Countdown to NBA Tip-Off: Boston Celtics Season Preview

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It was an off-season filled with changes for Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics. Only four players – Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smartand Terry Rozier – remain from last season’s 53-29 team.

After failing to land Paul George from the Indiana Pacers, the Celtics “settled” to sign Gordon Hayward in free agency. Of course, they then shocked the NBA world by sending Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizicthe Brooklyn Nets 2018 first round pick, and a 2020 second round pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. It’s not often that a #1 seed revamps their entire roster to the extent that Boston did this summer. How much better did the Celtics get this off-season? Will the loss of last year’s core players come back to haunt them? Let’s evaluate with this 2017-18 Boston Celtics season preview.

Countdown to NBA Tip-Off: Boston Celtics Season Preview

What Worked Last Season

Last year the Celtics earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The selflessness, togetherness, and defensive mindset of last season’s team fueled their success. All season it seemed as if they played with a chip on their shoulder. They built an identity as underdogs carved out by their leader, Isaiah Thomas. Players like Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, and Marcus Smart embodied this spirit of toughness. The team bought into the pass-first, defensive oriented system of head coach Brad Stevens, which was essential to finishing the regular season atop the Eastern Conference.

Everything from the last paragraph – erase it. With Thomas, Crowder, and Bradley gone, the inspiring identity built last season is gone too. Brad Stevens will have to adjust and a build a team identity catered to the new faces in Boston.

Another strength of last year’s team was its depth. After trading or letting most of their bench players walk in free agency, the Celtics have suddenly gone from one of the deepest teams to one of the thinnest. In addition to the losses of Thomas, Bradley, and Crowder, Boston will enter this season without Kelly Olynyk, Gerald Green, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebkoand Tyler Zeller

What Needs Improvement

Despite finishing ahead of the Cavaliers in the regular season, the Celtics were completely overmatched in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was clear that Cleveland and Boston were still on two separate levels, prompting Ainge to make the changes he did this off-season.

Isaiah Thomas had a miraculous season in which he established himself as an elite scoring option and offensive playmaker. However, with doubts over his hip injury and defensive ability (or lack thereof), many within the organization were reluctant to move forwards with him as their franchise player. Ainge addressed this concern by acquiring Kyrie Irving in the trade that simultaneously shipped Thomas to Cleveland.

The Celtics also struggled to find a consistent, elite playmaker besides Thomas. With the duo of Irving and Hayward, Boston should have plenty of firepower in their starting lineup.

Off-Season Changes

The acquisitions of Irving and Hayward have been well noted, but one addition that could make the biggest impact in the long run is Jayson Tatum. The Celtics drafted the Duke swingman third overall after trading the first overall pick (courtesy of the Brooklyn Nets trade that keeps on giving) to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for the third overall pick and a likely top 5 pick in either next year’s draft or 2019. Tatum has the potential to become an elusive scorer, and he will likely be asked to contribute right away. After Hayward and Smart, Tatum and second year player Jaylen Brown are the two best wing options for a team that intends to compete for a championship this year. No pressure, rook.

By parting with Thomas, Crowder, the Nets 2018 pick, and a second rounder, the Celtics paid a hefty price for Kyrie Irving. Danny Ainge has been heavily criticized for holding onto his assets instead of using them to bring in championship-caliber talent. All of a sudden many are now criticizing Ainge for giving up too many assets. In fairness, Ainge was probably right with his disciplined, patient approach to acquire star players. However, he did give up a lot to bring in Irving. It’s all hypothetical at this point, but this off-season could have been a historic success had Ainge traded for George (without giving up Thomas) in addition to signing Hayward.

A trade that gets lost in Boston’s flurry of off-season moves is the swap of Avery Bradley for Marcus Morris. The Celtics would have preferred to keep Bradley, but they had to shed his salary in order to sign Hayward. However this wasn’t simply a salary dump – Morris can play. He’s currently slotted to start as their power forward, where he can stretch the floor with his 36 percent career three-point percentage. Morris should be a sneaky good addition to this team.

To sum up the Celtic’s hectic off-season, here is a list of additions and subtractions.

Additions:

Subtractions:

This off-season will force the Celtics to adopt a completely different brand of basketball. The chemistry and likability of last year’s team is lost, but Irving and Hayward figure to bring an elite duo to Boston for years to come. After one of the busiest off-seasons in NBA history, this is what the Celtics are left with this for 2017-18.

2017-18 Predictions

Well, the Celtics have as good of a chance as any team has in the past seven years to prevent LeBron James from winning the Eastern Conference. For a while it looked like maybe they could be the favorites, but with the Cavs’ addition of Dwyane Wade, Cleveland should be the heavy favorites to represent the East once again. Come playoff time with a presumably healthy Isaiah Thomas, the Cavs will be one of the deepest teams in NBA history.

As last season proved, it doesn’t really matter whether the Cavs or Celtics finish with the #1 seed in the regular season. Boston should face some threat from Washington, Toronto, or Milwaukee on their path to the Eastern Conference Finals, but assuming they get there, the Cavaliers will be their main challenge once again.

This time around the Cavs will look very different yet strangely familiar. It’s extremely rare to see the two top teams in a conference exchange superstars with each other like Cleveland and Boston did this summer. At the very least, it will make for an extremely interesting playoff matchup.

I’ll give the Celtics a 25 percent chance to beat the Cavaliers, which is probably a much higher chance than most journalists would give the Celtics. If Boston were to beat Cleveland, the dooming task of facing Golden State would almost definitely be next in the NBA Finals. The trio of Irving, Hayward, and Horford is nice, but the Celtics are still no where close to the same stratosphere as the Warriors.

Despite a completely different roster, Boston will probably finish with roughly the same number of wins. There will be chemistry issues, and there will be problems with their lack of depth, but the talent of their top players and young draft picks – coupled with the excellent coaching of Brad Stevens – should be enough to keep Boston as a top two seed in the East.

Last season the Celtics were labeled by many as overachievers. With a top-heavy roster it will be difficult to see this year’s Celtics as overachievers; if anything, they may finish as underachievers.

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