After a big offseason, complete with a high ceiling draft pick and a high profile free agency addition, the expectations for the Boston Celtics are the highest they’ve been since 2008.
During the 2015-2016 campaign, the C’s won 48 games and made the playoffs for the second year in a row. Unfortunately, the Atlanta Hawks in six games bounced them in the first round, where they lacked consistency. Isaiah Thomas developed into one of the leagues best players. He was named to his first All-Star team while scoring 22.2 points per game and 6.2 assists per game. Avery Bradley was named to the All-Defense First Team, establishing himself as the best perimeter defender in the game.
Last year’s team exceeded all expectations, but this year’s team has the weight of the world on their shoulders. While Danny Ainge couldn’t bring in Kevin Durant, he did manage to reel in Al Horford from the Hawks on a four-year deal worth $113 million. Boston also brought back highflying wing Gerald Green to add some offensive punch off the bench.
Not returning to the team are Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger. Turner’s versatility and playmaking will certainly be missed, but Sullinger is easily replaceable and his loss likely won’t be felt.
The Celtics also made a couple of splashes on draft night. Thanks to the Brooklyn Nets, Boston had the third overall pick and picked California freshman Jaylen Brown. Brown, a small forward, is still pretty raw, but his defensive potential and athleticism will allow him to crack the rotation. Then, the team drafted two overseas players who likely won’t come over to the states for a couple years while they develop. In the second round, Boston stole Demetrius Jackson, who somehow fell to 45th overall. At pick 51, the C’s drafted Ben Bentil, a highly productive player at Providence. With their last pick, the Celtics selected Abdel Nader, who was super impressive in summer league and could maybe make the roster, but it likely to join the D-League affiliated Maine Red Claws.
The addition of Horford seems to be a match made in heaven for Boston. He’s a capable floor stretcher, which is what head coach Brad Stevens loves. He’s also a great playmaker from the post and solid defender in the paint. The Celtics desperately need a rim protector, and they’re hoping Horford can help solve those issues while Jordan Mickey continues to develop.
This team looked strong in preseason, going 5-2. Obviously preseason doesn’t seem to matter, but this squad seems to be jelling nicely. The actual season tips off next Wednesday against the Brooklyn Nets. The Atlantic Division seems to be a two-horse race between Boston and the Toronto Raptors, who made the Eastern Conference Finals last year. While Toronto lost a valuable piece in Bismack Biyombo, the Celtics got better and I think they should win the division. Brooklyn and the Phildelphia 76ers figure to be bottom-feeders in the NBA this year, while nobody quite knows what to expect out of the New York Knicks with their offseason additions.
There shouldn’t be too many teams that finish with better records than Boston, but one of those teams is the LeBron James led Cleveland Cavaliers. The Celtics travel to Cleveland early this year in a matchup of two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. Another early road test will be against the Indiana Pacers on November 12th. Both teams figure to be top four seeds in the Eastern Conference this year and could potentially meet in the playoffs. However, November 18th should be circled on everyone’s calendar because that’s when the supposed juggernaut of the Golden State Warriors comes to Boston. Last year, the C’s almost ended the Warriors perfect season, taking the Dubs to double-overtime. Later in the year, Boston would beat the Warriors at Oracle Arena to end their home winning streak at 54.
While the schedule seems to be very balanced in terms of difficulty, the month of December should be the toughest of the year. Boston gets to play the Oklahoma City Thunder twice in a 12 game span. In-between those two meetings are games at San Antonio, home against Charlotte, and then a three game road trip to Miami, Memphis and Indiana before returning home for Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. After that second meeting against the Thunder, the C’s travel to New York to play the Knicks on Christmas for the first time since 2012. Just four days later, Brad Stevens and his squad will fly to Cleveland then end the month at home against the Miami Heat.
Atlanta Hawks fans will have January 13th circled, as it’s Al Horford’s return to the Peach State. The beginning of February seems to be a good three games. The Raptors come to down in a game that should have Atlantic Division implications. Just two days later, the rival Los Angeles Lakers make their yearly trip to Beantown. And while the Lakers don’t figure to be great this year, it’s the oldest rivalry in the professional sport. Then, on February 5th, a.k.a. Super Bowl Sunday, Doc Rivers returns to Boston and brings Paul Pierce with him for his last game in Boston before he retires and signs a one day deal with the Celtics following the season.
March starts with a visit from Cleveland, followed by a five game west coast road trip. The Celtics will visit the Lakers, Phoenix Suns, Clippers, the Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets before coming back home. The end of the month concludes with a long six game home stand. April brings the final matchup between the Cavs and Hawks and a couple other teams that should be wins.
To me, this schedule is very favorable to this team. There are only one or two stretches of games that should be overtaxing, but it’s a long season and anything can happen.
I’m looking forward to how Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford gel. Thomas recruited the big man to Boston to help this team take the next step. I anticipate seeing a lot of pick and roll and pick and pop action between the two. They’ll likely be the players the offense runs through, but Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder are great options as well. Bradley and Crowder are both solid three-point shooters. Amir Johnson isn’t a great offensive threat, but he’s as tough as they come and is a solid rebounder on both ends. He knows his role, which lets him be one of the most effective players on the court night in and night out.
Despite losing Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger, this club still has incredible depth at all positions. Marcus Smart could start on a lot of teams in this league, but comes off the bench in Boston. Terry Rozier was impressive in limited minutes last year, and I expect a bigger role out of him this season. James Young and R.J. Hunter are still growing as players (especially Young), but hold value off the bench as shooters. Gerald Green should be a good veteran presence for such a young core of guards off the bench. Green can also slide to small forward, where he and Jaylen Brown will have an interesting offense/defense combination off the bench at the wing.
I’m not a big Jonas Jerebko guy, but he’s not bad off the bench as a shooter, and neither is Kelly Olynyk. Jordan Mickey should get some minutes this year as a rim protector if Al Horford gets into foul trouble and another man in the rotation goes down. Tyler Zeller won’t blow you away with anything he does, but he does a little bit of everything when he’s on the court.
This team shouldn’t have any problem putting up points, but they have the chance to be special defensively. Jaylen Brown (already), Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart are elite defenders in this league. Isaiah Thomas, while he doesn’t have the size to match up against some point guards, has exceptionally quick hands and is adept at poking the ball away from ball handlers. Al Horford, as previously mentioned, is versatile enough to switch onto small and power forwards and is a solid rim protector.
This year has the chance to be a special one for the Boston Celtics. The additions and moves they’ve made have made this one of the best teams in the league, and can now be considered title contenders. Brad Stevens is a top three coach in the NBA (Doc and Gregg Popovich are the only ones better) and the C’s will win five or six games because of plays he draws up in crunch time and how he manages his squad.
With those crucial wins down the stretch, I think this team will win 53 games this season and get the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference. An Eastern Conference Finals appearance should be in the cards for this team. Unfortunately, the Cavs still have the best team in the East.
Cover Photo via Hardwood Houdini