Preview: Boston Celtics

2017-18 Boston Celtics


Projected Record: 53-29 (2nd in East)

Over/Under: 56.5

2016: 53-29 (2nd in East)


Key Additions:

  • G Kyrie Irving
  • G/F Gordon Hayward
  • F Jayson Tatum
  • F Semi Ojeleye
  • F Marcus Morris
  • C Aron Baynes
  • G Shane Larkin

Key Subtractions:

  • G Isaiah Thomas
  • F Jae Crowder
  • G Avery Bradley
  • F/C Kelly Olynyk
  • F/C Amir Johnson
  • C Ante Zizic*
  • F Jonas Jerebko
  • G/F Gerald Green
  • C Tyler Zeller

*Did not play for the Celtics last season.


Summary

Strengths:

  • Depth and versatility
  • Offensive firepower
  • Youth

Weaknesses:

  • Massive roster turnover
  • Fewer impact defenders
  • Large roles for young players
  • Rebounding

We had all been waiting for Celtics GM Danny Ainge to cash in his significant pile of assets for some time now, and, well… he finally did it. The Celtics were incredibly busy this offseason, turning over a whopping 75% of their roster in the process of retooling. The process behind a number of those deals concerns me, but as a whole, I like the current long-term outlook of the team.

The Crown Jewels of the Celtics’ summer are Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, who we’ll discuss shortly. Hayward was a free agent acquisition that had long been tied to Boston due to his connection with coach Brad Stevens, who coached him at Butler. Irving, though, was the result of friction in Cleveland that led to a mega-deal between the Cavaliers and Celtics. The trade: Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the fabled Brooklyn pick for Irving. It’s a significant overpay, and one that doesn’t exactly improve the Celtics this year – Thomas was arguably the better of the two last season, and Crowder was an extremely valuable rotation piece – but in the long-term, Irving is only 25 years old and an extra year removed from free agency.

The Celtics have now assembled one of the league’s youngest rosters. There are five rookies on this team – Jayson Tatum, Semi Ojeleye, Daniel Theis, Guershon Yabusele, and Abdel Nader – and all but Nader stand to play some amount of minutes in the rotation. Second-year forward Jaylen Brown is a starter to open the season. Third-year guard Terry Rozier and four-year professional wrestler Marcus Smart are the primary backups in the backcourt. Overall, only five players on the roster have five or more seasons in the league: Irving, Hayward, Al Horford, Marcus Morris, and Aron Baynes.

I’ve said many times through this project that it’s incredibly hard for teams that lean heavily on rookies and second-year players to contend, and it applies here too, despite what my win projection might suggest. The Celtics are going to have to be carried through much of the year by the Irving-Hayward-Horford trio, because the kids will have unavoidable growing pains. Those growing pains are to be expected, but they matter a little more to a team like Boston that still hopes to contend for a top seed in the Eastern Conference again this season than one like Phoenix, that doesn’t honestly have much of a chance to make the playoffs at all. I believe the Celtics will get there, but they’re volatile, and that makes them a difficult team to confidently project.


Most Valuable Player: Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving

I want to make no mistake here: I believe Gordon Hayward is the best player on the Celtics’ roster this season. I have always liked Kyrie Irving as a player, but he’s not the complete package in quite the same way Hayward is, and I think Hayward is closer to that Paul George/Jimmy Butler tier of elite wing players than most people are willing to give him credit for.

Hayward has operated in one of the slowest-paced offenses in basketball for some time now in Utah, and that’s put a bit of a cap on his production and his exposure. While the Jazz were awesome last season, they weren’t necessarily the most fun to watch. Brad Stevens’ wide-open offense could not be more different, and I think it’s going to expose a lot of people to just how good Hayward really is; he’s an outstanding shooter and a capable passer, and a better defender than you think. He had the best season of his career for the Jazz last year, and he might now have the perfect marriage of coach and circumstances to push himself even further.

Kyrie Irving is harder to predict. He’s undeniably talented at putting the ball in the hoop, a wizard with the crossover and a lethal threat from beyond the arc, but he’s played in a particularly… team-oriented style. Kyrie likes to dribble, a lot, and a lot of his offensive action in Cleveland came in improvised ISOs, something that just doesn’t exist very much in a Stevens offense. He’s also left something to be desired as a facilitator, and his defense has been virtually nonexistent.

