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.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.
NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups
With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.
The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.
Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.
Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…
We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.
The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.
Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.
Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.
Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.
While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.
Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.
This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.
Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.
Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…
Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.
It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.
Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.
With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.
Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.
But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.
Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.
The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.
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