Boston Celtics 2015-16 Season Preview

Last Year: 40-42. 7-seed in East. Swept in First Round.

Last year was a huge success for the up-and-coming Celtics. Predicted at the beginning of the season to once again fall towards the bottom of the lottery, the Celtics instead vastly exceeded expectations en route to a playoff appearance. Aided by trading the enigma known as Rajon Rondo and bringing in sparkplug Isaiah Thomas, the Celtics became a fast-paced team that spread the floor and flew around at all cylinders on Defense. They had the second best record in the East after the All-Star break (when they acquired Thomas), and are a popular pick to improve this year. After adding a lot and losing little, the Celtics looked prime to make another run into the playoffs this season, hopefully even deeper.

Lost: Brandon Bass, Gerald Wallace, Phil Pressey, GiGi Datome (Chris Babb and Zoran Dragic were also technically lost, but neither projected to make the roster)

Bass is the only starter lost by the Celtics, and he was immediately replaced by the NCAA’s leading shot blocker, 6’9” second-round pick Jordan Mickey. While Bass is off to LA, there are no hard feelings from the Celtics and their fans, who loved Bass’s hustle, how hard he took it to the rack, and his quiet leadership over the last 4 seasons. He will be missed, but his production will be easily replaced.

The rest of these losses all amount to end-of-the-bench players. It is unlikely any of them will be on an NBA team this season (Gerald Wallace is eligible for the stretch provision, meaning the Warriors can wave him and stretch the cap hit over 3 seasons. David Lee isn’t. Hence the trade).

Gained (non-Rookies): Amir Johnson, David Lee, Perry Jones [CUT]

Amir Johnson brings the Celtics frontcourt some much needed edge. He is more physical than anyone else in the up front on this team, and will be a primary defender. On the offensive side, he is a very versatile player who won’t be the keystone of the offense but who will take advantage of mismatches and can finish at the rim but also can consistently make threes. The Celtics got a surprisingly good deal for Johnson, who basically has a non-guaranteed second year team option and is locked in at a reasonable salary despite the massive jump in numbers league-wide. Thus far, I have been very impressed. Toronto used Johnson in a very ground-bound role, and I never thought of him as a versatile, above-the-rim and outside-the-arc player that has become the standard of the modern NBA. But watching him hit threes, crush alley-oops, and stuff opposing guards in the preseason has me very excited for the possibilities he brings on both offense and defense. He’s a stellar athlete who is going to benefit a lot from playing under Brad Stevens, who will actually use him to the full of his ability. You know, like this:

David Lee brings the opposite of Johnson. He’s not super tough, and he’s not a very good defender, but he is a high-character veteran with a lot of offensive skills. The Celtics have some interesting pieces in Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger, and while both of those players have exhibited a greater range than Lee, neither is close to as polished. David Lee is a solid 18-10 guy if he gets the minutes, and provides much needed rebounding and post scoring to a team who relied on Tyler Zeller’s lefty floaters to score in the low post last year (it’s a nice floater. But it shouldn’t be the best post move on your team). With Championship experience, Lee will be both a locker room leader and an offensive force. Between the two of them, Boston may have stumbled onto a nifty and versatile frontcourt combination that should be able to rebound, defend decently, and most of all, fit into the whirring machine that is Brad Steven’s offense. As the NBA moves towards the truly position-less ideal, GM Danny Ainge continues to be ahead of the pack in providing his coach intriguing weapons.

Perry Jones is a toss-up that was essentially given to the Celtics by the Oklahoma City Thunder purely for cap relief. He might not even make the roster [Update: As of the first day of the NBA Regular Season, Perry Jones is no longer on the Celtics Roster]. He is one of the more athletic players in the league, and could feasibly toggle between the 3 and 4 positions. The problem is, he hasn’t shown talent matching his athleticism, outside of one 32-point outburst with OKC in 2014. There’s also a problem of opportunity – there wasn’t one in OKC, and there might not be in Boston, either, given the current logjam of the Celtics roster. Jones is an intriguing talent who could blossom if given the opportunity, but he isn’t likely to get it unless a major trade happens in the near future. Either way, Jones is a perfect example of the way that Ainge has been able to scrounge talent by getting something for literally nothing (last year, Ainge flipped the trade exception from the Paul Pierce trade to Cleveland to get Zeller and a first round pick, then flipped that first round pick for Isaiah Thomas. This year, he traded bench stalwart Gerald Wallace for rotational cog and probable starter David Lee, plus got Jones for free).

ROOKIE WATCH! 1st round: Terry Rozier, RJ Hunter. 2nd round: Jordan Mickey, Marcus Thornton (playing the 2015 season in Australia).

