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NBA AM: Boston Celtics 2017-18 Season Preview

The Boston Celtics will have a very different look this season. The question is will it be enough to topple the Cavaliers? We look at the Celtics in this season preview.

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When a franchise returns just four players from the prior season, that’s typically a sign of a rebuild, a strategy not often embraced by teams that were just three wins shy of reaching the NBA Finals. Of course, this massive roster overhaul comes after the Boston Celtics clawed their way to the Eastern Conference’s top seed with a 53-29 record, only for the Cleveland Cavaliers to demoralize them in five games.

After moving down from the No. 1 overall pick (via Brooklyn) in the 2017 NBA Draft to take talented rookie Jayson Tatum, the Celtics then added Gordon Hayward in free agency and executed a blockbuster trade for Kyrie Irving. While the Celtics are still soundly one of the conference’s elite contenders, general manager Danny Ainge has effectively gone all-in for 2017-18 without sacrificing much of the franchise’s long-term potential.

The Celtics’ revamped roster has set their collective sights on a championship, but here’s how Basketball Insiders envision this season shaking out.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Incredibly, the team that finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference last season added two star caliber players and a top-three pick in the draft during this offseason.

Talk about a productive summer.

The Boston Celtics are officially a legitimate threat to the Cavaliers Eastern Conference throne after signing Gordon Hayward, adding Jayson Tatum to the mix, and ultimately parting with the Brooklyn pick and their own point guard to bring Kyrie Irving behind enemy lines.

However, this season won’t be the season they finally usurp the King in Cleveland. But, Boston fans should be overjoyed with how the immediate and long term future of their team looks now with the likes of Irving and Hayward on board alongside a bevy of young talent and assets. The return to the glory days of Celtics basketball seems to be right around the corner.

1st place– Atlantic Division

– Dennis Chambers

It is my opinion that adding Kyrie Irving was good for the Celtics. Also, that signing Gordon Hayward was good. Also, that drafting Jayson Tatum was good. Together, all of these good things added to the good things Boston already had on the roster, including last year’s big additions, Al Horford and Jaylen Brown, makes for a good team. The coach is good, too. Everything here is good. Big things are on the horizon for the Celtics this season.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Joel Brigham

After scores of people ridiculed Danny Ainge for failing to land either Jimmy Butler or Paul George, he absolutely got the last laugh by signing Gordon Hayward and executing a trade for Kyrie Irving. As a result of a fairly busy summer, the Celtics have a ton of new faces and have lost their defensive stalwarts in Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder. With Hayward and Irving joining Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, though, the Celtics probably have enough firepower to win the Atlantic Division.

The reasonable expectation for this team is to give the Cavaliers a good fight in the Eastern Conference Finals. My main concern with them is that they simply lack the depth that made them who they were last season. Sure, consolidation is generally a good thing when you’re adding superstars, but the Celtics probably need two more solid rotation players before I consider them to be a legitimate threat to the Cavs atop the East. That, of course, assumes that everyone remains relatively healthy.

Still, Ainge deserves an A+ for what he pulled off this summer, and the Celtics’ next reign atop the Atlantic will likely begin this season.

1st place – Atlantic Division

– Moke Hamilton

The summer’s most active team, the Celtics will suddenly be without three of the five guys they sent out to start Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals last year. They landed the offseason’s biggest free agency fish in Gordon Hayward, then engineered a massive blockbuster for Kyrie Irving. These moves also forced them to move on from each of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley, though they also picked up Marcus Morris for Bradley. The Celtics undeniably got more talented this summer, but how will potential fit and chemistry issues clash with that improvement? It’s tough to say, though coach Brad Stevens is among the best bets in the league to work things out quickly.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Ben Dowsett

Adding Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving and a top-three draft pick in Jayson Tatum is a big deal. However, we can’t simply forget that guys like Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder are no longer with the team. The Thomas hip injury is problematic and he was about to become very expensive, so replacing him with Irving, even at a high price, was probably the right thing to do. Bradley is also about to become very expensive, but his elite perimeter defense and shooting will be missed. Also, I think the loss of Crowder is going to hurt more than most people predict. Having said all of that, the Celtics are primed to compete now and for the foreseeable future. Boston has a nice mix of versatile veteran and young talent to mix and match and I’m confident that Brad Stevens is going to figure out how to best utilize it. I don’t know if Boston has enough to take down LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but I think the potential to do so is there.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kyrie Irving

