2016-17 record: 53-29. 1st in the Eastern Conference. Lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers in five games.
Transactions: The Celtics off-season looked to be defined by what they didn’t do rather than what they did.
This was a summer of big expectations in Beantown. For all the talk of “The Process”, the Celtics were really the model franchise for a rebuild. It was largely down to one trade, which will go down as one of the most lopsided in the history of sports.
Back in the 2013 off-season, then-incoming Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov was looking to make a splash and find a way to instantly compete with LeBron James’ defending champion Miami Heat (how things change). Danny Ainge saw an aging Celtics core that had fallen down the Eastern Conference standings and just been eliminated in the first round by Carmelo Anthony’s New York Knicks (again how things change). Knowing it was time to cash in, Ainge sent Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to Brooklyn for a package that included five players plus the Nets unprotected 2014, 2016 and 2018 first round picks plus the right to swap picks in 2017.
The result for the Nets was that the two surefire Hall of Famers were somewhat past their primes in their late 30s. They made the playoffs, the next two seasons then imploded the year following with Pierce, Garnett and Terry all off the roster by then.
The Celtics on the other hand were back in the playoffs by the 2014-15 season. They used the 2014 pick to select James Young and got a player projected to be a future all-star in Jaylen Brown at the 2016 draft.
The Nets continued to bottom out to the point where the pick that the Celtics could swap with them was a lottery pick – and ended up being number 1 in the draft. Meanwhile, Boston had just finished first in the Eastern Conference and made it all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. Not bad for a team with a full chest of assets from their rebuild.
For all the talk of “The Process”, Boston is the model franchise for doing a rebuild. They cut bait with their core at the right time. Cashed in huge, but stuck to the plan. There wasn’t so much an ugly tear-down as there was an ability to stockpile and develop assets and to be in a position to make the right moves when they came along. The Celtics now have the best of both worlds – they are one of the top teams in the East with a chest full of assets. The pressure to win now isn’t really existent when you can wait until LeBron’s prime is over and win with a core based around your assets like Jaylen Brown.
Of course in a summer where there were many big name assets rumoured to be on the move, there was a lot of expectation that the Celtics would make a big trade and use some of those assets to Paul George or Jimmy Butler.
The first big move of the summer was an indicator that this type of move was possible. The Celtics traded their top pick in the draft to the Philadelphia 76ers for their number three overall selection and their future first round pick in the 2018 or 2019 draft. For many, this signalled that Ainge might be willing to move the pick in a blockbuster. After he had secured a future asset from Philly and the Celtics could potentially challenge the Cavs with the addition of a superstar like Jimmy Butler.
Those who thought that was possible likely weren’t paying attention to Ainge’s strategy up that point. Instead he used the pick to select Jayson Tatum, the player the Celtics had wanted to draft all along, but was projected to go after star point guards Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball. After all, the Celtics didn’t need to be in “win now” mode. It’s the core of Tatum, Brown and Marcus Smart that they can build around to chase a championship. The success now is just the opening of a long window that will remain there as long as the Celtics continue to draft and develop.
For many, around the league though, this was a point of contention. Ainge was questioned and even mocked in many circles for not pulling the trigger on a blockbuster. Those doubts only grew when Butler and George were traded for relatively poor returns in the context of what Boston could have potentially offered.
Still the Celtics had two potential future cornerstones in Brown and Tatum and money to spend in free agency with a target in mind in the form of Gordon Hayward who was coming off a career season with the Utah Jazz that saw him make his very first all-star appearance while averaging 21.9 points on 47.1% shooting including 39.8% from three point range to go along with 5.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists and a steal per game.
Hayward is exactly what the Celtics needed on offense. When primary scoring option Isaiah Thomas was on the bench last season, the Celtics offense cratered by 14.6 points per 100 possessions. Hayward brings a much needed second scorer (he was the 7th most efficient volume scorer in the NBA last season) and an ability to space the floor with his range that will offer the Celtics a great deal of versatility in their attack.
