The Boston Celtics, the team with the most championships in the history of the NBA, probably won’t be extending their lead in that category this year. That doesn’t mean they’ll be bad, but I’m tempering my expectations, at least somewhat.
What Happened Last Year
The Boston Celtics finished 40-42 last season and earned themselves the seventh seed in the East and a sweep at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. More important than the results, though, were the changes the Celtics made throughout the season. Boston traded away Rajon Rondo to the Mavericks for Jae Crowder and Brandan Wright, a move that began their transition into a very different roster. Through a series of trades and acquisitions, the Celtics also added Isaiah Thomas, Gigi Datome and Jonas Jerebko.
After those three players joined the team, the Celtics went on a 20-10 run that pushed them into the playoffs. That’s just under a 55-win pace according to my calculator! While I wouldn’t expect the Celtics to be a 55-win team in 2015-16, there are reasons to be hopeful that they’ll be a better team than they were last year.
What Happened This Summer
As well as the moves for Thomas, Datome and Jerebko worked out for the Celtics, Danny Ainge wasn’t content to sit on his hands in the offseason. Ainge traded for David Lee and signed Amir Johnson. He also drafted Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter. While these moves have certainly created a logjam for the Celtics at the power forward and guard positions, having too many players to choose from is a much better problem than having too few.
Amir Johnson and David Lee will improve the Celtics’ big-man rotation in the short term. The Celtics got killed on the glass in their series against the Cavs, and these two should help shore up that weakness. As for the rookie guards, perhaps they’re good enough to crack the lineup over the more established guys, but my guess is that they spend more time in the D-league than the NBA in their rookie seasons. If you’re smart (pun intended), you know there’s another young guard on this team you should be looking at this season.
Key Player to Watch: Marcus Smart
The Celtics don’t really have a “best player.” If you put a gun to my head, I’d probably say it’s Isaiah Thomas. He led the team in scoring, and it was his arrival that marked the Celtics’ sudden improvement that led them to the playoffs. However, he didn’t start any games with the Celtics last season, instead playing a sixth man role off the bench.
When Thomas arrived, Marcus Smart was the starting point guard for the Celtics. Drafted sixth overall in 2014, Smart is expected to be the point guard of the future for the Celtics, and I’ll be watching his development closely this season, in particular, how he improves on offense.
Smart was a solid defender in his rookie season, and being able to defend point guards effectively is a valuable skill in a league that has so many talented point guards. However, a defensive stopper isn’t the ideal return for the sixth overall pick, and the Celtics would like Smart to expand his skills to the offensive end of the floor.
Smart shot just under 37 percent from the field last season, and most of those shots were from beyond the arc. Smart took about seven shots per game, four of which were three-point attempts. What this shows is that he spent most of his time on the perimeter and not trying to attack the basket. If the youngster improves his three-point shooting and/or adds a better mid-ranged/driving game, he’ll become a more complete player and be a lot closer to the type of franchise point guard Boston is looking for.
Smart may not be the most integral player to the Celtics’ success in the present, but he could be more important to their long-term success. Unless I’m severely underestimating the Celtics’ chances, what they do this year is much less important than what they can do in the years to come. How Smart plays this season will give us a better idea of what type of player he’ll be down the road and how he fits into Boston’s future.
At the end of the day, this team didn’t change much from what they were last season. They added two power forwards and drafted a pair of guards, but the core of the team is mostly the same as it was when Cleveland swept them in the first round. With all of that being said, the Celtics played like one of the best teams in the East at the end of last season and haven’t lost any core members of that rotation. I firmly believe they could’ve won a playoff series against any Eastern Conference team other than the Cavs or Bulls last season, but this isn’t last season, and you don’t get points for possibly being able to beat teams.
Unfortunately for Boston, the bottom half of the East has also gotten better. Miami is loaded and healthy (for now), Indiana is bringing back Paul George, the Knicks and Hornets have retooled their rosters, and all of the young teams are getting more experience each year. Being as good as they were last season (or only a little bit better), might not be enough to stay above the rising teams in the East.
The Celtics have an incredible amount of depth, but hardly any standouts. I expect them to be a well-coached team that can run a wide array of lineups while out-manning opponents with shallower benches or teams on short rest. They should make the playoffs, but that’s only if they maintain the level of play they showed last season. If they falter, or are surpassed by even a few teams, they could find themselves looking in on the playoffs from the lottery.