At this time last year, we wrote in this space how the Boston Celtics were one big piece away from being legitimate NBA title contenders.
Did they just complete the puzzle?
President of basketball operations Danny Ainge entered the 2016 offseason loaded with assets, and while he didn’t catch the big fish in Kevin Durant, he landed a pretty nice consolation prize in All-Star big man Al Horford.
With greater talent, though, comes greater expectations. First-time All-Star Isaiah Thomas and his strong supporting cast won 48 games last season but stumbled in the first round of the playoffs. With the addition of Hoford outweighing the losses of Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger, anything short of a significant playoff run in 2016-17 will be considered a failure.
So, what’s the skinny on the most promising group of Celtics since the Big Three disbanded? Here’s a look ahead of Wednesday’s season opener against the Brooklyn Nets.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
Isaiah Thomas, PG
Avery Bradley, SG
Jae Crowder, SF
Al Horford, PF
Amir Johnson, C
KEY BENCH PLAYERS
Marcus Smart, PG/SG
Jaylen Brown, SF
Gerald Green, SF
Kelly Olynyk, PF
TOP STORYLINE: The Isaiah and Al Show
Make no mistake: Thomas still is the leader of this team. But he now has an All-Star running mate in Horford, whose ability to score both inside the paint and beyond the arc should take some of the scoring load off the 5-foot-9 point guard.
The Celtics excelled last season thanks to their strong depth and overachieving campaigns from Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley. The NBA remains a star-driven league, though, and come crunch time, the C’s only will go as far as their two biggest stars will take them.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Marcus Smart
Smart is a defensive bulldog whose high-energy play sparked the Celtics to wins on several occasions last season. But Boston needs more out of the 22-year-old on the offensive end this season after he shot just 35 percent from the floor and 25 percent from 3-point range.
Smart should get plenty of open shots thanks to Horford’s floor-spacing ability. If he can knock those down even semi-consistently — and avoid piling up the injuries that result from his aggressive play — the Celtics could have one of the best offenses in basketball.
X-FACTOR: Jaylen Brown
Brown already looks like a solid fit in head coach Brad Stevens’ system, where the No. 3 overall pick’s freakish athleticism and strong work ethic should help the C’s fill the void left by the versatile Turner.
Yet Brown’s offensive game — particularly his outside shot — still needs work, and it will take time for the (barely) 20-year-old to polish those skills. How soon Brown turns the corner and puts his stamp on this team will go a long way in determining the Celtics’ success.
PROJECTED FINISH: 50-32, No. 3 seed in Eastern Conference
Expectations are lofty in Boston, and rightfully so. There could be some growing pains as Horford adjusts to his new surroundings and Brown gets his feet wet, but there’s no reason why this team can’t finish strong and produce its first 50-win season since 2010-11.
Boston’s real test will come in the postseason, however, where Stevens has yet to advance the C’s past the first round. Expect the 2016-17 squad to change that, riding Thomas and Horford to the Eastern Conference Finals before finally bowing out at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Thumbnail photo via Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports Images