There’s a new guy who is one of the missing puzzle pieces. There’s the returning All-Star who has become Boston’s adopted son. There’s the No. 3 overall pick who will have a glaring spotlight on him as he develops on the fly. There’s the blue-collar, scrappy role players who thrive on defense and emotion. There’s the prodigy coach who is widely heralded as he enters his fourth season.
And there’s a bar set higher than the top of the proverbial backboard.
These are your 2016-17 Celtics.
We’ve written extensively about the expectations, about the offseason moves and their impact on the upcoming season, and even answered your burning questions. We’ve projected where this iteration of the Celtics will likely finish and how many games they are likely to win.
“This Celtics team is more prepared and experienced than last season’s, but even management acknowledges that championship piece is missing. This team will be entertaining and have a chance to win on a nightly basis for the first time in Stevens’s tenure. But there remains a sense of uncertainty. How will all of this work out?” the Globe’s Gary Washburn wrote.
“That question will hover over this team until it goes through the season together. The journey won’t be easy.”
As Al Horford, Isaiah Thomas, Jaylen Brown, Jae Crowder, Brad Stevens & Co. embark on their season Wednesday against the Nets, we took stock of the league-wide expectations of this group among NBA reporters and experts. On the whole, the Celtics are thought to be poised for a No. 2 finish in the Eastern Conference, an improvement from the No. 5 spot last year and the No. 7 spot in 2014-15.
But some of the questions mark looming over this Boston team concern its ceiling, whether the addition of Horford is enough, and if it’s “a scoring wing away from being a truly dangerous title contender.”
ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk argued that Horford alone cannot get Boston on Cleveland’s level, especially taking into account his most recent playoff performance.
“I love his passing and his perimeter shooting, but I was disturbed by his playoff production for the Hawks. He grabbed 14 rebounds against the Cavs. Not in a game — in the series!” he wrote in an NBA preview that projected the Celtics to go 51-31 and finish second in the East. “He’s a great signing, but he’s not going to win Boston 10 more games.”
The Vertical’s Chris Mannix contended the Horford acquisition is enough for the Celtics to nip at the Cavaliers’ heels, especially because Horford — who has averaged 14.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 33.1 minutes over his nine-year career — will in theory deter some of the extra defensive attention paid to Thomas and allow the younger players develop. However, that won’t be quite enough to overthrow the Cleveland rule in the East.
“While Boston isn’t a threat to the Cavs’ conference supremacy just yet, make no mistake: They are inching closer. Horford is everything the Celtics lacked last season, a true post scorer, a versatile weapon who improves the team on both ends of the floor,” Mannix wrote.
“Cleveland’s stranglehold on the conference remains tight, yet Boston continues to look like a team poised to eventually compete with the Cavs . . . For now Boston will fight for the top spot in the second tier, to muscle past the likes of Toronto, Atlanta, and Indiana for the conference’s second seed.”
NBA.com’s survey of general managers seems to align with that line of thinking. The Horford-to-Boston move ranked as the second-most impactful signing of the offseason, behind, of course, Kevin Durant to Golden State.
ESPN’s Marc Stein has the Celtics at No. 5 in his league-wide preseason power rankings, projecting Boston to climb, at minimum, into the 50-win NBA bracket.
“Horford, amazingly, has only been on a two 50-win teams to date in a nine-season career. You suspect it won’t be an issue making that three in 2016-17, now that he’s part of the Danny Ainge-Brad Stevens revolution in Boston.”
Assuming the Celtics improve on their 3-point shooting and Horford goes into the Stevens fold seamlessly, ESPN’s Zach Lowe pitted Boston into the Best of the Rest category of his preseason league breakdown, the fourth tier behind only the Warriors, Cavaliers, Clippers, and Spurs.
“Boston should make playoff noise. [The Celtics] had the scoring margin of a 50-win team last season. Horford reanimates every limb of an offense that suffocated amid cramped spacing. He’s a better shooter than every other Boston big, save Kelly Olynyk, and by far the most well-rounded pick-and-roll option of the Brad Stevens era — key for a team that ranked an ugly 27th in points per possession on plays their screeners finished with a shot, turnover, or drawn foul, per Synergy Sports,” Lowe wrote.
“Toss in a defense that should be among the three or four stingiest, and Boston starts in a dead heat with Toronto for the No. 2 seed.”
Speaking of defense, the GM survey was favorable to the Celtics’ defensive prowess, as a team and individually. Avery Bradley ranked as the league’s third-best defensive player and as the league’s second-best perimeter defensive player. Overall, GMs graded Boston as the second-best defensive squad behind the Spurs.
That defensive acumen is in large part due to Stevens’s commitment to that end of the floor. The fourth-year coach also impressed in the GM survey, ranking as the third-best coach in the league (behind Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle), the third-best motivator of his players (behind Pop and Steve Kerr), and third-best at mid-game adjustments (behind Carlisle and Pop). Stevens has been able to mish-mash players and squeeze every ounce of potential out of them, even if those players aren’t necessarily widely trumpeted.
That those players stand out more as a unit than as individuals is evident when perusing player rankings, like The Washington Post’s top 100 players in the NBA. Tim Bontemps ranked four Celtics the top 100. The highest-ranking player is the shortest-tenured member of the team: Horford, who rang in at No. 27.
“For all of Horford’s skill on the court, it will be interesting to see how much of an impact he has on Boston’s win total next season,” Bontemps wrote. “The answer may be less than people expect.”
Bontemps slotted Thomas at No. 40, Crowder at No. 41, and Bradley at No. 63, projecting Thomas and Crowder on the upswings of their careers and Bradley remaining consistent (rather than declining or improving). Here’s Bontemps’s assessment on this trio:
“Thomas has been the beneficiary of finding himself in the absolute perfect situation for his skillset since coming to Boston . . . If the belief was that they just needed more talent to be successful in the playoffs it will be tested with the addition of Horford this season.”
“Crowder’s ascension . . . has been impressive to watch. His versatility – particularly on defense, where he can guard several positions – gives Stevens plenty of options to employ at either end.”
“Bradley has developed into a very nice ‘3 and D’ wing player — the kind every NBA team covets these days . . . Bradley still feels like a possible trade chip for Boston if the Celtics go all-in for a star this season.”
So what’s the worst-case scenario for Boston?
Bontemps spells it out: These young players don’t break through, Ainge doesn’t pull off a trade at the deadline, and team winds up winning 40 or so games again.
The best case? Horford lives up to the expectations, the offense thrives, the defense flourishes, the team loses in the Eastern Conference finals and gets “the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft thanks to the trade with the Brooklyn Nets that keeps on giving.”
Follow Rachel G. Bowers on Twitter @RachelGBowers.