There is also the potential for even greater heights now that Hayward is reunited with his college coach at Butler, Brad Stevens. Who could forget the 2010 National Championship? The Butler Bulldogs were one shot away from one of the greatest upsets in sports history. If Hayward’s half court shot would have gone in, he and Stevens are champions and complete one of the great Cinderella stories in basketball history. Things didn’t work out that way. Now they’re back together as player and coach with unfinished business. They have the opportunity to chase that title that evaded them at Butler in the NBA with the most storied franchise in professional basketball.
The acquisition of Hayward had some financial implications for the Celtics with his 4 year, $128 million deal. It meant that they had to relinquish rights to 26 year old centre Kelly Olynyk who was the hero of game seven with the Washington Wizards when he dropped 26 points on 10-for-14 shooting. Olynyk’s corner threes had given the Celtics some nice spacing off the bench.
The financial realities of the Hayward signing also meant that Boston was forced to part ways with guard Avery Bradley who was in the last year of his deal. The Celtics could not have brought back the 26 year old with their cap issues anyway and dealing him now helped them avoid the luxury tax. Bradley was sent to Detroit in exchange for Marcus Morris.
Losing Bradley hurts without a doubt. He wasn’t just the best backcourt defender on the Celtics, he’s one of the best in the entire NBA. He has also improved immensely on the offensive end as he averaged a career high 16.3 points per game including hitting 39% from downtown.
In Morris, the Celtics get a versatile front court option who will likely start at power forward beside Al Horford at centre but can move into the centre position in small line-ups. He’s shown an ability to guard multiple positions in the frontcourt and is as tenacious as he is versatile on defense. Offensively he averaged 14.0 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2 assists but his shooting percentages slumped in Detroit last year and the Celtics are going to need him to shoot more on line with his 35.5% career percentage from three point range into effectively stretch the floor.
Morris’ limited rebounding ability doesn’t really address the Celtics biggest weakness last season and that is controlling the glass. To that end, they added the Pistons Aron Baynes in free agency on a one year, $4.3 million deal. Baynes is much more effective on the glass and as a rim protector than starting centre Al Horford and should provide the Celtics with some stability in those areas off the bench which will prove incredibly beneficial to an often rebound starved squad.
The Celtics parted with veteran big man Amir Johnson and power forward Jonas Jerebko in free agency and waived centre Tyler Zeller while adding German big man Daniel Theis to bolster the front court. The 6’9” has spent the past five years with Brose Bramburg in the Euroleague averaging 9.6 points and 4.6 boards on 64% shooting including 41% from three in about 19.7 minutes per game and provides a nice depth option in the front court.
Shane Larkin is returning to the NBA after a year in Spain to give the Celtics some depth at guard.
The Celtics saved their biggest move for last and really brought things full circle when on August 22, the basketball world was shocked when Boston sent Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the 2018 first round pick they received from the Brooklyn Nets to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for disgruntled all-star 25 year old point guard Kyrie Irving.
The trade was mind blowing on a number of levels. First and foremost, Ainge had spent all summer building up a reputation as a man who hoarded assets to possibly the detriment of his team. There was noise all summer that the Celtics missed out on Paul George and Jimmy Butler – two players who were objectively even better than Irving and went for much lower returns – due to his unwillingness to part with the Celtics treasure trove of draft picks. Yet here was a huge return for Kyrie Irving.
I think that is mitigated by Kyrie’s age. At 25 he is 22 months younger than the 27 year old George and two and a half years younger than the soon-to-be 28 year old Butler. Those years matter for a player joining a young core. They need a guy who will be around to lead Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum when they’re entering their primes. Kyrie can do that.
The deal was also shocking because of how much Isaiah Thomas had meant to the Celtics organization after an incredible year that saw him not only finish third in NBA scoring with 28.9 points per game, he also had the best fourth quarter scoring (10.5 points per game) since the NBA began tracking that stat. Not bad for a 5’9” point guard who was the 60th overall and last pick in the 2011 draft – now traded for the number one point pick that year in Irving.
Thomas really embodied the mentality of Brad Stevens’ Celtics more than any other player. He was undersized but played with larger than life confidence, trash talking his opponents who outsized him physically but never in drive. He was the heart and soul of the team.
