Last season, the Boston Celtics won 40 games and earned the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. But it’s clear that Boston’s best basketball is ahead of them, as they have a talented young core, one of the best up-and-coming coaches in the league and a ton of draft picks. Where does this Celtics team go from here and how will they fare during the upcoming campaign?
Basketball Insiders previews the Boston Celtics’ 2015-16 season.
The rebuilding Celtics arrived quicker to the party than expected last season by earning a playoff berth. The team now heads into training camp with the same young core along with the addition of veteran forwards Amir Johnson and David Lee in the frontcourt. The taste of success should drive the Celtics’ youth movement while the veteran additions will stabilize things during down times. At least that’s how things should work and the reason why a return trip to the postseason should be in the cards for Boston.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
The Celtics are nicely situated for the future, with a talented group of young players and a ridiculous amount of draft picks. I’m excited to see what direction Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens take the franchise in the years to come. I think they had a strong offseason, adding Amir Johnson (on a very team-friendly deal), David Lee, Terry Rozier, R.J. Hunter and Perry Jones to a team that was already talented. With that said, as I went through and mapped out my playoff predictions, I had Miami and Indiana climbing in and Boston falling out. The Celtics were the hardest team for me to leave out because I do like their roster and I believe Stevens is a fantastic coach. There are just too many talented teams in the East and I couldn’t include them all, so Boston was my first team out of the playoff picture. Still, as I mentioned, this team has a very bright future and won’t be on the outside looking in for long.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
No one expected the Celtics to make the postseason a year ago, but through a combination of good coaching, hard-working youngsters and a historically awful Eastern Conference, they made their way there and learned a lot about the playoffs in the process. That’s a huge step for a blossoming young team to make, and these C’s now have it under their collective belt. Isaiah Thomas is a star, albeit an underrated one, and the additions of David Lee and Amir Johnson did a lot toward earning the Boston frontcourt some credibility. James Young is super talented, Jae Crowder is an underrated role player and the frontcourt is absolutely stacked with potential. It’s a nifty little team, and one that could take advantage of a weak Atlantic Division this year.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
The Boston Celtics could have headed for the lottery after moving Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks last December. Instead, they re-energized the team through trades to land players such as Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder and made a surprising late-season push to lock in the seventh seed in the East. Rather than making a splash with a megastar in free agency, the Celtics added pieces to their puzzle. David Lee and Amir Johnson will bring veteran experience to the team while draft picks Terry Rozier, R.J. Hunter and Jordan Mickey will add to their developing young talent. They also retained Crowder and Jonas Jerebko, who were quick fits last season. Like in the past, the Celtics have logjams at several positions and will have to sort out their starting five as well as rotation. Head coach Brad Stevens goes by the approach of putting the best combinations, not necessarily the best players, out on the court and he will have plenty of lineups to experiment with as time goes on. Last season, injuries on opposing teams opened up space in the Eastern Conference playoff seedings. This time, the competition will likely be tougher. Look for the Celtics to battle for one of the final spots.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Isaiah Thomas
Thomas is an offensive sparkplug, leading the Celtics in scoring last season without ever starting. After being traded from the Phoenix Suns at the February trade deadline, Thomas averaged 19 points in 26 minutes over 21 games off the bench. As the Celtics’ sixth man, he provides instant scoring without commanding a spot in the starting lineup.
Top Defensive Player: Jae Crowder
Over his career, Avery Bradley has established himself as a lockdown defender. When breaking down the stats, he does have the edge in many categories. This season, though, Jae Crowder gets the nod here. Crowder is the type of feisty athlete who brings the intangibles. Last season, after being traded to the Celtics from the Dallas Mavericks, he offered a James Posey-like (think back to 2008) presence. Crowder isn’t afraid to hustle, grind or throw around his body. Crowder is returning from a knee injury suffered in Boston’s first-round series. When healthy, he stands his ground as a tenacious defender.
Top Playmaker: Brad Stevens
This may seem like a strange pick, but the Celtics’ best playmaker is on the sidelines during the games. Head coach Brad Stevens is one of the brightest minds in the NBA coaching circuit. He quickly transitioned from the collegiate level to the professional game and has already proven his basketball IQ by drawing up crafty plays out of timeouts. Just as the Celtics were dangerous on inbounds plays with Doc Rivers at the helm, Stevens has the know-how to call unexpected plays for his team in clutch situations. A playmaker is someone who sets up players to succeed and makes a team better, and that’s exactly what Stevens does in Boston.