Kyrie has looked like a changed man since joining the Celtics; he applied maximum effort throughout the preseason, avoided ISO situations and moved the basketball, and even applied himself on defense – not that he magically started locking people down or anything, he just tried harder. There’s no doubt he’s feeling a little more motivated to prove himself since his exodus from Cleveland and the resulting coverage, but my question is: will this newfound effort last all season? It’s all well and good that he wants to stick it to the Cavaliers with their opening-night matchup looming, but what about Game 52 against the Hawks in January? Will he still be bodying up on Dennis Schroeder in that game, or will he regress back to old habits?

Kyrie is still only 25 years old. I’m not willing to say he’s finished growing as a player yet, because 25-year-olds in sports seldom are. The Celtics need him to be more than he was in Cleveland, though, if their massive deal to acquire him is going to pay dividends. It remains to be seen exactly how much more he can be.

X Factor: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown

The Crown Jewels of the Celtics’ last two draft classes, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum – with their wonderfully thematic first names – will find themselves carrying a significant burden for the Celtics this season, one that players their age don’t normally receive. If there’s one recurring theme that I want to emphasize from this entire preview, it’s this: it’s very, very hard for young players to be great in the NBA. It just doesn’t happen often, but the deepest flaw in the Celtics’ roster is that it may have to, multiple times, in order for the team to reach its full potential.

Brown had a fairly conservative rookie year, playing only 17 minutes per game for much of the year and 12 in the playoffs. The Celtics were deep enough that there was never really a significant need to take the leash off. Advanced stats hated him – he graded out extremely negatively in Box Plus-Minus and VORP – but I believe he showed flashes of how he might be able to contribute, especially on the defensive end. Brown is an excellent athlete, with the physical tools to keep up with both guards and wings, and he’s an extremely smart kid.

While he was raw and didn’t show the most natural feel for the game, he’s a quick learner, and there are aspects of his game that can be built upon. Concerns that he won’t be able to shoot enough seem a bit overstated – he was already around league average from behind the arc last year (34%), and he quietly hit 44% of his threes from the corners. With more minutes alongside Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, it could be easier for him to get to his spots.

Tatum was touted at the draft for his NBA readiness, and the Celtics clearly believe in it, because he’s going to start at one of the two forward spots in their opener… against LeBron James. Shot selection is a big concern for Tatum, who lived off of contested mid-range jumpers and fadeaways at Duke. He was sophisticated enough offensively to thrive against college competition, but those shots won’t cut it in the NBA, and while he largely looked good in Summer League and Preseason, these issues persisted. He’s also been an inconsistent three-point shooter to this point.

The good news for both of these players is that sharing the court with Irving, Hayward, and Horford will create a lot of good looks for each of them, as Irving and Hayward attract the bulk of the defensive attention and Horford’s passing spreads the ball around. Still, they’ll need to outperform normal expectations for players their age for the Celtics to hit their team ceiling, and that’s no small thing to ask.


Conclusion

Danny Ainge guided the Celtics into a stunningly active offseason, incredibly retaining only four players from the team that took the East’s top overall seed a year ago. The process may have been flawed – the Fultz-Tatum trade will largely depend on how the two develop as pros, and the Thomas-Irving deal still feels like a massive overpay for Boston – but it feels as though the course of the franchise going forward is now clear: Irving and Hayward are the franchise, with a surplus of young players on their way.

In the present, though, the Celtics are about the same – maybe a little worse – than they were this time last year. Hayward is the biggest change, and Irving will be hard-pressed to provide equal or greater value to what Isaiah Thomas did last season, even if he improves from the player he was in Cleveland. The Celtics have a number of interesting potential two-way wings, but they’re extremely young, and youth is volatile, hard to predict. I think the relative weakness of the Eastern Conference combined with the strength of the Celtics’ top three players will carry them to a top seed once again, but they’re one unfortunate injury or a slow growth curve from a few of the kids away from slipping.

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