Simply put, Irving is one of basketball’s best offensive players without a doubt. Whether Irving is looking to create his own shot or wants to feed off of his teammates as a spot-up assassin, the 25-year-old can do it all. Although Cleveland ultimately came up short against the Golden State Warriors, Irving managed to improved in the playoffs once again, this time tallying 25.9 points to go along with 5.3 assists and 2.4 three-pointers per game. With the ball, Irving is immensely talented and creative in both pick-and-roll or isolation situations, particularly so when the game hangs in the balance.

His trade demand exhibited the desire to be a franchise’s top option offensively, a role Irving hasn’t held since LeBron James re-signed with Cleveland in 2014. The future dynamic between the Celtics’ new 1-2 scoring punch hasn’t been defined, but Irving may be headed toward his most fruitful season yet.

Top Defensive Player: Marcus Smart

Nearly by default, Marcus Smart is the clear leader in this category. With the departure of Avery Bradley this summer, Stevens will badly need a defensive bulldog to play a large role in the backcourt. Smart’s slower offensive development has kept him from becoming a star, but there’s no denying his hawk-like instincts and ruthless intangibles. Using his hulking 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame, Smart hounds opposing players and aggressively takes advantage of their mistakes.

In 2016-17 alone, Smart totaled 14 games with three or more steals, even reaching an absurd tally of eight in a win against the Philadelphia 76ers just before the All-Star break. Today, Smart is an extremely versatile defender, often capable of guarding every position on the floor despite the difference in height. It’s been said every year since Smart was drafted in 2014 – he owns a career three-point mark of 29.1 percent – but if he develops a more consistent jumper, the sky’s the limit for the enigmatic guard.

Unless the Celtics and Smart agree on an extension before the regular season begins, he’ll be a restricted free agent next July. With a huge role on the table and plenty of money up for grabs, expect Smart to run with the opportunity and become one of the Celtics’ big-time glue guys, even if he’s not a starter.

Top Playmaker: Gordon Hayward

Hayward has long been on the shortlist for the NBA’s most underrated, but that will likely change in Boston this season. Since the Utah Jazz drafted Hayward in 2010, the 6-foot-8 small forward has improved in every consecutive season and posted career-highs in points (21.9), rebounds (5.4) and field goal percentage (47.1)* during his final campaign in Utah. Despite his low usage for a star (27.6), Hayward was the key linchpin behind a Jazz team that reached the playoffs’ second round for the first time since 2009-10.

As a versatile offensive wing, Hayward has blossomed into a reliable shooter from nearly every spot on the court. Defensively, Hayward was a difficult assignment in 2016-17 and he was more than happy to launch from long range (39.8 percent) or penetrate (5.9 FTA) depending on the situation. In 2013-14, Hayward averaged 5.2 assists per game and the Celtics will tap into his efficient playmaking abilities in Stevens’ fluid offense.

* If you don’t count his rookie season percentage of 48.5, in which Hayward only attempted 4.1 shots per game

Top Clutch Player: Kyrie Irving

No matter what situation, moment or deficit is at hand, nothing is impossible or too big for Irving. Even on a team that often deferred to James in the waning moments, Irving’s fourth quarter explosions were always an incredible joy to watch in Cleveland. Armed with an arsenal of ankle-breaking crossovers and an uncanny ability to finish around the rim, there’s no defender that enjoys guarding Irving as the clock ticks toward the final buzzer.

The Boston faithful fell in love with Thomas’ volume shooting late in games and his average of 9.8 fourth quarter points trailed only Russell Westbrook in 2016-17, so Irving undoubtedly has huge shoes to fill. But if Irving’s stellar track record – see Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals – is any indication, the Celtics will adore their new franchise point guard all the same.

The Unheralded Player: Al Horford

Al Horford was the Celtics’ big-time free agent coup in 2016, a precursor to this summer’s onslaught of roster changes. And yet, the four-time All-Star took plenty of criticism, even as Boston battled their way to the conference’s No. 1 seed. For $26.5 million, fans argued, Horford should be contributing more than 14 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. However, Horford’s influence on both sides of the ball extends beyond the box score.

