Boston Celtics training camp for the 2015-2016 NBA Season is a scant few weeks away. The reshuffled squad surprised everyone with a strong post All-Star break run that landed them the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. GM Danny Ainge made even more changes during the offseason but once again failed to produce the fireworks that most fans having been pining for.
The changes, while not sexy, were significant. Gone from the team that faced Lebron James and the rest of the Cavaliers in the playoffs are Brandon Bass, Gerald Wallace, Luigi Datome, and Phil Pressey. In their stead, Ainge has added Amir Johnson, David Lee, Perry Jones and draft picks Terry Rozier, RJ Hunter, and Jordan Mickey.
It’s hard to argue that the team hasn’t upgraded. Johnson, while not a great shot-blocker, gives them a rugged interior defender and one of the better dive men on the pick and roll in the NBA. Lee, pending health and playing time, could be the best player on the team. He’s a tremendously skilled big man with range out to 18 feet and a fantastic passer as well as a solid rebounder. He’s not a great defender, but is at worst, a wash with Olynyk and Sullinger on the defensive side of the ball.
Jones is a wild-card. He may not even break camp with the team as the final roster spot appears to be a battle between him and Evan Turner. He’s an intriguing talent; putting up impressive offensive numbers in a short sample when Kevin Durant went down last year and showing potential as an impact defender at the 3.
As for the rookies? Well, they’re rookies so it’s hard to gauge how ready they are to have an impact at the NBA level, but it would not be surprising to see at least one of them earn minutes and make their mark. Each possesses an NBA-ready skill; Rozier’s ability to get into the paint, Hunter’s shooting, and Mickey’s shot-blocking. The question is whether they can adjust enough of the rest of their game to the NBA level to apply their strengths.
How the talent upgrade translates into wins and losses this upcoming season is a question mark. The Celtics went 24-12 over the last 36 games of the season to finish at 40-42.
That performance is undeniably reasonable grounds for optimism heading into this season. During that stretch, the team forged an identity as a versatile, tough-minded, and rugged defensive squad that gave no quarter and didn’t beat themselves.
However, that performance was also undeniably abetted by a home-heavy schedule and an abundance of good fortune. Several of the wins in that stretch were aided by injuries and opponents simply overlooking the Celtics and not coming to play.
Reasonable expectations for the team going into 2015-2016, barring injuries and assuming no delayed fireworks from Ainge, would be between 42-48 wins. This would land the Celtics a middling 4-5-6 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and a puncher’s chance at the 2nd round.
Such a result should absolutely be considered a rousing success and would set the franchise up well for the following offseason. If it comes to pass, the franchise’s stock and head coach Brad Stevens’ reputation will be on a significant upward trajectory in the minds of potential free agents. That is, of course, the end game; the free-agent signing(s) or trade(s) that puts the Celtics back in the upper echelon. This coming season should be fun to watch, but it is still ultimately just a stepping-stone on the path back to prominence.
So, how far along that path is the franchise?
That’s hard to measure given that the end goal is, in many ways, a moving target and the path is very rarely a straight line.
Rather than assessing the distance from the end goal, it’s more useful to assess the franchise’s fitness and stamina for reaching it. In the NBA, that fitness and stamina are often referred to as the franchise’s assets.
What are the assets that the Celtics have at their disposal to help them along their journey?
The most obvious is a tremendous depth of young talent. There has been some chatter that the team’s depth might be a problem, but this is nonsense. When it comes to young, developing players, competition is the forge that creates the strongest steel. If Tyler Zeller, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk can’t earn playing time because of Amir Johnson or David Lee, then their value in the long run is limited.
In addition to the 5-deep frontcourt (6 if Mickey’s motor and shot-blocking get him into the mix), the team boasts a trio of defensive terrors in the backcourt. On draft night, some fans lamented a perceived redundancy between Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier and Avery Bradley. While all three certainly have the capability to significantly impact the game defensively, their offensive skill sets are complementary.
This deep stable of potential young talent increases the likelihood that at least 1-2 or them will eventually emerge as a key cog in a future championship-caliber team. The Celtics don’t have a blue-chip prospect like an Andrew Wiggins or a Karl-Anthony Towns, but Smart, Rozier, Sullinger and even Olynyk have upside that could possibly translate into being a key starter on the next great Celtics team or a key trade chip to acquire such a player.
Beyond that, the depth the team possesses is an asset from another perspective. Having a 10-12 deep team, all capable of, at worst, being valuable role players on a contending team, gives the team tremendous flexibility in targeting impact players via free agency or trade. Often, teams looking to add an impact player alongside 1-2 existing impact players are constrained to finding a talent that positionally complements what they already have. Not so with the Celtics. At whatever positon the Celtics manage to unearth a franchise-altering talent (or two), they can morph the rest of the roster to effectively complement that player.
The next asset worth calling out is the salary cap flexibility that the franchise has. Danny Ainge has done a masterful job of improving the talent while limiting signings and acquisitions to either longer-term below-market deals (Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder) or short-term deals (Amir Johnson, David Lee, Jonas Jerebko). The Celtics could potentially have the cap space to outright sign two max-level free agents next offseason.
Speaking of below-market deals, Isaiah Thomas merits mention as an asset all by himself thanks to his production and his incredibly team-friendly deal. Thomas quickly became a fan-favorite due to his instant offense, but he’s potentially more interesting as a key piece in a deal to land a superstar. It would not be surprising at all to see him put up big numbers this season and become the centerpiece to a major deal next offseason.
Similarly, David Lee is on an expiring deal and depending on what he has left in the tank, could be a possible trade-deadline deal candidate.
In terms of trade fodder, perhaps the most valuable asset the Celtics have is the treasure trove of draft picks they will have at their disposal over the next several years. The team could have as many as 8 first-round picks in the next 3 drafts (and a staggering 10 2nd-round picks). The jewels are the #1 picks of Brooklyn in 2016 and 2018 and the rights to swap picks with the Nets in 2017. If even one of those picks lands in the top 2-3 then the rebuilding process will be accelerated. The Celtics are also owed a 1st rounder from Memphis that could have similar value down the road.
In the end though, the most valuable asset the Celtics have going forward and what makes them fit for a successful rebuild and return to contention is the solid coaching/management/ownership structure they have in place. Much focus is, rightfully so, placed on the superstar talent in the NBA. However, more often than not, the franchises that are able to sustain success are those with the most stable coaching and management.
In Brad Stevens, Danny Ainge, Wyc Grousbeck, Steve Pagliuca and the rest of the ownership group, management, and coaching staff, the Celtics are fortunate to have tremendously capable individuals that are completely aligned in their vision for what’s needed to rebuild the franchise.
Future success will be, more than anything else that happens, a function of that competence and stability at the top.