2017-18 Preview: Boston Celtics

By Josh Eberley #41

Holding the Nets trump card no longer, the Boston Celtics are fully in play. The Celtics, more specifically Danny Ainge, dropped the gloves and showed no mercy this offseason. He watched idly as Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, and Paul George all got shipped at discount rates and then when everything got quiet he bought Kyrie Irving off the Cavaliers at a surprisingly high price. In what might’ve been the most stunning and simultaneously puzzling move of the offseason, Ainge put all his chips in the Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford basket. Ainge has a notoriously stingy reputation and he’d lived up to it right up until the acquisition of Irving. It was reported earlier in the year Ainge didn’t want to give up competing pieces in pursuit of a star, but here he sits with key cogs like Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder all gone. It was a shocking change in philosophy and a testament to how much faith Ainge must have in Irving. The Celtics who were once known as a loveable and gritty bunch of overachievers earning their stripes are now a star studded, high-lottery swarmed unit reliant on youth with serious championship aspirations.

Celtics 2017-18 Ballhandlers Wings Bigs
Returners Terry Rozier Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart Al Horford
Newcomers Kyrie Irving, Shane Larkin Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris, Semi Ojeleye, Abdel Nader Aron Baynes, Guerschon Yabusele, Daniel Theis
Gone Isaiah Thomas Gerald Green, Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, Jonas Jerebko Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Zeller
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Offense: In four seasons as the coach, Brad Stevens has improved the offense every year. They started at the bottom as the 27th ranked offense and progressed on to the 18th, 10th and ultimately 8th best offense in 2016-17. Don’t expect that trend to end here. No amount of romantic notions or approval of how hard the previous Boston unit fought can negate the firepower Irving and Hayward bring to this unit. Irving has huge shoes to fill. Thomas led the conference in scoring and finished fifth on the MVP ballot after guiding Boston to the top seed in the East. It’s a tall order, but Irving it’s all attainable for Irving—he’s that good. Where Irving can gain ground on his predecessor is on the defensive end, but will get to that. Hayward enjoyed his first All-Star season, he played his butt off in the postseason and now he will be relied on as the secondary option in Boston. Hayward’s dependability as a shooter and alternative playmaker opposite of Irving will be huge for a team now suddenly boasting a bevy of new faces, both to the franchise and the League. Hayward does have the advantage of being coached by Stevens, his college coach at Butler. Horford is a coach’s dream offensively. He’s cognitively aware of everything happening on the court, a point guard in a power forward’s body. A solid screen setter, shooter and ball mover that knows his role. Pressure will be put on Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Morris to fill in the gaps the All-Star trio does not demand. Tatum, the third pick in the 2017 draft, could be special on offense as he’s drawing many early comparisons to none other than Celtics great Paul Pierce. The Celtics won’t rush him, but Tatum could be a surprise off the bench. Crowder, Thomas, and Horford had an offensive rating of 113.8 and a net rating of +6.4 when sharing the court together last season. Irving, Hayward, and Horford will look to top that mark.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

Defense: Contrary to popular belief, the Celtics weren’t a good defensive team last year. Not by a contender status. They had the 13th ranked unit and their weaknesses were evident. Bradley, while tenacious, was small; Horford can’t body the more physical centers; and Thomas was always undersized. If the Celtics want to see real improvement they’ll need to take a step forward defensively. There are many who would argue Smart is a better defender than Bradley, but defensive depth took a hit—who is replacing Bradley and who is replacing Crowder? The Celtics are enamored with Brown. they believe the No. 3 pick in 2016 has what it takes to one day become an elite two-way star. Which is a tough sell because last year the Celtics had a net rating of +5.7 when Brown sat rather than played. Brown, Morris and Tatum are going to have to bring a high compete level on defense and accept that the offense will be a lesser part of their role. A challenge, especially for Tatum who was known for scoring and not a whole lot else coming out of Duke. Irving was a better defender than Thomas by the slimmest of margins last season. In truth, Irving’s six-inch height advantage is the main factor. Both players had negative DRPM ratings, both players had stretches where their net rating was negative despite the high output of scoring. The Cavaliers were -120 with Irving on the floor and James off the floor last season. A mark that doesn’t speak to superstar upside. If the Celtics are to see an immediate return on Irving over Thomas, it needs to come at the defensive end where the physical limitations are most clearly visible.

Upside: Make no mistake, the Celtics are looking beyond this year. Ainge is planning an open vortex rather than a window. He wants a decade of contention and he’s looking beyond this season. All that said, if Thomas isn’t 100 percent come April, the Cavaliers wildly flawed roster is vulnerable. James is going to be 33 come the playoffs with the most minutes-played by a landslide. The Cavaliers will be the favorite until they fall but they aren’t untouchable and Boston is poised to end Cleveland’s recent stranglehold on the East.

Durability: Irving has had his issues and Hayward has often been ailed. A serious injury to either would obliterate any Finals bid, but both had mostly healthy campaigns last season and seem incredibly focused on their new situation.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

Synergy: Anyone hoping for immediate chemistry is going to be disappointed. There’s always a learning curve and this is a wildly different cast. Suddenly, Smart is the veteran statesman. Human beings need time to feel each other out, on and off the court. You’d be foolish not have faith in Stevens with how well his teams have gelled to date but some patience will be required. The Celtics will overwhelm lesser opponents with talent, but if they are to beat the Cavaliers and Warriors of the League, they’ll have to find cohesion during the regular season.

Experience: Irving is only 25 years old but he won a championship and put up an all-time memorable performance without winning Finals MVP. Three straight trips to the Finals—the man is as seasoned as his alter ego, Uncle Drew. Horford hasn’t seen that kind of success but his teams have never missed the playoffs. Hayward has had a few nips of the postseason, most notably last season’s 11-game playoff run with Utah. Playing in a rabid sports town like Boston will be a whole other level for him though.

Win-frame: 50-55 wins

 2017-18 HOOP Season Preview

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