The 11-year veteran is now on the wrong side of 30, but Horford is a Swiss Army Knife of versatility for Boston. Defensively, his ability to effortlessly switch on screens and stay with driving opponents makes him an invaluable piece to Boston’s puzzle. Rebounding is still a team-wide weakness, but Horford was Boston’s best rebounding big man last season – Bradley grabbed more than anybody else and ranked No. 2 with 6.1 per game.

Like it or not, the Celtics will need Horford’s reliable numbers after shuffling Bradley, Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko out the door this offseason.

Best New Addition: Marcus Morris

Yes, Irving and Hayward are Boston’s best new additions, but in the interest of sharing the spotlight, there’s another arrival that deserves attention as well. This summer saw the departure of both Crowder and Olynyk, but Marcus Morris should be an excellent replacement for the Celtics. Morris started 79 games for the Detroit Pistons last season and averaged 14 points and 4.6 rebounds as the team’s small forward. While he’ll be asked to fill a slightly different role with the Celtics, Morris should fit in nicely on the roster and in Stevens’ offensive and defensive systems.

Although he only converted on 33.1 percent of his three-point attempts last season, Morris has developed into a reliable 3-and-D player nonetheless. For almost two years, Morris has been hailed as one of the league’s top LeBron-stoppers as James averaged just 22 points against the Detroist Pistons in 2016-17, according to Boston.com. Another tidbit worth noting: Morris has played in 399 of 410 possible games over the last five NBA seasons, a near-perfect bill of health for the hard-nosed forward.

– Benny Nadeau

WHO WE LIKE

1. Danny Ainge

Gifted a treasure trove of high-level assets by the Brooklyn Nets in 2013, Ainge quickly changed the fortunes of a franchise headed for an inevitable rebuild. The combination of hungry youngsters and the eventual emergence of Thomas jumpstarted the Celtics’ latest revival, a streak often attributed to the general manager’s overall savviness in trades and drafts. Unpredictable in nature, Ainge has been calculated in his moves thus far, looking to contend and build for the future at the same time.

When Ainge needed cap space to sign Hayward, he made the difficult decision to move Bradley instead of Crowder or Smart. While Bradley was beloved by fans and essential to the roster’s core DNA, the forward-thinking Ainge traded the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent instead of Crowder’s team-friendly deal or Smart, who will be restricted in 2018. After selecting Jaylen Brown in 2016 and moving down for Tatum this June, Ainge was comfortable enough to move Thomas, Crowder and the Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-rounder to acquire Irving.

The Celtics haven’t conquered their James-sized problem quite yet, but Ainge deserves credit for the bold direction he’s taken the franchise this summer alone.

2. Brad Stevens

Year after year, Stevens continues to build his case as one of the NBA’s brightest coaches. Stevens is lauded as a tactical mastermind and his approach to the Xs and Os helped Boston to a 108.6 offensive rating last season, the eighth-best mark in the league. Out of timeouts, the Celtics are deadly and Stevens excels at utilizing screens and deceptive movements to create easy shot opportunities. Unanimously liked in the locker room as well, Stevens is able to squeeze every ounce of talent from his roster each season.

Reuniting with Hayward is not only a fantastic storyline for the 2017-18 season, but he’s another uber-efficient talent for Stevens to weaponize as he sees fit. Truly historic results from both Steve Kerr and Mike D’Antoni have stolen the coaching spotlight away from Stevens during recent award seasons, but it shouldn’t be long before the well-received leader earns a trophy of his own.

3. Jaylen Brown

At this point, there’s no stopping Brown’s hype train and his expectations as a hooper have never been higher. After encouraging stints at both the Utah and Las Vegas summer leagues, many have tipped Brown as the favorite to supplant Bradley as a starter. Brown is an energetic, enthusiastic defender and his athleticism should make him a highlight machine alongside Irving.

Stevens hasn’t chosen between Brown and Smart quite yet, but the sophomore will see a major boost in minutes this season either way. As Basketball Insiders wrote last month, nobody benefitted more from the Irving-Thomas deal than Brown – now it’s time to prove it.

