By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Danny Ainge has methodically put together a successful rebuild over the past few seasons via a variety of roster building techniques. Not only has he pried some young talent with the team’s extensive collection of draft picks, but he’s pried away a bunch of undervalued players on the free agent and trade markets the past two seasons.
After leading Boston to a 48-win season last year, those players are starting to get some of the recognition they deserve in the media world. That’s exactly the case in this year’s Top 100 NBA Players rankings in Sports Illustrated. Five players on Boston’s roster have made the cut this year, a three-player increase from the same list last September.
Let’s take a closer look at which Celtics got the nod and how they stack up against the rest of the NBA’s best.
No. 86 Amir Johnson (last year: No. 89)
One of two Celtics to make last year’s top 100 got a slight bump in the rankings this year, much to my surprise. Johnson finished the final two months of the season on a very strong note, but was very inconsistent to that point. His lack of offense and rebounding reliability to that point kept him out of closeout lineups during many games. He’s ahead of bigs like Enes Kanter and Ryan Anderson on this list due to his defensive abilities, but it’s doubtful he’ll ever earn the big money that both of those names command.
No. 72 Avery Bradley (last year: NR)
The longest tenured member of the Celtics ended last season on a sour note with a hamstring injury in the Hawks series, and the ensuing five games were a terrific way to showcase Bradley’s value. Boston’s offense spiraled without his strong 3-point shooting and the team’s defense also dropped down a notch without his all-defense abilities. To make the leap past shooting guards like Danny Green and Kyle Korver on this list, he’s going to have turn his good 3-point shooting (36.1 percent) to great. At age 25, Bradley still has plenty of time to make that leap.
No. 53 Jae Crowder (last year: NR)
Few players improved their stock more than Crowder last season, as evidenced by him jumping 47 players to get to this spot. An end-of-season ankle injury led to a ineffective Crowder down the stretch and during the playoffs, but for the first five months of the season, he was a borderline All-Star in the East. Crowder has morphed into a reliable two-way player and if he can improve upon his 3-point shooting (33.6 percent), he should continue to rise up the ranks.
No. 45 Isaiah Thomas (last year: No. 88)
If there was one player who was motivated by his ranking last year, it was Thomas. The 5-foot-9 point guard has been an underdog his entire life, but clearly felt snubbed by his evaluation last year.
No such outrage from Thomas yet on his placement this season after he jumped up 43 spots, although a case could be made he should be higher (ahead of Kemba Walker at No. 36, for instance), since there are several non All-Stars ahead of him.
No. 18 Al Horford (last year: No. 21)
The newest member of the Celtics is now their best player in the eyes of Sports Illustrated, as the publication put him among the top 7 players in the entire Eastern Conference for next season. If he lives up to this type of billing, a sharp improvement from Boston’s 48 win campaign in 2015-16 would not come as a surprise at all.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.