On the night before the NBA playoffs kicked off last season, Isaiah Thomas lost his younger sister, Chyna, in a car accident. He played on. It was an emotionally charged playoff run that saw the Celtics overcome a 2-0 deficit to defeat the Chicago Bulls in six before defeating the Washington Wizards in a thrilling seven game series that saw Thomas put up 53 points in game two, the most ever by a player under 6 feet in the playoffs. Thomas gave everything until he fell to a hip injury in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Now he’s gone. That’s often the nature of sports. It can be cold, cruel logic. Despite his heroic efforts, most general managers – including Danny Ainge -would be hard pressed to offer a 5’9” point guard who will be 29 at the end of his deal next season a max contract. But Thomas’ performance over the last two seasons would certainly warrant one. Now Ainge isn’t the one who has to make that decision.
In Crowder, the Celtics gave up a dependable scorer and excellent wing defender. Zizic is a 20 year old Croatian big man who has yet to play in the NBA and the Brooklyn pick is likely to be in the lottery.
Cleveland would later get the Celtics to throw in a 2020 second round pick due to concerns about Isaiah Thomas’ injured hip.
Still, in Irving the Celtics have a 25 year old all-star with championship pedigree who wanted to come out of the shadow of the King and be his own man, running his own offense and cementing his own legacy. He’ll have that chance with the Celtics.
Kyrie is unquestionably the most valuable player in the deal. He’s under contact until 2019 with the Celtics having all the faith in the world that they will be able to resign him. He’s just coming off a season where he averaged a career high 25.2 points on 47.3% shooting including 40.1% from three point range. He’s one of the most exciting and dynamic scorers in the NBA and he hasn’t even entered his prime yet.
There are many criticisms toward Irving for his inability to achieve without LeBron, but he’s also never had a supporting cast this talented without LeBron James. Being able to play with Hayward and Horford in the starting five as well as young guns Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum will add an entirely new dimension to Irving’s game. As will playing under one of the greatest minds in the NBA in Brad Stevens.
This is the first time I can remember that the top two seeds in a Conference made a blockbuster trade with each other. Boston and Cleveland will likely be matching up in the Eastern Conference Finals. They are meeting in the season opening on October 17 to kick things off. I can’t wait.
2017 NBA Draft: As mentioned earlier the Celtics swapped their number one pick to the Sixers for their 3rd overall selection and a future first rounder. Boston used that selection to get the player they apparently planned to select all along – 6’8” Duke forward Jayson Tatum who averaged 16.3 points on 45.2% shooting including 34.2% from three point range with the Blue Devils.
He is the most polished scorer of this draft class with an absolutely lethal game 18 feet in. He’s got a mid-post game that is already going to be among the best in the NBA. His arsenal has just about everything you want in a volume scorer – from turnarounds, quick spins, jab-steps, Dirk fallaways to, well, you name it really. He can do it all. And it he can’t yet, you can bet he’ll learn it under Stevens and Boston’s excellent coaching staff.
At 205 lbs, Tatum has a more NBA-ready body than most one and done rookies which will serve him well as he takes on what will now be a bigger role in the Boston rotation with the departure of Jae Crowder as part of the Kyrie Irving trade. Plus you can’t be a true basketball fan if you’re not already salivating at the pairing of Tatum and last year’s first round pick, Jaylen Brown – who will likely be leading the Celtics forward for years to come.
Tatum already displays an unparalleled killer instinct inside the arc and showed a great deal of growth on his three point range as well. Including a game against Virginia where he went 6-of-7 from downtown. If he’s able to work on his long game and his ball moving ability, he will become an elite offensive player in the NBA. As it stands, he’s already going to an incredible ISO-player from day one, but working on his pick-and-roll plays and expanding his ability to space the floor will ensure that he sees a lot of quality minutes in Brad Stevens’ rotation.
Defensively, the former Blue Devil has room to grow, but his athleticism and willingness to work makes him a capable defender. He has an above average rebounding ability and his footwork and ability to adjust to switches will make him an adequate defender on the wing. Undoubtedly, his skills will only continue to improve under this coaching staff.
