The Boston Celtics kick off their 2014-15 season tonight. It’s a season that’s road was determined on May 21, when the lottery balls bounced against the Celtics and landed them the sixth pick in the draft. A top three pick would’ve given them the currency to chase Kevin Love and fill in around the edges with a rim protector such as Omer Asik. Instead, they snagged Marcus Smart, a highly touted combo guard who was projected to be the top pick in the draft in 2013. It was signal that—despite management’s best efforts—a long rebuild is ahead. But that long rebuild doesn’t need to be devoid of fun or memorable moments. Heck, the 1997-98 Celtics knocked off the defending champs (the Bulls) in the season opener en route to 36 wins in Rick Pitino’s first year of coaching a mishmash of players. Or it could get ugly with the Celtics trading away veterans such as Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green for future draft picks and young players. Here’s five predictions for the upcoming season:
Rajon Rondo will play at least 80 games with the Celtics, posting his best statistical season to date.
A “nap-time decision” for the season opener, we’ll soon find out whether Rondo can play in the first game of the season, let alone 80 of them. But the big question is if he’ll be around after the Feb. 19 trade deadline to suit up for the game against the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 20. It’s a twist of fate that the first game after the deadline is at Sacramento, the same team he’s been linked to in rumors and the same city he skipped out on traveling to last year in Birthdaygate. That was a game in which coach Brad Stevens coincidentally also earned his first ejection as a coach. But let the conspiracy theorists read into that incident what they will. Rondo’s got half the season to prove he’d be worthy of a deal along the lines of 5 years, $95 million (not quite the max, but still more than other teams can offer). If he scores more than his previous high of 13.7 points per game and continues to distribute about 11 assists per game, then he’d likely be a guy you’d want to keep around for a rebuild—or at least to keep some buzz among fans and sponsors during the rebuild. With Rondo, you’d only be one All-Star away from a spot in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Jeff Green will lead the Celtics in scoring … before being traded at midseason.
The expectations for Jeff Green have weighed him down since the day he arrived in Boston. Forget for a moment that the Celtics hosed the Thunder in the Kendrick Perkins-Green deal (Perkins was never the same after his ACL injury). Green led the team in scoring last season, but he wasn’t a demonstrative leader and he had too many 5-point games to go along with 25-point games. That’s not a bad thing, but for a team that needs a consistent scoring threat, Green was too often passive. If he was the fifth or sixth option on a contender, he’d be lauded—but as the third-highest paid player in Boston, he’s often criticized. With a player option on his deal after this season, the Celtics could certainly trade him to a team such as Golden State or Washington for a late first-round draft pick. When he’s gone, he will likely be labeled a bust, but that’s not fair to Green, a hard-working, productive player. He’s just not what others want him to be.
The Rajon Rondo-Marcus Smart-Avery Bradley-Kelly Olynyk-Jared Sullinger lineup will log the most—and most productive—minutes on the team.
On paper, it looks like three point guards and two power forwards, so it might be a tough fit. But consider the lineup the Warriors played in 2013 of Jarrett Jack, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry, or the Phoenix Suns backcourt of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe from last season. Both of those backcourts were very productive and caused nightmare matchups for other teams. The perimeter defense of Smart/Bradley/Rondo would be a massive strength, especially as the NBA game drifts farther out to the 3-point line. That backcourt pressure would help make up for Olynyk and Sullinger’s defensive troubles. Olynyk and Sullinger are both talented passers with good shooting touch, which will be needed since Smart and Rondo’s shots are unreliable. This lineup would be fast and would include two guys who can create their own shot (Rondo and Smart) as well as two exceptional off-the-ball cutters (Bradley and Olynyk). Olynyk and Sullinger would play interchangeable “big” positions on offense, while Bradley and Smart held down two interchangeable wing spots. Oh, and they’re all 23 or under, aside from Rondo. This is the lineup you sell as part of the rebuild. This is the lineup you need to make work, barring a change of luck (or the rules) in the draft lottery in the next few years.
James Young will spend at least a month in the developmental league.
It’s nothing against the Celtics’ rookie, but missed time from his preseason injury compounded with missed time from his offseason injury has put him far behind the 8-ball—and he was already a bit of a project since he’s coming off only one year in college. Young’s shooting ability looks like it will find him a place on the court at some point, but getting time ahead of Bradley, Smart, Green, Evan Turner, Marcus Thornton and even Gerald Wallace looks like it could be tough. That makes him a third-string player at the start of the season, so he’s better off playing 35 minutes a night in Maine. It’s similar to what happened with Bradley during his rookie season, and it worked out well in the long run for him, eventually displacing a Hall of Famer in the starting lineup midway through his second season.
The Celtics will win 34 games, finishing 10th in the East.
While the Raptors will be good again, the Celtics should benefit from an otherwise weakened Atlantic Division. Coach Brad Stevens seems far more relaxed and wise this season, and it’s apparent he wants the rebuilding effort to bypass the tanking stage, which is possible. The Pacers and Mavericks are prime examples that you don’t need to bottom out to improve. But you can also look at the top 3 teams in each conference (Spurs, Clippers, Thunder, Bulls, Wizards, Cavaliers) and find a total of 13 players picked in the top 4 of the draft. The Celtics haven’t had a top 4 draft pick since 1997. While the Celtics might be better off stripping the roster bare to tank, that’s a tough sell for sponsors and season ticketholders, not to mention a fanbase that likely can’t handle one more lottery night that goes wrong for Boston after a season of tanking. That makes Stevens a fine leader for a team that wants to instill a culture of hard work and defense. With the goal of a top-10 defense and the ability to at least get offense in spurts (Thornton, Turner, Green, Bradley, Sullinger), the Celtics could sneak out a few wins they shouldn’t simply by getting hot and playing solid defense. The upside here is the 7 seed in the East, and the worst is finishing 14th. Celtics fans, repeat after me: “At least you’re not Philly fans.” That mantra should be good until the 76ers win the 2020 title.