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2016-17 Season Preview: Celtics are on the right track

Boston Celtics' Al Horford during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016, in Amherst, Mass. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
(AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

The Boston Celtics are entering the 2016-17 NBA season with very high expectations. Many consider them the biggest challengers to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference, and there is certainly a basis for that argument.

The Celtics definitely should be a better team than last year. Well, at least on paper.

Year In Review

Last season, Boston won 48 games with a roster that featured Isaiah Thomas and a bunch of solid role players. The C’s struggled to generate offense when Thomas wasn’t scoring, and their perimeter shooting left much to be desired.

They won games primarily with their stifling defense, preferring to play at an ugly, mucked-up pace rather than a smooth one similar to the Chicago Bulls during the Joakim Noah-led years of 2013 through 2015.

However, that style did not work out for the Celtics during the playoffs, as they were bounced in six games by the Atlanta Hawks in the first round.

To be perfectly honest, Boston probably overachieved a bit last season.

While it was a solid team, it was never really a serious threat to do any sort of damage in the playoffs, and while the C’s were an annoying squad to play, the Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors likely did not fear them.

This time around, things should be a bit different.

Additions/Expectations

The Celtics added Al Horford into the fray now, giving what was a rather anemic offense a sizeable boost. Guys like Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk are another year older and wiser, and Terry Rozier seems primed for a breakout season (or at least a pseudo-breakout).

Boston tried to go for it all this summer, making a serious play for Kevin Durant and trying to work a trade to land another star, but both attempts failed.

Still, “settling” for a four-time All-Star in Horford is not the worst thing in the world.

The question is, do the C’s have enough firepower to constitute a serious threat to Cleveland’s reign?

Right now, the answer is probably “no.”

Yes, the Celtics will almost surely be better than last year, but they probably won’t have the offensive “oomph” to take down LeBron James and Co. in a seven-game series.

Defense isn’t the question here. Boston will be able to slow the Cavs’ offense down to a stage¬†where things will be competitive.

It’s the offense.

At some point, the C’s are going to have to outscore the Cavaliers. I mean, that sounds like an obvious assertion, considering you have to outscore the other team to win, but I’m talking about winning a late-game shootout here.

Assuming the Celtics even meet Cleveland in the playoffs (and that is a pretty big if), there are going to be a couple of games where James and Kyrie Irving are going off.

That’s when Boston would have to dig deep and spawn some type of consistent offense, and I’m not sure it has the capability to do that as currently constructed.

Of course, the C’s could always make a trade between now and then to rectify that issue, but significant trades such as that tend to happen in the summer months rather than during the season.

All of that being said, at this juncture, the Celtics shouldn’t expect to beat the Cavaliers.

Boston simply isn’t on Cleveland’s level right now, and it is a piece or two away from being a legitimate title contender. Still, the C’s are obviously on the right track.

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James sits down to answer questions with his daughter Zhuri during a post-game press conference after Game 7 of basketball's NBA Finals Sunday, June 19, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. Cleveland won 93-89. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Can the Celtics knock the Cavaliers off their pedestal?

Best-Case Scenario

The absolute best-case scenario for the Celtics would probably be taking the Cavs to seven games in a conference finals series. You know what? They may have the wherewithal to make that happen.

Again, defense is Boston’s calling card, so it may be able to win a couple of games against Cleveland based on its defense alone.

Also, when you look at the rest of the East, there isn’t a team other than the Cavaliers that you can comfortably say is better than the C’s.

I guess you’d have to place the Raptors above them right now, considering Toronto made the conference finals last season, but the Celtics may have vaulted ahead of them this past summer.

The Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers are trendy picks to make some noise, and while both are very talented, neither is likely to be better than Boston.

The Miami Heat are sure to take a huge step back, and the Chicago Bulls have ceased being a serious threat.

That leaves, well, the C’s.

Worst-Case Scenario

Well, the worst possible thing would be a rapid decline by the 30-year-old Horford.

Is it probable? No, especially given the fact that Horford’s effectiveness is predicated more on basketball IQ and craftiness rather than sheer athleticism, but you can never completely discount the possibility.

Also, guys like Smart, Olynyk and Rozier might not progress at all, leaving the Celtics with very limited offensive options once again.

Should any of those things occur, Boston will obviously be in some trouble.

All things considered, the C’s should be a very fun team to watch this season, and we may very well see something we became so accustomed to watching several years ago: LeBron having to go through Boston to reach the mountaintop.

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