The Boston Celtics won 48 games last year in a season that most impartial observers would consider an over achievement. That is only slightly a backhanded compliment. Boston as a whole played better than the sum of its parts thanks to head coach Brad Stevens and having a group of hard workers.
For the 2016-17 season, Vegas has Boston’s over/under win total at 52.5, and that seems low! The Celtics went from overreaching to win 48 games and a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series in five years to now being undervalued at 52.5 wins in just one off-season. What happened?
For one, Boston added perhaps the most impactful non-Kevin-Durant free agent signing of this off-season when it brought in Al Horford. Horford is a mixed generational center in the NBA. He spans the old generation of mid-range jumpers and post presence with crisp passing and switching defense out of a big man. Horford is not Tristan Thompson as a perimeter switch defender, but he is probably in that second tier of bigs with the ability to switch onto guards in pick-and-roll action. He is also one of the best pure defensive centers in the league. Last year, of all centers who played at least 26 minutes per game, Horford ranked number one overall in defensive rating. This guy can anchor a unit.
Adding him to the mix of defenders already on Boston’s roster is a scary proposition for opponents, regardless of position. The collection of Avery Bradley, Jaylen Brown, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart can essentially shut down every position on the court…outside of centers. Without both Brown and Horford last year, Boston still finished as the sixth-best defense in the NBA and third-stingiest in the Eastern Conference.
But defense isn’t the only thing to be excited about in Boston. Horford will add to a Brad Stevens-run offense that is heavy on motion sets. Point guard Isaiah Thomas is one of the hardest covers in the league even though he never plays against a defender his own size. The offense has no stars, but it fills all the categories one would want with the possible exception of another shooter and creator. The Celtics have expressed interest in free agent J.R. Smith for just such a hole, but they don’t need him in order to succeed on that end of the court. If anything, Coach Stevens just wants the guys he has to be more assertive in shooting and creating.
With the Cleveland Cavaliers the favorites to win the East again, Boston has some catching up to do. It will also have to fight off the Toronto Raptors all season for a top-two seed. Coming out of the gate fast is the best way to put pressure on conference peers while also building confidence in a relatively new rotation. Yet Boston’s early season schedule is not terrible easy. The season begins with a back-to-back against Brooklyn and Chicago. From there, the Celtics play six of their first 10 games on the road, including a contest in Cleveland. They also face both Golden State and San Antonio, likely the top two teams in the league once again, before the month of November is out. All told in October and November, Boston plays 10 of 18 on the road and four different sets of back-to-backs. For comparison, the Cavaliers play just six road games and two back-to-backs over the same time frame.
Stevens will have his players ready to go from the jump of game one. He is one of the best coaches in the league, even at just 39 years old. And despite what seems like great changes this off-season, he returns his top three scorers from a year ago. Boston fans are ready to get back to a championship game. With a successful beginning to the season, the Celts could be on their way.
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