Life is tough for a Celtics fan right now. Seeing one of the most storied franchises in the league gather a whopping 25 wins in addition to finishing last in the completely irrelevant Atlantic Division was simply a cherry on the farewell cake that saw three Hall of Famers and a head coach bolt for other teams.
While a championship run certainly won’t be in the cards for the foreseeable future, the Celts still have managed to make enough unique moves during the offseason to pique the interest of us avid NBA fans who remain loyal to the cause.
Here is the beautiful thing about the NBA today: being terrible gives you a chance of getting a player that can turn the franchise around, wherever he may be found in the draft. One player in the draft can have a drastic impact on a team (ex: LeBron, Durant, Curry, Aldridge, etc.) almost instantly. This is something that is not common in other professional sports leagues, notably the MLB. Sure, you have the Kwame Browns and Darko Milicics of the draft, but you also have plenty of diamonds in the rough, as draft history has continually showed us in years past.
The hope of drafting a potential franchise superstar is always on the forefront of fans minds whenever they see their team tank a season. That certainly was the case for me. Was I hoping that the Celtics would be in the sweepstakes for Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker? Of course. It would be idiotic to not want to take a risk on a player of that caliber who has so much potential to be great in the NBA. Unfortunately for the Celtics last season, they were bad, but they weren’t the worst. I can live with that though, seeing as the C’s still had the 6th and 17th overall draft picks. I thought they did a pretty good job acquiring talent with their selections of Marcus Smart (Oklahoma St.) and James Young (Kentucky), both who possess above average athleticism and have fairly strong offensive capabilities respectively. I will touch on each of these two players a little later on in this piece.
So what are left with here looking at this young Celtics team? From where I stand, I see a group of players that lack the leadership of a superstar player that they so desperately need. That’s not to say that the Celts don’t have valuable pieces, because they certainly do. However, the fact that they do not have a top 20 player who plays at an elite level night in and night out will impede any hopes of getting into the playoffs or having success in the playoffs this year. Enough negativity though. I want to dive into this team of young misfits and address how some of the personnel changes they made this offseason will impact the team moving forward.
First things first, I absolutely loved the hiring of Brad Stevens. This guy worked with a team that really only had one All-Star caliber NBA player in Gordon Hayward during his tenure at Butler. He was able to evoke a style of hard-nosed and team oriented basketball, something that is not seen too frequently in the NBA. The guy is a winner and he knows how to manage conflicting player attitudes. His energy and focus are very transparent from the sidelines and you can see the demeanor of his players both on and off the court. Hiring Stevens was a very strategic long term move by the Boston Celtics in my opinion. Stevens is not a coach that they plan on canning after a year or two after sustaining a few bad seasons. Danny Ainge is fully aware of his current roster as well as the team needs and talent gaps. I really do embrace his logic of growing Stevens with the team from the ground up to really develop a fundamental basketball system that players can all buy into once the right pieces come into place over the next few seasons.
I briefly discussed how I truly appreciate the direction that the coaching staff and team management is going towards in the future. What about the players though? The Celts may not have acquired Kevin Love or Melo in the offseason, but they did make some moves that are worthy of further observation and analysis. The two major offseason moves I liked the most were the acquisitions of Evan Turner and Tyler Zeller. Starting with Turner, he came to the C’s after being underutilized as a role player for the Pacers as they tried to make a deep playoff push last season. The one thing I like about his game is the fact that he can do a little bit of everything. He is not necessarily top notch in any offensive or defensive category, but he certainly is able to contribute in many different areas. His addition to the roster will certainly alleviate a lot of the scoring burden that was primarily placed on Jeff Green last season. It also gives the Celtics another wing player that is actually meant to be a wing player based on physical size and strength, which will help defensively in terms of matching up against opposing teams 2 and 3 spots.
Another player that I expect to make an immediate impact for the Celtics this season is Tyler Zeller. I truly believe that he is one of the more underrated players in the whole league. He is a legit seven footer with a well developed offensive skill set in addition to being an excellent rebounder. His presence will certainly be noted on the defensive end as he will serve as the primary rim protector for the Celtics this season. His addition to the roster also allows for players like Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger to match up against more traditional power forward size players rather than having to guard players that are simply just bigger and stronger. I digress. Going back to Zeller, he should also help balance out the scoring attack for the Celtics this upcoming season. He provides another easy scoring outlet for Rondo to dump the ball off to for easy dunks when attacking the basket.
Both Zeller and Turner will help the Celtics out in terms of scoring distribution as well as their overall team defense. Both are well above average NBA talents that will improve a depleted Celtics roster from last season. More importantly, they are valuable trading pieces to have if and when the C’s are trying to make a big move in the future. However, for now I am content with having both of these guys on the roster for this season because of the fact that they will be more involved in the offense. They will be asked to carry more of the scoring burden than they have had to on their previous teams. Maybe this will serve as the perfect opportunity for both of these players to break out and have career years.
Looking back at the players the Celtics have gotten through the last few drafts, I really can’t complain too much. They have a young nucleus of drafted players that includes Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, Marcus Smart, and James Young. Sullinger has shown signs of incredible productivity on the boards as well as proficiency from beyond the arc and around the rim. I fully expect him to elevate his play to a higher level this season. Olynyk had a few bright moments last year but I still think he has room to improve. I see him as one of the backup centers (with Vitor Faverani) to Tyler Zeller who will earn his time based on his ability to score and rebound in the sparing minutes that he will receive this season.
Obviously it is a little early to make an accurate projection for Smart and Young, but I will give one anyways based off of practice reports and the current structure of the roster. I am a big fan of Smart. I think he has a rare combination of size, strength, and athleticism that makes him a tough guard to cover. At 6’4″ Smart can be considered either a 1 or 2 guard when he is on the floor. Although it is a little far fetched, I can understand the early comparisons that he drew to Dwyane Wade while he was still playing college ball. I think he will get some good opportunities to showcase his abilities with the absence of Rondo for the beginning portion of the season due to surgery on his hand. I am interested to see how Smart fits into the Celtics gameplan going forward. Another player who is very intriguing to me is James Young. If you don’t remember this guy, just think back to some of the electric plays he had for the John Calipari during the NCAA tournament. From his thunderous dunks to draining wing threes, this guy really impressed viewers with the multitude of offensive skills he has in his arsenal. He also has a very long wingspan and is left handed which can make him a defender’s nightmare when trying to cover him. He needs to bulk up a bit so he can be more physical when facing other 2 and 3 positions in the league, but it is difficult not to be optimistic about this kid’s future. He is a very capable ball handler and seems to mesh well into different offensive sets, even an elite offense like that of the Kentucky Wildcats. He may take some time to really thrive in the NBA, but he is definitely someone to keep an eye out for going forward into the season.
In closing I would just like to throw out a few notes about the Celtics going into this season. Rondo will not be playing for at least the first week of the season seeing as he is still recovering from hand surgery. Avery Bradley will most likely be asked to shoulder the point guard duties for a while in his absence with Phil Pressey handling some of those duties off the bench. Jeff Green has a temporary setback with a strained left calf but the coaching staff does not see that being serious enough to prevent him from being ready for the season opener. Although there are some scattered injuries and inexperienced players, Brad Stevens will have these guys ready to compete as soon as the regular season starts. They may not be tremendously successful this season, but there is no doubt that it will be entertaining to watch the new blend of young players integrated into the Celtics rotation as well as the players from last year who continue to progress.