Marcus Smart is poised for a breakthrough season.
The Celtics tip off their season tonight, and visions of 50-win seasons are dancing in the heads of many prognosticators. Here are 10 things to keep in mind before tonight’s game against Philadelphia.
1. While Plan A (Kevin Love) or Plan B (Boogie Cousins) has hardly ever panned out in the roster-building phase of this rebuild, general manager Danny Ainge hit on his Plan A with the coach. Brad Stevens has delivered as much as could have been expected in his first two seasons, and all the optimism surrounding this year stems from knowing Stevens will be moving the chess pieces around. If Randy Wittman were coaching this same roster, this team would be favored to miss the playoffs. Instead, home-court advantage in the first round is a realistic goal.
2. Celtics fans that are dying for a top-3 pick (when will they ever learn?) won’t have to begrudge the current team’s success. The Brooklyn Nets will not be good this year, and the Celtics own their unprotected pick. So all those pro-tank fans can get their jollies off by watching the Nets lose. There’s a decent chance the Celtics will also get Dallas’ first-round pick (Top 7 protected) and an unlikely chance they’ll get Minnesota’s (Top 12 protected). So, you know who to root for/against all season.
3. This team is so deep that it’s a bit frustrating, which is why you hear fans concocting trade scenarios for James Young, Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger. But be patient. In an 82-game season, that depth is advantageous. Not only will one guard get hurt, but two or even three will be sidelined at the same point this season. Same for the big men. It’s nice when you can go from your 7th guy to your 12th guy and not expect a drop in quality. The ability to rest guys along the way will help come March and April.
4. As opposed to the past two seasons, when Ainge was just collecting straight assets regardless of the on-court fit, a lot of the current players complement each other well on the court. The primary three guards—Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart—all fit together when two of them are on the floor together. Bradley and Thomas can stretch the floor; Smart and Bradley are great on defense; and Smart and Thomas can penetrate off the dribble. Any combination of the two on the floor together should be a positive.
5. The same positive groupings hold for the big men. David Lee complements Tyler Zeller, and both complement Amir Johnson, who complements Kelly Olynyk, who complements Zeller. And on and on…
6. The one player who complements everyone? Jae Crowder. The 25-year-old re-signed with the Celtics this offseason (for a soon-to-be-a-bargain $7 million per year) and will be a part of many funky positional groupings this season. Sure, a lot of attention has been paid to the NBA revolution of small ball, and the Celtics have shown they can adapt to that by putting Crowder at power forward. But how about going the other way? The Celtics can wreck havoc defensively with their length and spread the floor offensively with a lineup of Smart-Crowder-Jonas Jerebko-Olynyk-Johnson.
7. Let’s talk about the rookies. On the court, Terry Rozier, Jordan Mickey and R.J. Hunter have all shown flashes of promise, which is common for all rookies. If they didn’t have flashes of promise, they wouldn’t have gotten drafted. Now comes the hard part. Can they break into a regular rotation that is full of proven veterans? And once in the rotation, can they improve and remain a consistent contributor? If Rozier or Hunter is able to do that, consider it a successful year. They both seem to have skills that will translate right away: Hunter’s shooting and Rozier’s defense. That should be enough to get them some court time during the season, and then it’s up to them to show they can be two-way players.
8. Speaking of newcomers, Lee and Johnson are the veteran newbies who can both shore up the frontcourt, which was the team’s biggest problem last season. Neither are any great shakes as rebounders, but both excel in the pick and roll, which is a key for partnering with Smart and Thomas. Johnson’s other major strength is his defense, which will give Boston much-needed interior defense (although Tyler Zeller’s advanced stats show he’s not bad in this area).
9. There’s a lot of guys with something to prove for the Celtics this season—a point we so artfully made earlier this month. But the player whose development is most important is Marcus Smart. Players, scouts and advanced stats are nearly unanimous that he has the highest ceiling on Boston right now. His defense will keep him a starter, but his offense could make him an All-Star franchise player. If he stays healthy and continues the progress he’s made on offense since being drafted, he’ll make a sophomore leap. All the hopes of the past few years will have been satisfied without any lottery luck, any major trade and any big free-agent coup.
10. That’s not to say those above possibilities won’t be available. In every Celtics’ fan’s dream, Boston will go into this offseason as a 50-win team that made the second round of the playoffs, has a Top 3 pick (from Brooklyn) and another pick in the lottery (Dallas). Oh, and nearly $50 million in cap space. The future is certainly bright in Boston. But before that time, there’s 82 games—and perhaps some extra ones come spring.