As the Celtics start a new season, they find themselves in a kind of basketball purgatory. They have, without question, improved their roster. But they still might not be good enough to climb in the Eastern Conference standings. Instead, they are in the awkward position of being just good enough to make it more difficult to become great.
As they learned last year, being in the middle of the pack leads to draft picks in the middle of the pack, which makes it challenging to escape that wormhole. (Of course, the 2016 first-round pick they will get from the Brooklyn Nets could turn out to be a boon.)
Nevertheless, coach Brad Stevens primarily wants to see progress. And unlike a feverish fan base, he does not measure it in wins, losses, playoffs, or stopping LeBron James.
“I usually gauge progress by how we came to work every day, how many days we are close to our standard,” Stevens said. “Are we playing to our standard? Do we support each other? Are we able to respond to adversity? Can we handle success?”
The answers to those questions will be revealed in time. But Stevens said he also understands it is a results-oriented business. Now, the Celtics must continue and even expand on the momentum they created in the second half of last season, when they closed with a 24-12 record before being swept by the Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs.
The late surge was sparked by the February trade for point guard Isaiah Thomas, and it has bred optimism with Thomas in the fold for a full year.
The Celtics have upgraded in several other areas, too, most notably by acquiring forwards Amir Johnson and David Lee.
Johnson, signed from the Raptors, excels in the pick-and-roll and is a capable shooter and versatile defender. Lee, a two-time All-Star acquired from the Warriors, can pass, rebound, and score, and the 32-year-old has already taken on a mentoring role with some of the younger players.
“I’m getting used to people’s tendencies and what they like to do on the floor,” Lee said, “and how I can help make them most effective.”
Although the Celtics did not have a lottery pick in last June’s draft, they did have three of the top 33 selections, and the front office is excited about the resulting bounty. Guards Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter and forward Jordan Mickey had impressive preseasons.
Hunter, in particular, seemed to gain Stevens’s trust with his mix of outside shooting, playmaking and general court sense. Still, the depth of the Celtics’ roster will make it difficult for the three to receive extensive playing time. All three could have stints with the team’s D-League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws.
Stevens spent most of the offseason experimenting with different combinations. There is some clarity in the backcourt, as Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley — a pair of ball-hawking guards — will probably start, with Thomas coming off the bench. The Celtics will need to improve their outside shooting, as they made 32.7 percent of their 3-point attempts last season, ranking 27th in the league.
The frontcourt, meanwhile, is quite crowded. Lee and Johnson join a unit that also includes returning players Tyler Zeller, Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk, Jonas Jerebko, Evan Turner, and Jared Sullinger.
And since the Celtics had such success with small lineups last year — sometimes using the smaller Jerebko and Crowder at center and power forward — it could further congest the rotation of big men.
“Some games there’s going to be guys that don’t get to play much, and then the next game they might play more,” said president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. “We’ve got to be able to use our depth to our advantage.”
During the preseason, Olynyk — fresh off a summer with the Canadian national team — seemed to be playing with new confidence, and he could have a breakout season. The Celtics also will be counting on Smart to jump from standout rookie to rising star.
It also is worth noting the roster unveiled on opening night will probably not resemble the one on the final game of the season. With a treasure chest of assets at his disposal, Ainge will continue to look to make upgrades via trades.
Boston will have to use its depth to its advantage. When injuries pop up across the league, the Celtics could be capable of absorbing them without taking a step backward.
Still, it will be a challenge to leapfrog any of the six teams that finished ahead of them in the Eastern Conference last year, and other teams that finished behind Boston — like the Miami Heat — will be lurking.
“We have such a long way to go to be where we want to be,” Stevens said. “We have to play better than last year overall to make the playoffs again.”