Boston has enough talent to make an extended playoff run.
The Boston Celtics‘ rebuild has progressed faster than most expected under the guidance of Brad Stevens. The first season with the new coach went as expected with 50+ losses. Nobody could have predicted what would come next.
Though marred by first-round exits, Stevens has led the Celtics to back-to-back playoff appearances — including an improbable playoff berth in just his second year as head coach. Last season, despite a disappointing finish, Boston finished with a remarkable 48 wins, and in a four-way-tie for third place in the Eastern Conference.
As the Celtics were being swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs, nobody batted an eye. Though disappointed with the outcome, most fans were just happy to see the Celtics back in the playoffs. The Cavaliers were clearly the superior team, and despite hanging tough in most of the games, ultimately the more talented team won.
However, it was towards the end of that season when people started to realize just how good some of these players were. Fans finally started to see what guys like Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, and Avery Bradley were capable of. Yet expectations were still unclear for the following season. Was it simply a flash in the pan, or was this the beginning of Boston’s resurgence?
A strong regular season, highlighted by a stunning road upset of the Golden State Warriors, raised the excitement level.
Apr 28, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap (4) drives to the hoop against Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder (left) during the second half in game six of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
Then the Celtics lost in the first round, again. This time in six games at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks. It wasn’t pretty at times. The two victories at home were sandwiched by some pathetic offensive displays in their four losses. Maybe the Hawks were more talented, but the Celtics also didn’t execute like they were capable of.
Two playoff appearances. Two first-round exits rationalized by a lack of talent — not by the team — but by fans. That’s no longer an option.
Not with the signing of Al Horford. A four-time All-Star with career averages of 14.3 points and 8.9 rebounds per game.
Not with Thomas, who is quickly becoming one of best point guards in the league. Say what you want about his size and defense, but there’s no denying the impact he’s had on this team. Before the Celtics acquired Thomas, the team was 45-88 under Stevens. Since the acquisition, Boston is 68-45 — not including the postseason.
Talent is not longer an excuse with the depth Boston has. It’s going to be a challenge for Stevens to manage the rotation. There’s a possibility he could use 11 or 12 guys a night.
This is the first year where people around the league are making note of this Celtics’ team. Boston was ranked sixth in ESPN’s preseason power rankings. Las Vegas has given them the fourth-best odds to win the title.
The team has high expectations as well. Along with Horford and Thomas, guys like Bradley, Crowder and Marcus Smart all had the same feeling. The team feels that they can compete with the likes of the Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. Asked about the expectations, Thomas said, “we know we’re right there; we just have to put it all together”.
Boston now has two All-Stars on its roster, and in Thomas, a 20+ point per game scorer. In Smart, Bradley and Terry Rozier, they may have the best defensive backcourt in the league. Add in guys like Crowder and Gerald Green, and their perimeter defense should be elite as well.
Some teams may have more individualized talent. Collectively, I would argue that the Celtics have enough talent to reach the conference finals.
Fans, and the team, are optimistic about the upcoming season, and rightfully so. The talent is there, now it’s time for the Celtics to take that next step. Expectations are high this season. If the team underperforms, they need to be held accountable.