The Celtics have drafted a player with all-star potential and have the advantage of deploying off the bench and in situations that are favourable to his development and play to his strengths. You really can’t say enough good things about the position Boston is in with young talent.
With the 37th pick in the draft, the Celtics once again hit on a big talent in the form of Semi Ojeleye who could end up being an absolute second round steal for them. Standing at 6’7” and weighing in at 235 lbs, the man nicknamed “The Terminator” averaged 18.9 points on 48.8% shooting including 42.2% from three point range and adding 6.8 rebounds.
Ojeleye is NBA ready and impressed scouts with an incredible vertical leap and his ball handling ability. He’s the type of combo forward that every NBA franchise covets and with a lack of frontcourt depth being a concern in Boston, we could see him getting minutes with the big club sooner rather than later.
Just a phenomenal steal by Danny Ainge in round two.
With the 53rd pick, Boston selected Arizona Wildcat, Kadeem Allen. A definitely sleeper prospect, he’ll likely spend most of his time with the Maine Red Claws, but could catch Brad Stevens eye largely because of his elite ability as a perimeter defender and potential to develop into an NBA-level stopper.
The Celtics drafted Jabari Bird out of California with the 56th pick in the draft who like Allen will probably be with the Red Claws. He’s a solid shooting guard who can also potentially lock up on defense.
Outlook: Boston has completely overhauled its roster with Al Horford now likely being the only member of the starting five left from season.
Generally, it would be concerning that the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, fresh off an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals so dramatically transformed itself and removed core elements from its team. In this case, however, the level of incoming talent is so incredible that the those concerns don’t really exist with Boston. I think that this team will gel and do so quickly.
The biggest adjustments will need to be made by Kyrie Irving. As a member of the Cavaliers, Kyrie logged 419 isolation plays including passes out. Those numbers will have to come down in Boston (Thomas ran 248 as the starting point guard last year) because that simply isn’t the Boston offense. Even though Kyrie was in the 95th percentile on points per possession on ISO-plays, those plays suppress the ball movement that is the hallmark of the Celtics attack.
I think that Kyrie is talented enough and wants to succeed in Boston and out of the shadow of LeBron enough that he will buy into Brad Stevens’ offense and when he does, great things will come his way. I’m personally very exciting over what kind of plays will result from the chemistry that Kyrie will have with Horford who is an even better passing big man than Kevin Love. Imagine Irving and Big Al in hand off situations and the ensuing cuts to the basket or open looks that could result. It’s going to be a nightmare for opposing defenses.
Many have voiced concerns with Kyrie’s defensive ability, but I think the buy in will come there as well. Irving can be an adequate defender when engaged. At 6’3”, he will at the very least not be the liability that the 5’9” Thomas was. The fact that Boston won’t have to overcompensate for Irving as much on D will help mitigate the losses of Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder.
As will the fact that Gordon Hayward is an incredibly underrated defender. Honestly one of the least heralded aspects of his rise to all-star status has been his incredible improvement on the back end. Hayward can disrupt an offense. He has excellent pick and roll defense and is a solid isolation defender. Most importantly, he will help the Celtics address one of their biggest weaknesses last season which was their ongoing struggle with screens and off ball D. Hayward’s size allows him to shrug off screens and he’s athletic enough to stick to off-ball defenders.
On the offensive end, Hayward will combine with Irving and Horford to give the Celtics their most potent big 3 combination since Pierce, Garnett and Allen. Beyond just the secondary scoring they lacked last season, Hayward allows them to vary their attack in new ways. Particularly, in the Celtics weak transition game where he will provide them with speed up front and an ability to freelance in transition due his size and ability to create his own shot.
Hayward is also an incredibly-skilled ball mover which combined with Irving and Horford will cause headaches for defenses across the association and also gives the Celtics incredible line up flexibility which they lacked before as they’ll be able to go small without sacrificing defensive ability which was a major concern in the past. Imagine the Celtics rolling out Hayward, Irving, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown against four guard line-ups. That provides them three elite perimeter defenders with a potent offensive attack.