Top Clutch Player: In Progress
Last season, the Celtics’ game-winning attempts were taken by committee. The team has lacked a go-to clutch scorer since the departure of Paul Pierce in 2013. (In fact, it is still common for people to jokingly call “Pierce with the iso” for the final play years later.) Evan Turner stepped in at points last season. This time around, I’d like to see Avery Bradley assume this role. Though known for his defense, Bradley could help take the Celtics a step further by consistently knocking down late-game shots. Isaiah Thomas could be an option as well, since he can create his own shot and score easily.
The Unheralded Player: Amir Johnson
When the Celtics signed Johnson early in free agency, many scoffed at his $12 million per season price tag. Don’t let the dollars overshadow the value of his place on the team. Johnson’s contract is only guaranteed for one year. That financial flexibility in year two is an automatic asset. On the court, Johnson can spread the floor with an inside-outside game. He can also fit into an up-tempo system. Johnson bring veteran know-how, a positive locker room presence and playoff experience. He was an important piece for the Toronto Raptors in recent years and has been underrated for quite some time. Johnson wasn’t the big name signing some fans had hoped for this summer, but his addition is beneficial for the Celtics across the board.
Best New Addition: David Lee
The Celtics traded their highest-paid player who rarely played for a player on an expiring contract who can play significant minutes. That’s the Cliffs Notes version of the Gerald Wallace-David Lee swap with the Golden State Warriors. While Lee didn’t have much of a role on the Warriors, that was not for lack of talent. During the 2013-14 season, he averaged 18.2 points and 9.3 rebounds in 33.2 minutes as a starter. Last season, he was limited to 7.9 points and 5.2 boards in 18.4 minutes, predominantly off the bench (due to the emergence of Draymond Green). The 10-year veteran is also in a contract year, when players often amp up their production. Lee could play out the season with Boston and contribute starting-quality talent, or the Celtics could look to move his expiring deal to get value for the future.
Who/What We Like
Jared Sullinger’s Offseason Conditioning: Sullinger’s conditioning has been under the microscope since he entered the league. Prior to the draft, he was red flagged with back issues that eventually required surgery. Last season, he was shut down with a foot injury. Sullinger has battled his weight issues his entire life and this summer he has been tackling it in the gym, according to posts on social media. Being well conditioned will help Sullinger stay healthy on the court, which is a key to the Celtics’ success.
Tyler Zeller: Zeller quietly improved as his first season with the Celtics progressed, averaging 12 points and six boards in April. The seven-footer is a true center who plays at the basket and offers a presence in the paint. Last March, he hit a game-winning layup, showing the Celtics don’t have to rely solely on outside shooting down the stretch. Zeller is the type of player who puts his nose down and goes about his business without distractions.
Terry Rozier: Many eyebrows were raised when the Celtics drafted Rozier with the 16th pick in this year’s draft. Even though he wasn’t the flashiest name available, he is a good fit for the Celtics’ system. Rozier brings athleticism and an improved outside shot to the team. He made a strong impression during Summer League action and earned praise from fellow guard Marcus Smart as well as coaches.
Training Camp in Europe: The sightseeing and the food are perks of the trip. But the real benefit of the Celtics’ training camp being in Spain and Italy is the chemistry building that will take place. With several new additions, the trip will be an opportunity for the players to get to know one another on and off the court. This is extremely important for the young guards, whose communication with their teammates is critical.
The Celtics have athleticism and speed, which lends itself to an effective up-tempo system. The versatility of their bigs also allows them to spread the floor and create mismatches against their opponents. The Celtics also have combinations where they can go small (Stevens has implemented a three-guard lineup in the past), in tune with the growing trend of small ball in the league.
The Celtics have compiled a lot of “good” pieces, but they lack “great” pieces. In contrast to previous seasons, there is no clear face of the franchise. The Celtics will continue to look for “their guy” down the stretch – the one player they can rely on to take over games. Until then, the task will be handled by committee. Of course, the hope within the organization is that one of the current players will grow into that main role. If that doesn’t happen, they have plenty of assets to offer in hopes of landing one through a trade (or they can hold onto their picks and try to land one through the draft).
The Burning Question
Will the Celtics make the playoffs?
The Celtics made a surprising surge in the second half of last season to lock in the seventh seed in the East. Competition has improved in the conference this offseason, however, and teams such as the Miami HEAT and Indiana Pacers who missed the cut are looking to return. For every organization that makes their way back to the playoffs, one team will drop off. There looks to be a tighter race this season to play past 82 games and Boston is no lock to return to the postseason.