4. Jayson Tatum

Leading up to June’s NBA Draft, Markelle Fultz was the unanimous choice for the No. 1 overall pick. When Ainge eventually traded down for Tatum, some onlookers were initially confused. With Thomas set to hit unrestricted free agency in 2018 and openly searching for an expensive deal, Fultz would have been an appropriate replacement. But after the Irving trade in late August, Ainge’s master plan became much clearer: Brown and Tatum are the future of the franchise.

For what it’s worth, Tatum’s first summer league entry was an undeniable success and the rookie immediately exhibited an ability to score at the NBA level. His role will certainly be limited this season, but Tatum’s positional fluidity should earn him opportunities to contribute, albeit small ones. However, if an injury strikes, it’ll be interesting to see if Tatum can thrive in a high-intensity role.

– Benny Nadeau

SALARY CAP 101

The Celtics made their big move in acquiring Kyrie Irving from the Cleveland Cavaliers. The team started the summer under the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap, landing Gordon Hayward in free agency. Now over, Boston used their $4.3 million Room Exception on Aron Baynes. Outside of additional trades, the team can only bring on additional players on minimum contracts.

Next summer, the Celtics will be over the league’s projected cap of $102 million. They’ll need to decide on the 2018-19 options for Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier before November. Marcus Smart is eligible for an extension until the start of the coming season.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

With just Horford, Smart, Rozier and Brown returning from last year’s team, it’s tough to pinpoint what exactly the Celtics will excel at this upcoming season. The onus here falls on Stevens to put together a cohesive unit as quickly as possible, but many of their strongest traits could return this winter. In 2016-17, the Celtics made 12 three-pointers per game, third-most in the league and equal to the supercharged Warriors’ total.

Thomas, Crowder and Bradley accounted for 7.4 of those 12 aforementioned three-pointers last season, but the arrivals of Irving (2.5), Hayward (2.0) and Morris (1.5) should make the Celtics one of the league’s best shooting teams in 2017-18. Despite their reliance on young talent, the Celtics should continue on as a solid defensive unit – their 105.5 defensive rating was twelfth-best in 2016-17 – even without Crowder and Bradley in tow. Hayward and Morris are underrated defenders and if the youngsters (Brown, Smart and Rozier) are able to provide quality minutes in their increased roles, they’ll frustrate opposing teams for at least another year.

– Benny Nadeau

WEAKNESSES

Despite the Celtics’ intense makeover, they’re still lagging behind in the rebounding department. In 2016-17, Boston grabbed just 42 rebounds a game, the NBA’s fourth-lowest mark. It bears repeating that the 6-foot-3 Bradley was Boston’s second-best rebounder last year as well. To shore up that front, the Celtics added both Ante Žižić and Daniel Theis to the roster this summer, but the former was included in the Irving-Thomas trade. At 25 years-old, Theis is a three-time German League champion and could be a valuable pickup behind Horford.

Additionally, the Celtics signed Aron Baynes as well, a 6-foot-10 center that spent the last two seasons with Detroit and averaged 4.4 rebounds last year. Still, the two new centers are unlikely to reverse Boston’s rebounding misfortunes alone. Although Boston has taken steps to address their biggest weakness from 2016-17, they’ll likely struggle on the boards for most of the season once again.

– Benny Nadeau

THE BURNING QUESTION

Following the Irving-Thomas trade, can Boston finally topple Cleveland?

This is undoubtedly a difficult question, but we won’t have a better idea until Thomas returns from that long-term hip injury, whenever that may be. The Cavaliers coasted through the regular season in 2016-17 and ceded the No. 1 position to Boston in the process, all before annihilating them in the conference finals. Ultimately, as long as Thomas is healthy come playoff time, Cleveland remains the odds-on favorite to reach the championship for the fourth straight season.

Derrick Rose is not an equal-level replacement for Thomas, but he’ll get the job done on most nights. Crowder, on the other hand, instantly becomes Cleveland’s third-best forward behind Kevin Love and James. Even if the Celtics can’t overcome the Cavaliers this season, this won’t be the last time this burning question is asked, particularly so if James leaves in 2018.

Although Hayward, Irving and Horford will form a fearsome trio in 2017-18, the future is still incredibly bright as well. Anchored by Stevens and guided by the internal development of Smart, Brown and Tatum, the Celtics’ franchise is looking quite strong these days.

– Benny Nadeau

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