Ever since the Boston Celtics traded away their Big Three, they’ve taken a somewhat different approach to their rebuild. Rather than building the skeleton of a team and waiting for a superstar or two to sign with them in free agency, they’ve chosen to build internally through the draft and smart trades, an approach which several teams in different sports (Golden State Warriors, Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Royals) have shown can lead to a longer championship window. While the Celtics’ rebuild is nowhere near complete, I think they are moving in the right direction.
Last year, the Celtics took a giant step forward, finishing 40-42 and making the playoffs as the #7 seed in the Eastern Conference. I was on record as saying that I didn’t think they should make the playoffs last year, in order to maximize the value of the boatload of draft picks they’d acquired. After all, they were pretty much only vying for the chance to get trounced by a heavily favored Hawks or Cavaliers team. While that is exactly what happened (the Cavaliers swept the Celtics in four games), I don’t think it was an entirely bad thing in retrospect. The Celtics were able to showcase their scrappy, hard-working style, and their younger players got some experience on the playoff stage, which may come in handy once the team evolves into a true contender. It also gives the team some much-needed momentum heading into the 2015-16 season.
Boston somehow managed to make more trades in the offseason even after their flurry of activity at the deadline last year, acquiring forwards David Lee from the Warriors and Amir Johnson from the Raptors. Both of them will see time primarily at the power forward position, but could be used as centers when the Celtics want to go small. Lee has been a solid role player for most of his career, but was pushed out by Draymond Green in Golden State. He is a natural scorer who is so-so on defense, and could chip in some points while mentoring the youngsters on the team. Johnson, on the other hand, won’t thrill you with his traditional stats (9.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per game last year), but he is typically an advanced stats darling and should be able to provide hustle and solid defense in contrast with Lee.
The Celtics’ draft was a bit more puzzling, as they used their two first-round picks on guards Terry Rozier of Louisville and RJ Hunter of Georgia State. The team now finds itself with a glut of guards after drafting two in 2014 and acquiring super sub Isaiah Thomas in the deadline flurry last year. I thought the Celtics would use the draft to get a big man who can clog the lane and deny opposing teams the opportunity to drive inside. Perhaps Celtics GM Danny Ainge has confidence that Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, Tyler Zeller, or even Johnson will develop into that sort of talent. Also, the options at their draft position were admittedly thin, though Bobby Portis of Arkansas or Rozier’s teammate Montrezl Harrell could’ve been good picks. Perhaps Ainge sought to select the best players available rather than stretch for someone based on need. Either way, I think that is one of the Celtics’ biggest weaknesses. Olynyk and Sullinger are hard workers (Olynyk is probably my favorite current Celtic), but I’m not sold on any of those players’ defensive abilities. Sullinger has also had health issues, and I worry he’s just as likely to break down as he is to develop into a dominant post man. Zeller is an underrated center who FiveThirtyEight’s new career-arc projection system CARMELO compares to Knicks center Robin Lopez, who got a huge contract from the Knicks largely because of his defense, so maybe there’s some hope there, but I’m still pretty skeptical.
The rest of the Celtics’ roster consists of returning talent. CARMELO really loves Marcus Smart, saying that his most comparable players are James Harden and Paul George. Not too shabby. He’s already an elite defender, but needs to show that he can run the offense effectively to take the next step to stardom. At shooting guard, the Celts will likely start Avery Bradley, another proven defender whose shooting percentage and points per game have risen in recent years, and who is still only 24 even though it feels like he’s played with them forever. Jae “Dreadlocks” Crowder is seen as a leader in the locker room and, in keeping with this team’s identity, does many things that don’t show up on the stat sheet.
The Celtics’ bench is also full of promising young talent. Guard Isaiah Thomas was the driving force behind the team’s closing stretch of 24 wins in 36 games that propelled them into the playoffs, and he is in many ways the opposite of Smart. He doesn’t contribute much defensively, but shoots the ball well and can drive and slash with the best of them. Many see him as a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year. Guard James Young didn’t get as many minutes in his first year as I would’ve liked to see, but fortunately he is listed second in the depth chart behind Bradley, so maybe he’ll be able to hone his skills more this year. Guard/forward Evan Turner hasn’t shown the promise that made him the second overall pick in the 2010 draft, but he hit a last-second game-winner as the Celtics defeated the mighty Atlanta Hawks in a game last year, and I think he’ll be one of the better bench players in the East. Forward Jonas Jerebko is probably a space filler, and second-round draft pick Jordan Mickey is a project who will probably spend a lot of the year in the D-League.
Overall, I think Boston will take another step forward this year. Between further development of their young players and the veterans they have acquired, the talent level is probably slightly higher than last year. Coach Brad Stevens has excelled at getting the team to play better than people expect, so I don’t think they’ll regress. CARMELO projects them to win 48 games, and while I think that might be overly optimistic, 45 wins seems about where I’d put the over-under. I think they’ll make the playoffs as the #6 or #7 seed in the Eastern Conference, and may even put up a fight in their first-round series depending on which opponent they draw, though I think they’ll ultimately lose. As far as the NBA at large, I like the San Antonio Spurs to win the West after adding prolific scorer LaMarcus Aldridge to largely the same team that won it all two years ago. But I think the Cleveland Cavaliers will bring home their first NBA championship, and the city of Cleveland’s first in any pro sport since 1964. LeBron James nearly won the title for them with almost no help in the Finals last year. With another year spent developing chemistry and getting everyone healthy, I see no reason why they couldn’t win the title this year.