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Boston Celtics 2016-17 Season Preview

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Since bottoming out and winning only 25 games in 2013-14, the Boston Celtics have been slowly and steadily improving each subsequent season since. They won 40 games in 2014-15, and then jumped up to 48 wins last season.

Now, Boston fans are hoping their team will be able to make arguably the toughest leap of all, graduating from feisty and tenacious upstart into a true contender. Are the Celtics ready to challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers and other elite teams?

Basketball Insiders previews the Boston Celtics’ 2016-17 season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

I’m very high on the Celtics entering this season. I’ve stated numerous times that I believe they can be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference and perhaps present the biggest challenge to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The addition of Al Horford is huge, as he will help Boston tremendously on both offense and defense. Horford is ridiculously consistent and he’s going to be an excellent anchor for this Celtics team on both ends of the court. Isaiah Thomas should continue to be an elite point guard, especially now that he has a new toy in Horford and more familiarity with his supporting cast. And, of course, head coach Brad Stevens is a wizard who does an amazing job getting his players to buy in and play to their full potential. Oh, and I don’t think Danny Ainge is done wheeling and dealing either. This may be bold, but I’m predicting that Boston snatches the No. 2 seed in the East this year.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Alex Kennedy

Danny Ainge may not have snatched up Russell Westbrook the way that it seemed destined, but walking away from the summer with Jaylen Brown and Al Horford still presents an amazing scenario. Kris Dunn has a higher perceived ceiling than Brown, but Brown will fit right in with the Celtics, especially in the wake of Evan Turner’s departure. In Atlanta, Horford proved that he could excel with ball-dominant guards and he has improved his game each and every season. With respectable range out to the three-point line, I think he will form a potentially devastating partnership with Isaiah Thomas. As has been the case with Brad Stevens thus far, the individual pieces on the roster seem underwhelming, but so long as the team continues to abide by his philosophy, I think it’s incredibly reasonable to expect them to improve a bit from last season. I would still favor the Raptors in the division and, if the stars align, would give the Knicks a shot at supplanting Horford and his new team. In the end, though, the Celtics are the safe bet to end the season as the runner-up in the Atlantic.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Moke Hamilton

The Celtics’ ascent up the Eastern Conference ladder continued last season when the team posted 48 wins and made their second straight trip to the playoffs. Boston followed up their impressive season by landing four time All-Star center Al Horford in free agency. But the question is, even with Horford now in the fold, did the Celtics improve significantly enough to successfully make the jump into true title contention? Or will the franchise need more time to acquire additional pieces? Boston is undoubtedly headed in the right direction and the addition of Horford was huge for their program. However, the Celtics are still pretty young and sooner or later, they’ll have to wait for the younger core to truly mature.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Lang Greene

Arguably the East’s deepest team, the Celtics have no excuse not to make a leap this season now that they’ve added a bona fide All-Star to the mix in Al Horford. While he’s not the game-changing superstar that Kevin Durant would’ve been, he still injects some veteran muscle into what has been a fairly mediocre frontcourt rotation the last few seasons. He is obviously a huge upgrade over the outgoing Jared Sullinger. Meanwhile, Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley are one of the most underrated and gifted backcourt tandems in the league, and Jae Crowder just keeps getting better. Knowing they’re getting Brooklyn’s draft picks the next couple of years (one outright, the other a swap) is just suffocating. Even before adding any more firepower, the Celtics should be one of the East’s powerhouses this season.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Joel Brigham

The Celtics made one of the biggest free agent signings this offseason, signing Al Horford to a four-year, $113 million contract. Horford fills an area of need and should slot in nicely as the team’s starting center. This team thrives on aggression and chemistry, a culture Horford should fit in perfectly. Brad Stevens, one of the best all-around coaches in the NBA, has the task of taking a deep, young roster that lacks top level star power to the next level. Horford brings intelligence, defense and veteran leadership, but he doesn’t address the team’s shaky three-point shooting (and neither do any of Boston’s other acquisitions this offseason). While I like the composition of this roster, I think it’s safe to assume that general manager Danny Ainge will continue looking for potential deals for another star up until the trade deadline. If he can turn his treasure chest of assets into a high-end contributor, the Celtics could become the most dangerous team in the Eastern Conference aside from the Cleveland Cavaliers.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Isaiah Thomas

