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Celtics prepare for life in deep end

Isaiah Thomas (right) will get his minutes, but what about Jared Sullinger and Jonas Jerebko?Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

What the Celtics displayed in their two games in Europe is extreme depth. Coach Brad Stevens was able to shuttle players in and out with little fear of dropoff. While president of basketball operations Danny Ainge did not procure a premier player this summer, he did compile a well-rounded roster.

The question is whether that will result in improvement. The 2014-15 Celtics won 40 games but finished the season 24-12 to claim the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. Essentially the same roster is returning, with the additions of David Lee, Amir Johnson, and rookies Terry Rozier, R.J. Hunter, and Jordan Mickey.

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But in a star-driven league that's fueled by brilliant players, can the Celtics survive, and even thrive, in an improved Eastern Conference with a balanced roster that lacks star power?

What was noticeable during their two games against Olimpia Milano and Real Madrid was that their younger core has improved. Kelly Olynyk has benefited from a summer with Team Canada. Jared Sullinger appeared motivated by being one of the last veterans off the bench. Avery Bradley has worked on his corner 3-pointers and appears more comfortable from behind the arc than in years past.

The consensus is that the Celtics have improved from last season. They will be a contender in the Eastern Conference, perhaps not on the level of the Cleveland Cavaliers or Chicago Bulls, but they won't be crawling toward the eighth seed.

The Eastern Conference has improved with teams such as the Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, and Detroit Pistons all making strides, and none of that quartet reached the playoffs last season. The field will be more competitive but the Celtics should be above that level. The expectations have risen.

"I think the benefit for them is that there's a continuity there," former Nets assistant general manager Bobby Marks said. "They've added David and Amir but everything else kind of returns. So there's a lot of familiarity with that group there. That's probably going to spring them ahead a little bit. You could see that [in Europe]. Guys like playing with each other, that's half the battle right there. Everyone knows their roles."

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The perception in the NBA is that teams without stars are limited in how far they can advance. The Celtics were bested by star power last year – Kyrie Irving, LeBron James — during their four-game sweep by the Cavaliers last spring in the first round. But besides Cleveland, the Eastern Conference competitors all have question marks.

Is Miami healthy enough? Will Derrick Rose ever return to form in Chicago? What happens to Toronto's re-emphasis on defense after last year's disastrous playoff sweep by Washington? And will Paul Pierce's exit send the Wizards back a peg?

There is no reason why the Celtics couldn't contend in the East if the players understand their roles and remain healthy, and if the team receives production out of their younger core.

"I think they can [compete] because they have a lot of depth," Marks said. "The league is a lot about survival and if you can get to the finish line after 82 games still standing, you're going to be in pretty good shape when you get into April. I like their depth. They have depth at pretty much every position. I don't know whether they are going to be at that Cleveland level. [But] you never know what's going to happen in Chicago. They're always a wild card.

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"Basically, 1-15, they've got guys you can plug in each night."

With depth their biggest asset, the Celtics' challenge in the next 2½ weeks before the season opener against the Philadelphia 76ers is getting players to embrace roles and developing a rotation. Somebody is going to be disappointed. Regular-season games aren't like these preseason ones where Stevens can limit minutes and experiment with rotations.

He has to make some difficult decisions. Stevens said before the team embarked for Europe that he would consider a 10-man rotation, meaning two players are going to be generally unhappy about playing time every night. That's one of the detractors of having great depth.

"It's going to be hard, especially when you look at Rozier and R.J. Hunter, who are they going to play in front of?" Marks said. "Or James Young, how much of an impact is he going to have? It's hard to get a gauge on some of these younger kids. Once the regular season starts, Isaiah Thomas is going to get his minutes. It's just a matter of where can you possibly find minutes for [younger players.]"

Marks had nothing but compliments for Stevens.

"I think he's a great coach," Marks said. "I've watched from afar. I think he's got a great feel for these guys. There's an ultimate respect with the players on that team and they love playing for him. I think he's done a heck of a job."

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So the foundation has been set. The Celtics appear prepared to take a major step forward, and they are no longer viewed as upstarts, despite their wait for a superstar to arrive in Boston.


Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.