NBA Daily: What Should the Raptors Do at the Trade Deadline?
The Toronto Raptors are surging. Bobby Krivitsky examines whether they’ve been good enough to keep their current core intact or if they should take a different approach at the trade deadline.
After losing eight of their first 10 games to start the season, the Toronto Raptors have won 14 of their last 23 matchups, surging to fifth in the Eastern Conference.
The Raptors had to quickly recharge during a truncated offseason, get acclimated to a new setting and adjust to Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher stepping into the void left by the departures of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Despite all of that, they’re scoring the 10th-most points per 100 possessions, are 13th in defensive rating and have the ninth-best net rating in the NBA.
Through Toronto’s ups and downs this season, they’ve been able to count on Fred VanVleet. After signing a four-year, $85 million contract to remain with the Raptors, the fifth-year guard from Wichita State has once again taken his game to a higher level. He’s averaging 20 points, 6.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds — all career-bests — and eighth in the NBA with 1.7 steals per contest. It’s discomforting to imagine where this team would be if he had left.
Then there’s Pascal Siakam, who’s finally shaken off a rough second-round series against the Boston Celtics last postseason and thawed from an icy start to his 2020-21 campaign. Siakam is averaging 20.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.2 steals per game. One of the main reasons for his turnaround has been Siakam’s growth as a facilitator: those 4.8 assists represent a career-best. And, with the Raptors shifting more towards small-ball, Siakam is thriving working off a screen from guards, spotting where the defense is vulnerable and taking advantage of it.
Another crucial component of Siakam’s improvement is him playing with more energy on the defensive end. Effort can only take a defender so far, but when that individual is 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and has the strength, quickness and intelligence to guard positions one-through-five for varying amounts of time, doing so can have a significant impact on the outcome of the game.
While Siakam’s production has more of an impact on the Raptors’ ceiling than any other player on the team, Kyle Lowry, alongside VanVleet, establishes Toronto’s floor. Lowry, who turns 35 in March, is averaging 18 points, 6.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game this season. He remains the heart and soul of the team. That makes it even more impressive that, despite losing him to a thumb injury during a Feb. 16 matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto went on to win that night and again two days later, stretching their winning streak to four games (including a victory over the Philadelphia 76ers).
One major change stemming from the Raptors playing small more often is Norman Powell entering the starting lineup. He’s started his last 17 games and is averaging a team-high 21.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals. During that stretch, the sharpshooting Powell is also knocking down 44.4 percent of his 6.4 threes per game and shooting 51.2 percent from the floor. Toronto has won 10 of those 17 games.
Powell gives the Raptors more offensive firepower, allows them to play faster and, when they don’t have a traditional center on the floor, has made it easier for them to switch on defense. It’s an adjustment that’s worked so well for Toronto, even in Lowry’s absence, Baynes came off the bench while DeAndre’ Bembry joined the starting lineup.
So, with the Raptors finding their footing and the March 25 trade deadline inching closer, what’s Toronto’s best course of action? That decision revolves around their plan with Lowry.
Lowry, whose $30 million deal is set to expire after the season, is interested in playing at least two more seasons at a similar value, per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Are the Raptors willing to meet those demands, paving the way for the franchise icon to spend the remainder of his career with them? Secondly, the Raptors aren’t a title contender right now, which could lead to the two sides working together to send Lowry to a team meeting that criteria by the trade deadline, which also happens to be his 35th birthday.
If it comes to that, Pompey listed the 76ers, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Clippers as Lowry’s preferred destinations, noting the North Philadelphia native would like to return to his roots. For the Raptors to go through with trading the six-time All-Star, it would likely take multiple first-round picks and promising young players along with any contracts included for salary-matching purposes to be expiring after this season.
Considering Toronto’s current place in the NBA’s hierarchy, if Lowry intends to leave for a title contender or the Raptors aren’t willing to meet his contractual demands, it’s clear what they should do at the deadline. Trading Lowry isn’t going to net Toronto the return necessary to vault them into the league’s top tier, but it would still figure to serve them better in the long term, even though the Raptors’ resurgence suggests if he’s still on the team after Mar. 25th, they’re once again going to be a difficult out in the playoffs, and they could go as far as the Eastern Conference Finals.
If they want to play the long game, it would also make sense for them to trade Powell, who has an $11.6 million player option he’s likely to decline in the offseason. Granted, he’ll be 28 next season, so it’s not as if re-signing him would be short-sighted.