Thomas has been consistently climbed the NBA ladder, going from being an afterthought as the 60th overall pick to a role player to a starter to an All-Star. He did this by establishing himself as one of the NBA’s more creative, exciting and effective offensive weapons. In 2015-16, Thomas became just the fourth player since 2005 to average at least 22 points, six assists and two made three-pointers per game over the course of a full NBA season. The other three members of that exclusive club are Steph Curry, James Harden and Damian Lillard. Also, beginning in March and extending into April, Thomas led the Celtics in scoring in 17 consecutive games. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the 17 consecutive games as the team’s outright leading scorer broke a franchise record that was held by Larry Bird, who recorded 13 straight games as the C’s leading scorer during the 1987-88 season. Al Horford will be an important offensive weapon for the Celtics too, but don’t be surprised if Thomas remains the go-to scorer.

Top Defensive Player: Avery Bradley

Back in April, Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, who won the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award, tweeted: “Avery Bradley [is] the best perimeter defender in the league and I don’t think it’s close.” The media pundits who vote on awards at the end of each season were more or less in agreement, giving Bradley First Team All-Defense honors for 2015-16. Having a guard who can lock down other perimeter scorers is invaluable in today’s NBA. Better yet for Boston, Bradley is only 25 years old and just now entering his prime.

Top Playmaker: Isaiah Thomas

The Celtics have very few playmakers on their roster other than Thomas. Last season, Evan Turner finished second on the team in assists and big man Jared Sullinger actually finished third. With Turner now on the Blazers and Sullinger on the Raptors, the Celtics will be even more reliant on Thomas setting the table for others. But they will also need backup point guard Marcus Smart to improve his distribution abilities, and may need to run more of the offense through the newly acquired Al Horford (who averaged 3.2 assists per game) in the post. Avery Bradley may be asked to handle the ball a bit more as well. However, Thomas will end up shouldering most of the playmaking responsibilities, as he excelled in the role last season. In 2015-16, he joined Larry Bird and John Havlicek as the only Celtics in franchise history to record at least 1,600 points and 500 assists in a single season.

Top Clutch Player: To Be Determined

Isaiah Thomas took many of the big shots late in games last season, but one of the Celtics’ issues was their offense stalling in important moments. Thomas had a tough time getting good, clean looks when the defense focused on him. For instance, he was a far less efficient as a scorer in the postseason. Will Al Horford be able to ease the burden on Thomas in clutch situations? Will Avery Bradley step up and become a reliable late-game shooter? Stay tuned.

The Unheralded Player: Jae Crowder

Crowder has become a cult hero in Beantown, but he’s not viewed with nearly the same reverence outside of New England. He’s the quintessential glue guy who contributes on both ends of the floor. However, his true calling card is being a dogged perimeter defender. Crowder finished the 2015-16 season ranked 14th in the NBA with 1.73 steals per game and finished 15th in total steals across the NBA with 126.

Top New Addition: Al Horford

Of all the free-agent additions made by teams in the East this summer, Boston adding Al Horford might be the most significant. Ainge and company are hoping Horford is a major piece to the puzzle that can help push them over the top. Horford is a terrific two-way player who contributes substantially on both ends of the floor. In fact, last year, Horford became the first player in NBA history to tally at least 60 steals, 80 three-pointers, 120 blocks and 200 assists in the same season.

– Tommy Beer

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Brad Stevens

Stevens, 39, is one of the youngest head coaches in the NBA, but he’s already one of the most respected sideline generals in the league. The Celtics have improved dramatically in each of the three seasons under Stevens’ tutelage. Stevens has quickly established a winning culture and an unselfish, defense-first mindset that has produced impressive early returns. If there was “coaches draft” where GMs and owners could select any other coach in the NBA to run their team, Stevens would go near the very top.

  1. Danny Ainge

Ainge has done a masterful job putting together this balanced Celtics roster. Each of the Celtics’ top-five scorers last season made less than $8 million, and they are set up well going forward too. Considering the insanely enormous contracts handed out this summer, Ainge has many of the C’s core players locked into bargain deals. All-Star Isaiah Thomas will make just $12.8 million combined over the next two seasons. Jae Crowder will earn an average of approximately $7 million for each of the next four seasons. Avery Bradley will earn less than $8.8 million per season through 2018.

