with the Cavaliers, especially if anything unforeseen happens to a Cleveland roster that currently sports the highest average age (29.8) in the league.
Stevens has proven his wizardry with rising win totals in each of his first three NBA seasons, but after a 2-8 record in his two playoff appearances, we’re still waiting for that Butler coaching magic to show itself in the postseason. These under-appreciated, over-achieving C’s might just be the team to do it.
If everything falls apart:
The fear is that those career years by Thomas, Crowder and Bradley are just that — career years. The Celtics also need to start seeing improvement from their recent draft picks. The first pick they used from the Brooklyn mega-trade, James Young, already appears to be a bust, and if their top-10 picks in recent years — Smart and Brown — show no signs of future greatness, Boston remains a pyramid of a roster perfectly constructed to support a superstar, only without that player to run point at the top.
The underrated aspect of Ainge chasing superstars is what it could do to a carefully concocted chemistry that’s worked well for these Celtics. There’s no doubt Ainge would include just about anybody on his roster in a trade if he felt the player coming back represented an upgrade, but All-Star talents like Cousins and Griffin can alter a locker room in unforeseen ways. Which is why missing on a swing for the Durant fence this summer stung so much, since he too fit perfectly into their system.
Either way, these Celtics are all but a playoff lock in 2016-17, and while another first-round exit would be a devastating blow to the progress they’ve made, Boston can still hold out hope for landing that superstar through free agency, a trade or the draft, where they’ll have a shot at No. 1 with the #NetsPick for the next two years. So, even if it all falls apart, they have a solid enough foundation to keep building, keep chasing LeBron in the East and keep waiting for that next championship banner.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
52-30, second in the Eastern Conference.
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 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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