A rebuilding team won 48 games last year and added an All-Star. How far can they go?
Here are two things that are true:
1) Vegas has given the Celtics the fifth-best odds of winning a championship in 2017.
2) The Celtics are still in the process of rebuilding.
And somehow, it makes perfect sense. Signing players to high-value contracts and emptying the piggy bank to pay Al Horford’s tab has the Celtics set up for long term success with two lottery picks currently on the roster and two more (Thanks again, Brooklyn) on their way soon. There isn’t a unanimous opinion on exactly how good this team is, but most will agree that they should win more than 50 games and less than 60.
If you’re just tuning in now after watching baseball all summer, here’s what you need to know: Jared Sullinger and Evan Turner left as free agents. Al Horford, a four-time All-Star, left the Hawks and turned down the Wizards to play for Boston. Gerald Green came back on a cheap deal, and Jaylen Brown was selected with the third pick in the draft. Terry Rozier stepped up in the Summer League and became a key piece in the preseason. Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk might not be ready for the season opener with nagging ankle and shoulder injuries.
The core of the roster remains largely the same with four out of the five starters from last season retained. Among them, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, and Avery Bradley have all noticeably improved their game from year-to-year with the preseason and have shown more growth — particularly with their shot selection and ball movement. Amir Johnson, who was voted Teammate of the Year for 2016-17, returns to help anchor the paint alongside newcomer Al Horford, who was Atlanta’s Teammate of the Year as well.
The Celtics have recently been recognized for their chemistry, grit and hustle, but not for their talent. This may come as a shock to the fans patrolling the rumor mill, discussing the possibility of Marcus Smart and a 1st-rounder in exchange for A-List All-Stars. Suddenly, the starting lineup features two All-Stars with Horford and Thomas as well as an all-defensive first team selection in Avery Bradley. Jae Crowder got some all-defense team votes too as he emerged as one of the quintessential NBA players of the current era — a dynamic offensive player who can guard multiple positions.
Here’s the most beautiful part: The Celtics, optimistically ranked by many as a top five team, have the eighth lowest payroll in the league. Which raises the question – “Does that mean that have a ton of juicy cap space to sign another huge free agent?” No, but you must be happy with a team building process that gets this much bang for the buck. Talent will bring short-term success; management creates a dynasty. I think we could witness the latter in the coming years.
The Conference Competition
Looking past the Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers, the Eastern Conference is full of weak opponents. The Celtics share a division with the Philadelphia 76ers and the Brooklyn Nets, who could easily be the worst teams in the conference. The Heat (lost Wade), Hornets (overachieved, lost Jeremy Lin and Al Jefferson), and Hawks (lost Al Horford) all matched the Celtics with a 48-34 record last season, and all likely regressed over the offseason. I have no idea what the Knicks and Bulls are trying to do anymore, and who is supposed to score in for the Magic? It’s not a free ride, though. The Pacers added some seasoned players while the Bucks could make a run when Khris Middleton gets healthy. That leaves the Pistons and the Wizards, who are running back similar unsuccessful rosters.
Deemed “The President” by Bill Simmons, Brad Stevens has the endorsement of many players and coaches around the league as one of the best in the business. Writers and analysts will often list him as a top three coach while the cynical internet mob will say he shouldn’t be on the same tier as Gregg Popovich with such little playoff success, or lack thereof. What Brad, and only Brad, brings to the table is simple – he looks simultaneously old enough to be your brother and your father at the same time. He also draws up some of the most revolting inbounds plays I’ve ever seen which can account for many of the easy points the Celtics have purloined under his watch.
The Celtics are geared for a great regular season and could likely win more than 50 games for the first time since 2011. While the talent in the Eastern Conference is more spread out, the average power level of most of the competition still relatively low. The West is still pretty top-heavy, and the Warriors are downright terrifying. My way-too-early thoughts on a possible postseason run are that the Celtics could finally get past the first round, but could still be one significant piece away from championship contention. If Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder can ascend from the ranks of role players to borderline All-Stars like we think they can, then I could see them making the conference finals. Oh, and Jaylen Brown will win rookie of the year. Bank on it.