As a Celtics fan, I view our incoming draft classes as the premier part of looking at the future of the team. With so many draft assets stockpiled, the influx of young talent on this roster has the potential to be mind-blowing over the next few years (especially with an only top-7 protected Dallas pick and an unprotected Brooklyn pick coming next spring). The draft can be a franchise cornerstone, and given the number of picks Ainge has amassed, he’s virtually guaranteed to have a hit. Marcus Smart already looks like a budding star and may be the best defensive point guard in the NBA already. Hopefully, the lower picks this year can yield at least one quality talent. Let’s go through each pick in order.

Terry Rozier: I don’t think I’ve done a 180 faster on a player than I have on Rozier. When Ainge made the pick, I cringed, especially with 3-and-D prototype wing Justin Anderson of Virginia still on the board (who played for the best defensive team in the NCAA and shot 45% from beyond the arc in 2014-15). I still think that the wing is where this team needs the most help, but Rozier has killed it so far in preseason after a rocky Summer League. He has otherworldly quickness, a very nice dribble, a ton of defensive tenacity, and a rapidly improving jump shot. Most of all, he is irrationally confident in himself, which always helps with quick improvement (or a quick flame-out). Last Monday against the Nets, he hit a couple cross-over step-backs that were just beautiful. Despite his size, he’s already a quality NBA defender, and he has no trouble attacking the rim. He might have trouble getting minutes with the crowded backcourt rotation, but he should make an impact off the bench this season.

RJ Hunter: I am very excited about RJ Hunter. By some miracle, the Georgia Tech product (who, you may remember, hit a 26 foot game winner in March Madness last year) slipped all the way to 28 where Danny Ainge happily drafted him. I am of the belief that Hunter could be one of the best selections from this draft. He has an excellent combination of length, basketball IQ (his father was his head coach at GT), ball handling, and, of course, nearly-limitless range. He’s had issues at times with poor decision making and walking into easily baited turnovers, but that kind of stuff is easy to fix. If he can bulk up and continue to put effort into improving, he could be starting by years end. Just because that’s how badly this team needs shooting on the wing.

Jordan Mickey: Mickey steps in and, with a season or two of practice and time in the weight room, should provide an approximation of what Brandon Bass offered this team, with superior rim protection. Mickey is the kind of player that makes modern NBA coaches salivate, and I have no idea how he slipped to the second round. He already has range to hit midrange jumpers and corner threes. At 6’9” he is extremely mobile, but he also led the NCAA in shot blocking last season, averaging 3.5 blocks a game, and he’s shown a propensity to do it at the professional level already. He’s not going to be able to bang down low with traditional centers, but his perfect timing on jumps makes him a good rim protector against teams that will run smaller lineups (think Warriors playing Draymond Green at center in the finals). Best case scenario, he can bring that Green-like versatility to a Celtics team that is increasingly obsessed with positionless basketball. Just watch his timing and body control on this play:

Returning Players: Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas, Tyler Zeller, Evan Turner, Jae Crowder, Jonas Jerebko, James Young, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk

The Skinny: This roster has too many players. Somebody has got to go. Personally, I hope Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger are gone. As much as I love Sully and am a fan of Ohio State in general, both of these guys worry me on this Celtics team, and both of their trade values might never have been higher. Sully and Turner are both slow-the-game-down players, probably having a lot to do with the grinding system they played in together at Ohio State. Turner needs the ball in his hands to be effective (he shot 29% on catch-and-shoot jumpers last year, and 47% of his baskets came off of isolation pull-ups), and, after adding Rozier, the Celtics no longer have any need for his ball handling. I expect a lot of his minutes off the bench to be eaten up by some combo of RJ Hunter and James Young, as this team desperately needs consistent outside shooting, and both these guys bring it in spades. Speaking of eating, Jared Sullinger just has to go. He does look better this year, but I don’t have confidence in him to keep it up, and I think that he could be a really valuable player to a team not coached by Brad Stevens. For all that Sully does bring to the table – and he is very versatile – he is a significantly worse version of David Lee. It makes more sense to keep Lee/Zeller and Johnson/Olynyk (and Johnson/Crowder in small lineups) as your front court combos than to have a guy who is 6’9”, can barely jump, and shoots under 30% from three point range sucking up your minutes at power forward.

Projected Starters: PG Marcus Smart, SG Avery Bradley, SF Jae Crowder, PF David Lee, C Tyler Zeller/Amir Johnson.

Brad Stevens is already one of the best coaches in the NBA. He is a boy genius. And because of that, I fully expect that the starting lineup will reflect who the opponent is that night. Bigger teams will require a bigger starting line-up, while teams that run small will see Amir Johnson at center. Johnson is by far the best interior defender on this team. I could very easily see a small ball lineup of Rozier/Thomas, Smart, Avery, Crowder, Johnson, which would be able to switch everything on defense and blitz the pace on offense. Bigger teams will require Zeller to be out there. Zeller-Lee will have some spacing issues, but both big men are so adept in the paint (and Lee is such a good passer) that they should be able to make it work. Meanwhile, the Johnson-Olynyk combo will give defenses fits while chasing around 5 players who can shoot from anywhere, and hopefully Johnson can make up for Olynyk’s inability to play defense or rebound properly.

