BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics and their fans finally got their fireworks.
With a 53-win campaign in the rearview mirror, punctuated by the East’s No. 1 seed and capped by head coach Brad Stevens’ first trip to the conference finals in four years in Boston, Celts president of basketball operations Danny Ainge dismantled his lovable but limited roster.
Ainge saw an opportunity to lure former Stevens pupil Gordon Hayward from the Jazz and acquire finals hero Kyrie Irving from his chief conference rival – two All-Stars who believe they’ve yet to reach their potential – so he did, leaving the C’s with just four returning bodies from last season: Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier.
When Stevens’ new-look group opens training camp Tuesday on the campus of Salve Regina University in Newport, RI, they’ll do it with 10 new players under guaranteed contracts. Starters and heart-and-soul leaders Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Jae Crowder are gone, as are key contributors Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, and Gerald Green.
Boston’s added a third overall pick for the second straight offseason in highly-touted Duke wing Jayson Tatum, tough-minded forward Marcus Morris, rebounder Aron Baynes, and a collection of young recent draft picks or international signings (Semi Ojeleye, Guerschon Yabusele, Daniel Theis, Abdel Nader, and Shane Larkin). Stevens has already heaped praise upon Ojeleye, the 37th overall pick in the 2017 draft, as an anticipated important rotation player.
The biggest and most glaring question entering camp and the subsequent season is, of course, how will Stevens fit the puzzle together? A collective unit, mind you, with high expectations.
“We’re almost complete strangers,” Irving told reporters last Friday at the team’s unveiling of their redesigned jerseys. “We’re very big fans of each other’s games, but in terms of how we will mesh and collectively mesh as a group, that’s a ways away.”
One of the holdovers, Rozier, recently told me on 98.5 The Sports Hub, “I’m pretty sure we’re going to probably have some rough patches at the beginning. It’s common for a team that just got together, but I think we’re going to be pretty good. And that’s the goal. So I’m not really so much worried about comparing this year to last year. We were a heck of a team last year, but I think we’ll be pretty good this year.”
Most teams aren’t the 2007-08 Celtics, a 24-win roster overhauled to include Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and several complementary pieces on the way to a 66-16 record and Banner 17. That group jumped out to a 29-3 record and never looked back. It was a juggernaut.
When a team undergoes a transition as radical as what Ainge just laid at Stevens’ whiteboard, slow (or even mildly mediocre) starts are expected. The LeBron James-Chris Bosh-Dwyane Wade Miami Heat of 2010-11 started 9-8 before rattling off 21 wins in 22 games. Once James returned to Cleveland with Kevin Love in tow to join Irving in 2014, those Cavaliers began 5-7, won eight straight and were sitting 19-20 before a 12-game winning streak pushed them ahead of the pack. Both Heat and Cavs clubs reached the NBA finals.
Complicating matters more for Stevens and all those fresh faces, last year there were seven preseason games for a roster that returned significant continuity, save for Horford and Brown. This year, there are four exhibition contests, starting Oct. 2 at the Garden against the Hornets. Not a lot of time for Stevens to find the right lineup combinations, even if the constant of positional versatility remains.
That in mind, there are several questions heading into the new season.
– Who starts? Horford’s the lone holdover from the regular unit. While Stevens will surely experiment during the preseason and likely even during the regular season based on matchups, conventional wisdom would suggest the starting five will feature Irving, Brown, Hayward, Morris, and Horford, with a faster, fitter Smart as the first man off the bench. That, by the way, is if Morris isn’t found guilty of a 2015 assault charge for which he’s currently standing trial, and later jailed or suspended. Stevens loves featuring the now longest-tenured Smart as the club’s sixth man and tenacious leader of the second unit, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get his fair share of starts, especially in the event of injury. Similarly, Baynes could conceivably start against bigger clubs that require more of an emphasis on rebounding.
– Who rebounds? Cleaning up the glass is one of the many technical questions facing this team, and that approach will surely start to be shaped in training camp and preseason action but, given the lack of dominating personnel under contract and few available options who fit Stevens’ floor-spacing scheme, we should expect to see another team-minded, gang-effort. Baynes is the team’s best pure rebounder, but probably won’t see enough minutes to make a significant statistical difference. Currently, Ainge has one available roster spot to work with in the event he’d like to swing a trade before the Oct. 17 opener or once the season’s underway, though most rumored targets have landed elsewhere (like Andrew Bogut and Thomas Robinson). He’s well aware the squad finished 27th in rebound percentage last year, equally poor whether offensively (T-24th) or defensively (27th).
– How will Boston’s new roster respond defensively? Smart is now clearly the team’s best perimeter defender with Bradley and Crowder gone, though Hayward’s abilities exceed his reputation in that area and former Pistons Morris and Baynes are solid defensive bigs. Truth be told, it’s possible, even likely, Hayward will be the group’s best all-around player. Irving isn’t significantly better on the defensive end than Thomas, but he’s six inches taller, which could alter the results if he fully buys into Stevens’ system on both sides of the ball. Boston’s defensive rating was 105.5 points allowed per 100 possessions in 2016-17, which ranked 12th in the league and well off a fourth-place 100.9 rating the year prior. The last team to win an NBA title without ranking in the top-10 defensively was the 2001 Lakers.
– Is the offense as good as we think? Worth noting, the Celtics’ offensive rating last season was 108.6 as compared to 103.9 the year before, and this roster should have no problem getting buckets. Irving and Hayward should each average at least 20 points, Horford and the increasingly confident Brown could hover around 15 per game, and Morris, Smart (with his gradually improving, still streaky jumper), and Tatum (impressive in Summer League) may all finish in double-figures as well. And the more open-minded Irving is as a traditional point guard, as he’s discussed since his arrival, the more assists he’ll rack up as Boston piles up points. Is he prepared for less isolation and more responsibility than he had in Cleveland? Can Irving carry a team on his shoulders, something he didn’t have to do the last three years alongside the egomaniacal best player in the world? And how will he share the load with Hayward?
– Who’s the leader? Thomas and Crowder were emotional leaders, while Bradley was arguably the most positive-thinking player you’ll come across in the NBA. Short of Stevens, those three represented, cultivated, and embodied much of the Green’s identity. Will Horford feel more vocally comfortable in that role than he did in his first year in the Hub? He mentioned in his first postseason in Boston he’d only just started to feel at ease in his new environment and role. Will Smart, just 23 and surrounded by All-Star vets, feel empowered? How about Irving, a philosophical spirit who’s emphasized his desire to be in an environment where he can be the man? Or Hayward, familiar with leading a less talent team of plucky overachievers under Stevens back at Butler?
These great many questions obviously won’t all be answered in the next three weeks, but the cultivating begins now. There’s no need for concern, but perhaps modest early-season expectations. It shouldn’t be alarming if the Celts start slow and don’t match last year’s 53-win total because, at their core, this group is better positioned for a deeper playoff run than its previous incarnation. Last spring, they would have needed James to bow out with a series-ending injury to have a realistic chance to upset the Cavs. A few months later, a date with the champion Warriors come June is very much in focus.