  1. Jaylen Brown

It was assumed by many that the Celtics would take guard Kris Dunn with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. Instead, the C’s went with Jaylen Brown. Brown is extremely athletic, with an impressive wingspan and the ability to become a versatile defender. Boston’s first impression of Brown was extremely favorable, as he filled up the stat sheet at the Las Vegas Summer League, averaging 16 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.8 steals per contest. Just 19 years old, the sky’s the limit for this kid.

  1. Kelly Olynyk

Olynyk actually finished the 2015-16 season ranked second on the Celtics in total plus/minus. He was +218 this past season, which was good enough for the 16th-best mark in the entire Eastern Conference. His true value lies in his shooting accuracy. Olynyk knocked down 85 three-pointers last season, while shooting 40.4 percent from behind-the-arc. This is very impressive, especially for a big man. That ability to stretch the floor opens up plenty of space on the offensive end for his teammates. With Horford in the fold, Olynyk’s minutes may be reduced a bit, but he’ll still contribute when on the floor.

– Tommy Beer

SALARY CAP 101

The Celtics landed free agent Al Horford this summer, using cap room to sign him to a four-year, $113.3 million contract.  Now at the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, Boston still has their $2.9 million Room Exception, but 16 players with guaranteed contracts.  Not only will invites Ben Bentil, Marcus Georges-Hunt, Jalen Jones and Damion Lee have a difficult time making the squad, a guaranteed player like James Young or R.J. Hunter could be on the outside looking in.  Boston could look to make a trade, instead of waiving outright, but before the season the team needs to get to 15 players.

Next summer, the Celtics could have $31 million in spending power, under a projected $102 million salary cap.  That assumes the team picks up the rookie-scale options on Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Young and Hunter by the end of October.  Given the roster crunch, that could increase slightly.  That number also assumes that Boston cuts non-guaranteed players Tyler Zeller, Demetrius Jackson and Jordan Mickey ahead of free agency next July.  Kelly Olynyk is eligible for an extension before November.  The Celtics have the right to swap first-round picks with the Brooklyn Nets in next year’s NBA Draft.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Boston’s defense has been the key to its recent resurgence. Brad Stevens demands defensive effort from his players, and Ainge has supplied him with a roster of spirited, versatile defenders. As a result, they have improved every season under Stevens. Per NBA.com, the Celtics finished the 2015-16 campaign tied for the fourth-ranked defense in the NBA (according to Defensive Rating) with a mark of 100.9. They were also second in the NBA in opponent turnovers per game (16.4), second in steals per game (9.2), 13th in defensive points per game (102.5), seventh in defensive field goal percentage (44.1), fourth in defensive three-point field goal percentage (33.6) and eighth in defensive effective field goal percentage (48.7).

– Tommy Beer

WEAKNESSES

The C’s were strong defensively (as noted above) and also finished 10th overall in Offensive Efficiency (scoring 106.8 point per 100 possessions) last season, so there aren’t many glaring weaknesses the Celtics need to overcome in 2016-17. However, there is obviously room for improvement. They were only middle of the pack in terms of defensive rebounding, which is an area they will need to improve on going forward. They also need to become more creative offensively, as they were often inefficient on the offensive end when the pace of the game slowed down.

– Tommy Beer

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Celtics make the leap from scrappy, up-and-coming team to legit threat next season?

The C’s won 48 games last season, which was tied for the third-most wins the Eastern Conference. One of their flaws in the past was their lack of a reliable low-post scorer and interior defender, but they addressed that hole by reeling in one of the preeminent free agents on the open market in Al Horford. The Celtics were already one of the best defensive teams in the entire league and Horford not only improves them defensively, but also provides much-needed offensive punch. Horford’s versatility allows him to score inside and out. Isaiah Thomas is ready to build upon an All-Star campaign. Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Amir Johnson round out what is arguably the most complete and impressive starting five in the East outside of Cleveland. For all these reasons, there is understandable optimism in Boston that the Celtics can capture the Atlantic Division title and advance all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016-17.

– Tommy Beer

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