Can The Celtics Build On Last Year’s Improvement?

The new era of the Boston Celtics took a big step forward last season, when they took advantage of a watered-down Eastern Conference, came together at the end of the regular season and made the playoffs with a 40-42 record. Now, the question for third-year coach Brad Stevens is whether the progress can continue.

Boston is a young team and because of that it’s easy to assume that upward mobility is a guarantee, but a very pertinent example from last year shows us that’s not the case. The Charlotte Bobcats had concluded the 2014 season feeling a lot like the Celtics.

Charlotte had improved, gotten into the playoffs as a 7-seed and while they had gotten swept out by Miami, the competitiveness in individual games against LeBron James won praise from observers. Boston was a 7-seed last year and while they got swept out by Cleveland, the competitiveness in individual games won praise from observers. But the sequel went awry for the Bobcats and they fell off the radar last year. Stevens cant’ let that happen for the Celtics this year.

I don’t point that out to squelch optimism—because as a C’s fan, I feel pretty good about our chances. I point it out just as a reminder that improvement is never guaranteed. The advantage Stevens has is a lot of depth. The disadvantage is that none of the players really stand out from each other, meaning the head coach will have to play with a lot of combinations, as he did last year.

Marcus Smart made some great strides at the point guard spot last year, although I would much prefer Smart play the two-guard along with Isaiah Thomas. It was the acquisition of Thomas last year that turned the season around. He averaged nearly 20ppg and was a fantastic ballhandler. Smart is a good with the ball and distribution as well, but I also like his ability as a two-guard.

Avery Johnson continues to be reliable and he’s currently slotted in the two-guard spot, although the official depth charts really don’t mean all that much with this roster. Avery remains a good defender, all 94 feet of the floor and he knocks down 14ppg. His main weakness are his lack of height, making him vulnerable to being posted up by bigger guards and he’s not a great shooter, at least for what you want at the position.

That’s why I like him more coming off the bench as the third guard, or playing with Smart and Thomas as part of an effort to go small—something I would imagine we’ll see more of around the NBA now that Golden State has won a title doing it that way. The small forward spot in Boston is in decent hands, with Jae Crowder and Evan Turner, but it’s not as though you shout at the TV set if they’re not on the floor.

I love the offseason acquisition of David Lee at power forward. He got squeezed out of the lineup in Golden State, but showed his character in accepting reduced minutes and still coming up with key contributions when Draymond Green went through some postseason struggles. Lee, along with Amir Johnson, who was in Toronto last year, give the Celtics some real punch down on the block.

The ability to score down low was something the team needed. Jared Sullinger likes to step out to the perimeter a lot, as does Kelly Olynyk. Tyler Zeller is the only classic post man on the roster and he had a nice year last season.

Boston’s main weakness doesn’t come from any particular spot in the lineup, but from a general lack of pure outside shooting. There’s no three-point threat and the guards are all better when scoring off the dribble then hitting the jumper. Evan Turner is the most likely player to step up and earn minutes by being able to space defenses with his outside shot. Turner’s game-winning three in Portland last year, amidst a tough West Coast road trip, was one of the highlights of last year’s regular season and it would be nice to see more consistency from him.

Boston opens the season on Wednesday night at home against Philadelphia, part of a three-game home stand that will conclude with the one visit from San Antonio, on November 1. In between is a home game with Toronto that will probably determine the success of the homestand. Let’s get two wins and get a fresh year off to a good start.