There’s nothing wrong with preserving the possibility Lowry never dons another team’s jersey — and parting with a franchise icon is never easy. But trading Lowry may be the best bet for the franchise’s future, while it would neither change the fact that the team will someday retire his jersey, nor would it take away from his legacy. In fact, doing right by him and giving Lowry another opportunity to compete for a title may just be the best parting gift the Raptors could give him while also strengthening their own long-term outlook.
NBA Daily: Don’t Forget About Romeo Langford
Once a top-five high school recruit, Romeo Langford has yet to make an impact in his brief NBA career.
As a highly-touted high school prospect, Romeo Langford found himself at the fifth spot in the 2018 ESPN Top 100. His play earned him a spot in the 2018 McDonald’s All-American Game among big-name recruits such as Zion Williamson, and after a very successful high school career, the five-star shooting guard decided to take his talents to Indiana over both Kansas and Vanderbilt.
Langford’s time as an Indiana Hoosier was short-lived as he only spent one year with the team before declaring for the draft. He played in thirty-two games despite tearing a ligament in his thumb. His shooting percentages reflected this injury as he shot a meager 27.2 percent from three and 44.8 percent from the field, per Sports-Reference. Both of these percentages were not reflective of the electric, efficient scorer he was at New Albany High School.
Selected with the No. 14 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics, there was a lot to be excited about. For starters, the Celtics were able to draft a player just inside the lottery who many thought would be a top-five pick before the 2018-19 NCAA season. They were also able to get a resilient player that grinded through his injury and was still able to pace the BIG 10 in freshman scoring with 16.5 points per game. The potential with a healthy Langford is there, and that’s what led to him being a Boston Celtic.
During a 2019 interview with Boston.com, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens spoke highly of their rookie.
“If they would have been more on the national radar, and he would have not hurt his thumb, he probably would have been even more discussed,” Stevens said at the Celtics practice facility. “He’s a guy we were all well aware of before his first game at IU.”
If it was not clear by this quote, big things were expected from the former Indiana Mr. Basketball.
Unfortunately, his first season on the Celtics was not much of one to write home about. Across 32 games, he managed to average only 2.5 points with 1.3 rebounds in 11.6 minutes per game, often finding himself with Boston’s G League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws.
This should not be a big indicator of how things will end up for Langford though – as flourishing Charlotte Hornets star Terry Rozier was also an afterthought off the Celtics’ bench in his first season, even though many people saw his future potential. In a Feb. 7th matchup with the Atlanta Hawks, Langford made the most of a starting opportunity, dropping 16 points on 5-for-11 shooting, including 2-for-5 from three-point range, and 3 blocks. Later, he would then undergo season-ending surgery to repair the scapholunate ligament of his right wrist during the team’s playoff run in the bubble.
As the 2020-21 season heads towards the All-Star break, Langford has yet to suit up as he still is recovering from surgery. But according to a report by NESN, Langford should be healthy enough to return following the pause.
This then leaves the question: where does Langford fit on the Celtics roster, if at all? Amidst a disappointing start to the season, many fans and people around the Celtics have begun to sound the alarm. When the owner even comes out to 98.5 The Sports Hub and acknowledges the fact that the young Eastern Conference finalists are not currently a contender, there should be plenty of reason to panic.
The Celtics’ troubles have been all over the place this season, but the one that seems to be the most glaring is the lack of explosive scoring outside of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. There has been some great play off the bench by Payton Pritchard and Robert Williams, but players like Grant Williams, Jeff Teague and Semi Ojeleye have struggled to be consistent factors.
As the Celtics continue to look for splashes in the trade market, there is a lot of uncertainty around Langford’s future as the team now seems to lack tradable assets outside of the core.
Despite his long injury, Langford is still a much more desirable piece than Javonte Green or Grant Williams. Moving on from Jeff Teague may be a route that the Celtics opt to take as well because he has failed to make much of an impact off of the bench, and this would open up playing time to test out a 100 percent healthy Langford.
Langford could bring a great burst of energy off the bench for the Celtics if healthy, and so exciting to see how he fits alongside the outstanding rookie point guard in Pritchard. With Langford on the second unit, it would open up the floor for Tatum as he would have another solid scorer to kick the ball out to.
Could Langford end up being the guy that fixes the bench scoring problem for the Celtics? Only time will tell, but based on his high school and collegiate careers, he very well might be 𑁋 if he’s still on the team past the deadline.
NBA Daily: Luke Walton’s Uncertain Future
Could this be it for Luke Walton in Sacramento? David Yapkowitz examines.
