Normally, I don’t write previews for my teams after their seasons have started. But life intervened and prevented me from doing so this year. And since the Celtics made a nice splash in free agency with the signing of forward/center Al Horford, I wanted to cover it here. Horford’s signing will push the Celtics further up on the totem pole in the Eastern Conference, but that’s far from the only intriguing thing about this year’s team. Let’s break the team down by position this time around, starting with:
Boston’s two starting guards, in some ways, are opposites of each other. Point guard Isaiah Thomas is the proven scorer, shooting a respectable .428 (though I wish his 3-point shooting percentage, .359, had been a bit higher). His biggest talent is his ability to slice through the lane and generate easy baskets, and he brings a lot of energy and passion to the team. He can also distribute the ball fairly well, chipping in 6.2 assists per game. Avery Bradley, on the other hand, made the All-Defensive First Team last year, though he has worked hard to improve his offense over the years. His points per game, shooting percentage, and 3-point shooting percentage all went up from the previous year, and if he can continue this improvement, he can be part of the foundation that the Celtics build a championship team on.
Backup point guard Marcus Smart appears to be in the same position Bradley was 3 or 4 years ago… all defense, no offense. His scoring numbers deteriorated this year, making fans wonder if the Celtics’ depth at the guard position was a mirage. Though he has good skills such as court vision and pick-and-roll execution, he needs to improve his gawd-awful shooting numbers. James Young and Terry Rozier didn’t get a lot of opportunities to show what they could do, but with the departure of Evan Turner, at least one of the two should step into a bigger role.
Al Horford immediately becomes the Celtics’ best player. While he’d done most of his work around the rim during his career, last year he tried to develop a perimeter game, taking 256 three-pointers (he’d never attempted more than 36 in a season before) to the tune of a .344 percentage. Many big men in the NBA are able to do more than just work with their backs to the basket, and Horford may be the latest example. Like many other Celtics, he plays incredible defense too. Horford also played in a similar team-over-individual system in Atlanta, and thus fits right into the style that coach Brad Stevens has established. Backup Jonas Jerebko will probably never be a starter, but he can provide a spark off the bench.
At center, Amir Johnson played better than I was expecting him to, and is a solid veteran presence in the paint. He can score if the team needs him to, but is much more comfortable pressuring opposing big men. He’s vulnerable to a “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy, as his free-throw shooting was a putrid .570 last year. Kelly Olynyk has been one of my favorite Celtics ever since he was drafted, as his energy and scrappiness are fun to watch. He’s probably the closest the team has to a “modern” NBA big man, unafraid to shoot from long distance. But his ability to clog the lane is limited, so it’s good that he and Johnson can complement each other. Tyler Zeller provides solid depth.
Small forward Jae Crowder had a breakout season last year, and he’ll be a steady veteran hand to guide the development of the C’s top draftee, Jaylen Brown of Cal. Crowder can do a little bit of everything: shoot, score, pass, even steal (1.7 per game), and he’s always been one of the locker-room leaders. Brown’s athleticism is top-notch, but he struggled to score efficiently at Cal. Part of that could be that he had to shoulder a lot of the scoring load on a team that was woefully shallow. That won’t be near as much of a problem in Boston, and with the pressure off, he can probably be more effective. The Celtics’ other two first-round picks were draft-and-stash overseas players Guerschon Yabusele in France, and Ante Žižić of Croatia. I don’t love the strategy in general, but if they pay off for the team in a couple of years, so be it, I suppose. Gerald Green was brought back in, but will probably not be asked to do a whole lot unless injuries strike.
Brad Stevens remains excellent at getting the best out of his players, and his players work hard for him. He doesn’t get caught up in the minutiae of every game, and helps the team remain on an overall upward trend. I hope he can develop more as a tactician, because if he has a weakness, that’s probably it. But he remains in the upper echelon of head coaches, and if the Celtics can take the step from good to great, he can become one of those “rock star” coaches like Doc Rivers or Steve Kerr.
While Gang Green wasn’t able to sign a top-tier free agent like Kevin Durant, I’m happy with the Horford signing. He can help the team shore up its weaknesses on offense, and take further steps toward greatness. To that end, I think the Celtics should consider packaging some of their gigantic reserve of draft picks and also perhaps one of the glut of guards in order to trade for an established or potential star. Isaiah Thomas’s former teammate in Sacramento, DeMarcus Cousins, would be ideal. Cousins is likely tired of losing, and he would be the perfect complement to Horford inside. Failing that, the Philadelphia 76ers have three big men and only two spots on the roster. I think the C’s should consider trading for Jahlil Okafor. “Jah” is a great scorer, but his defense has been terrible so far. Luckily, a top-5 defensive team doesn’t really need him to be great on that end, as long as he can provide that extra scoring punch down low that they probably need in order to challenge for a Finals berth.
Last year’s team exceeded my expectations, finishing with 48 wins. I think this year’s team will crack 50, but the question is, by how much? I like 52 as an over-under. Boston isn’t nearly as good as the Cleveland Cavaliers yet, but they’ll be lying in wait to seize their mantle if they suffer a championship hangover. I think that their goal should be a #2 seed in the Eastern Conference and a trip to the conference finals. While I was wrong last year in picking the Golden State Warriors to win the NBA title after they won 73 games, I think it would be foolish to pick against them after they just acquired Durant. A second title in three years should be theirs, barring injury or catastrophic chemistry issues.