Speaking of Brown, he’s going to have the opportunity to make a major leap this season as he factors into the starting line-up currently. He averaged only 17.2 minutes per game last season but quickly established himself as a fearless defender who could undoubtedly develop into one of the NBA’s best as well as an extremely gifted finisher and one of the best transition players on the team.
Brown thrived whenever he was given more minutes. His highest output was in the month of February which saw him play 25.6 minutes per game while shooting 49.2% from the field including 45.5% from three point range. When given 25 minutes in game two of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cavs, Brown put up 19 points on 7 for 11 shooting and was the sole bright spot of a blow-out playoff loss.
Brown has done everything that’s been asked of him, has shown steady improvement and has an incredible skillset. He’s ready for a bigger role on this team.
Jayson Tatum will likely factor into the Celtics plans with the departure of Jae Crowder. Expect him to thrive in a scoring role on the second unit and add a new element to the Celtics attack. He’ll be one of the biggest beneficiaries of all the off-season moves as the rookie now finds himself in a much more prominent position than he likely would have been had Boston stayed the course.
Stevens will have plenty of opportunity to unleash Tatum on opposing second units and expect to see the full extent of his talents on display when he does.
Marcus Smart will likely have an increased role on the team as he will be looked to take on a more prominent defensive role with Avery Bradley’s departure. It’s Smart’s elite level D that really eased the sting of the Bradley trade and he can be relied on to step into the starting line-up if match-ups or injuries call for it. Smart’s aggressiveness make him a nightmare for opposing players. He is willing to take on opposing players of any size and often shuts down significantly larger opponents.
Smart is really just a consistent shot away from being one of the best two way guards in the league and looks poised to make yet another leap as he enters his fourth NBA season with the Celtics. Smart’s value to the team has never been higher.
Another player to watch out for in the rotation is Terry Rozier who should factor more into the rotation after an impressive playoffs performance. Rozier has impressive rebounding ability for a guard and can really push the pace when he’s on the floor. With added minutes he could have a break out year in Boston.
The Boston Celtics will be one of the most exciting teams in the NBA to watch this season. Their line-up flexibility will give Brad Stevens all sorts of fun options to destroy opposing defenses and the Irving-Hayward-Horford combination will give Boston an offensive attack among the most potent in the league which is a huge upgrade from a team that lacked consistent secondary scoring. Having two young all-stars just entering their primes leading the attack is a major coup.
Last season, this team finished first in the East on the back of a transcendent season from Isaiah Thomas. With Hayward and Irving leading the way and a younger, more dynamic squad behind them, I think that the Celtics are more than capable of coming out on top in the regular season. Cleveland will still need to rest James and Thomas at times and the Celtics off-season has elevated them well above the Raptors, Bucks Wizards and Hornets who will likely be battling over the middle playoff spots in the East.
The true question for the Celtics will be how much this team can get them in the playoffs. In that sense, their destiny is still tied to the LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers with whom they just made arguably the biggest trade of the off-season. These two teams open the season against each other and seem to be on a collision course in the Eastern Conference finals again.
Many will judge the success of the Celtics off-season moves against their ability to get past Cleveland next season. That would be a mistake. The Cavs still have LeBron and he’s still the best player in the league and arguably the greatest of all time coming off an incredible run in the playoffs. The trade made neither team weaker and James will still be the biggest factor in any playoff match-up between the two.
What Boston has done should not be judged on how they finish next season, but where they are two or even three seasons from now and where they’re positioned to be in a post-LeBron NBA or even a post-LeBron Eastern Conference if those rumours of him bolting the Cavs next season are true.
I still see Boston falling short of the Cavs in an Eastern Conference rematch but Boston is definitely the team of the future in the East. They’ve got salary certainty in Hayward and Irving that will allow them to also be a player in next off-season’s free agency (with the biggest rumoured target being Anthony Davis) and have two future all-stars in Brown and Tatum. The Celtics are in a much better position coming into this season and for the foreseeable future as well.
This is a team to be very excited about as a basketball fan.
Prediction: 57-25. 1st in the Eastern Conference. Another Eastern Conference Finals appearance where they come up just short against LeBron and the Cavs for what will likely be the final time before they become the dominant team in the East for a long time.