Avery Bradley continues to be solid, and, with the cap jump, his much-maligned contract is becoming a bargain. His three point shot is becoming more consistent (especially as he learns to catch and shoot instead of taking one or two bad dribbles and launching a 20 foot two point shot), and there aren’t many shooting guards out there who can defend like Avery. The big news here, however, is Marcus Smart. Smart had a solid rookie campaign; he wasn’t posting big numbers but he’s already established himself as maybe the best defensive point guard in the league. He’s a bulldog, but as a rookie he suffered from settling for outside shots and not being aggressive enough on the pick and roll. It’s pretty clear that the Celtics’ coaching staff has been doing a lot of yelling in his ear about it. Both in Summer League and preseason, Smart has been a force on the court. He looked like LeBron in summer league (which isn’t as much of a compliment as it sounds), whipping passes from the paint to behind the arc and generally making it look silly that he was even there (and it kind of was). This continued into the preseason against real NBA competition, where he is being much more aggressive on his pick and rolls and is really starting to find passing lanes he missed as a rookie. Being more aggressive with the ball will also open up more space for his shot, and so there should be a nice uptick on his three point percentage, which was a pleasant surprise last year and should continue to improve.

While he’s not a starter, the best offensive player on this team is without a doubt Isaiah Thomas. He should soak up close to 30 minutes a night anyway, and during the second half of last season he was the most productive scorer and pick and roll finisher in the entire league (per 48 minutes). Thomas, barring injury, more or less has the Sixth-Man of the Year award on lock already, and watching him jitterbug around, under, and through defenders is highly entertaining. He’s the type of character guy/streaky scorer/irrational bench confidence guy that championship teams need as their sixth man, and I see him sticking around for awhile. Plus, he’s got the best hesitation dribble this side of Paul Pierce, which every Celtics fan loves to see.

Best case scenario: This team has (probably) the best coach in the Eastern Conference and one of the five best coaches in the league. Brad Stevens is a whiz kid and has consistently made lemonade out of the piles of lemons he’s been handed by Danny Ainge over his first two years as the Celtics coach. Let’s just say; it’s not often that a team can be gutted and the replacements somehow inspire similar hope in a fanbase. It could have been a couple dark years after KG and the Truth left. Instead, we got to see the light from day 1. We are a very lucky fanbase, and let’s not forget it.

In year one, this team had the fifth-worst record in the league, bolstered by losing practically every close game possible. In year two, they made an unexpected jump in the playoffs. Usually good coaching and motivated talent allows you to keep moving forward, and that’s what I expect. The best case scenario for this team is the four seed – but the five seed is more likely. In the Eastern Conference, only Cleveland, Chicago, and Atlanta are decidedly better, and I expect the Raptors and Wizards to take step backs due to the losses of Amir Johnson and Paul Pierce, respectively. This opens a hole for the Celtics to fill and, as opportunistic as they always are, I expect they will.

Worst Case Scenario: Brad Stevens turns into Randy Wittman and starts playing Evan Turner 37 minutes a night. Celtics bomb out of the playoffs.

In all seriousness, there is a scenario in which this team falls flat on its face, it is just hard to imagine. Lesser coaches would look at this roster and resign. There are too many players of a similar caliber, and minutes are going to be an issue. You’re going to have guys playing a ton one night and maybe not at all the next. There’s such a talent blend that each player can and will be used situationally, which isn’t going to thrill the players themselves. If that happened, motivation could implode, and the lack of upper-end talent on this roster wouldn’t be salvaged by Stevens’ offensive brilliance.

That said, there are a couple factors that will contribute to avoiding that scenario. The first is Stevens and the franchise itself; this is the Celtics, one of the best run, most beloved, and most successful franchises in the history of the league. Stevens was hired to bring about a bright future and there is no reason to think he is anything but revered by his players (who he is making millions of dollars by properly using them and showcasing their talents). The second is that there is nobody on this team who even remotely looks like a problem personality. Even the really tenacious, physical players – Smart, Crowder and Johnson, mainly – are quiet, thoughtful, hard working and unlikely to put their ego in front of winning. The third is that this roster will almost certainly uncrowd by the all-star break. With Danny Ainge’s war chest of assets, the first available star-caliber player will be snapped up by the Celtics. Yes, Philly has a comparable treasure trove of draft picks, but the Celtics can offer real NBA rotation players along with draft picks that could potentially be as high as #1 overall (cut to Brooklyn fans vomiting).

Final Season Prediction: The Celtics start fast and are consistent throughout the year, hopefully adding a piece at the trade deadline, and climbing the ladder in the East. Marcus Smart makes an all-Defense team, Isaiah Thomas is Sixth Man of the Year. The Celtics coast to 50-32, 5 seed in the East (Behind Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago, and Toronto), win first round series against the Raptors, lose in second round.

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