There’s one big question surrounding the Sacramento Kings this season: what, exactly, will become of head coach Luke Walton? Walton, in the second year of a four-year deal he signed back in 2019, has often headlined the group of coaches that are thought most likely to be let go next.
Brought in by the previous regime, Sacramento’s situation has changed considerably since they brought in Walton. Former general manager Vlade Divac has since stepped down and been replaced with Monte McNair. And, often, new management will look to build their team, coaching staff included, in their own mold — that’s nothing really against the current personnel, just that different voices sometimes have different visions and want to construct a team within that vision.
If the team plays well, the new management team may be inclined to ride it out with the current staff. In a somewhat recent example, when Masai Ujiri first took over in the Toronto Raptors front office, the Raptors started surging in the standings and Ujiri held on to Dwane Casey for a while before ultimately replacing him with Nick Nurse. Casey had been hired by former executive Bryan Colangelo.
The Kings are in an interesting scenario in that, despite being a perennial bottom-dweller, expectations have existed for the team for over a decade now, the main expectation being that they would eventually improve beyond that bottom-feeder status. Now, that expectation may be more warranted than ever, as Sacramento has some seriously talented pieces in place, including franchise cornerstone De’Aaron Fox and Rookie of the Year contender Tyrese Haliburton.
In fact, just a few weeks ago, the Kings looked like they might actually be turning things around. On a four-game win streak, with wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics, they looked like a different team.
Since then, unfortunately, they’ve reverted to the Kings of old. Now, they’re on an eight-game losing streak, their first such skid since 2019.
There are plenty of good teams in the Western Conference and, because of that, at least a couple of them are going to be on the outside looking in come playoff time. Of course, it can be hard to fault teams that show consistent effort and improvement. But that just hasn’t been the Kings, for quite some time now.
The main area of concern for the Kings where they haven’t shown real improvement is on the defensive end. They were already among the bottom half of the league on that end before their most recent skid, while it’s been significantly worse during their last eight games.
It’s always a possibility to bring in a defensive-minded assistant to help with that end, much like Sacramento tried to do on offense this past offseason. To spark the team on that end of the court, the Kings added Alvin Gentry to Walton’s staff and for the most part, it’s worked out: Sacramento is 12th in the league in scoring, up from 22nd last season. They’re also shooting better from three-point range while playing at a quicker pace.
But in order to win in this league, you need to do it on both ends. And that’s something the Kings haven’t shown the ability to do.
Sacramento is allowing 119.6 points per game, dead last in the NBA. Their defensive rating of 118.7 is also last. And, at this point, simply adding an assistant might not do the trick; at this point, it might just be easier (and more effective) for management to simply cut ties with Walton and set up a new staff under a new head coach.
Walton’s popularity and potential as a head coach first piqued during the 2015-16 season with the Golden State Warriors. When he stepped in for Steve Kerr, who took leave from the team to recover from back surgery, Walton guided the team to a 24-0 start and a 39-4 record upon Kerr’s return. While the Warriors were in their second of what would be five-straight runs to the NBA Finals and had a strong foundation already in place, Walton’s involvement in the feat can’t be discounted, while it opened the league’s eyes as to his potential as a head coach.
But later, during Walton’s years as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, the team showed slight, if minimal improvement each year at best. In fact, those Lakers were similar to these Kings in that they were a young team with no real experience just trying to get better. And, obviously, it’s much easier to look good when you already have an established unit.
Coaching in the NBA is a tough and often thankless job. When things go right, they get little credit. When they go wrong, the blame lies almost squarely on their head. As with players, sometimes a coaching situation just isn’t the right fit for either party; maybe this Kings’ roster just isn’t built to maximize Walton’s system.
That said, in this particular case, it would probably be best for the Kings to ride the current situation out. Sacramento has shown some improvement from last season and Walton deserves some credit for that. He’s shown constant faith and trust in his rookie, Haliburton, while he has Fox playing at a near All-Star level and Richaun Holmes looking like one of the NBA’s best in the painted area (and an absolute steal, given his contract).
Going forward, it’s worth rolling the dice and seeing if they can’t end this skid and get back to their strong play earlier in the year. Further, it might not be that great an idea to make such a radical structural change halfway through the season when your team might still have a realistic shot at the postseason.
That said, should the team continue to struggle, then it would be wise to revisit the matter in the offseason. If they do, it wouldn’t be much of a reach if McNair decides that two years is enough and that he wants to bring in a head coach of his own choosing.