New Faces: Al Horford, Jaylen Brown (R), Demetrius Jackson (R), Gerald Green
2015-16 Regular Season Record: 48-34
2015-16 Regular Season Achievements: 2nd: Steals. 3rd: Offensive Rebounding. 4th: Defensive, 3-Point% (Defense). 5th: Points. 6th: Free Throw Percentage, Total Rebounds, Assists. 10th: Offensive Rating.
Leading Scorer: Isaiah Thomas, 22.2
Leading Rebounder: Jared Sullinger, 8.3
Al Horford and Isaiah Thomas, the leading men in Boston, are charged with the task of pushing the Celtics into former images of themselves, meaning a 50 win season. The Celtics have done the rebuilding thing as perfectly as you can do it. They started with defense. They developed young talent. Now, they have to win 50 games and prove they can win in the playoffs. With the addition of Al Horford, they added a star although not a top ten player. The Celtics still are fragile, without true athletic explosion in the front court. But this is the year they make their playoff march, a reversal of recent history.
First on the docket is to integrate Al Horford into the offense. The Celtics already have a fast pace, which Horford is used to, a ball movement offense, which Horford is used to, but the Celtics are a woefully inefficient thee point shooting club, 28th in the league last year, which Horford is not used to.
Back to back playoff appearances has cemented the Celtics to the narrative of team on the rise. Their next goal to shatter is winning in the first round of the playoffs. The Celtics can score in bunches and Isaiah Thomas is a burst of offensive energy but in the playoffs the ability to make three point shots is critical and it’s hard to see where the Celtics have improved. They signed Gerald Green but he had a disastrous year for the Heat when all he was asked to do was drain shots.
Al Horford will stretch the floor and he is as unselfish as they come plus he is a excellent ball mover. He fits. But Horford has never been the kind of player you ride the last two minutes of a game. You get the best out of him when he is part of a team system; he never does iso. Never.
In the backcourt, what more can you ask from a player than the possession of a killer instinct, an assassin’s narcissism and the skill to finish, plus a 22 point per game average? Isaiah Thomas is a fearless scorer who has defied all odds. Taken with the last pick of the 2011 draft, the 5-9 Thomas is an offensive machine who loves to dribble past his defender and get to the rim. He’s flashy but with a purpose. However, he struggles with efficiency, unable to post a 40% percentage at any one spot on the floor, except at the rim. But at the rim is where he is contested late in games. The challenge for Brad Stevens is to design an offense to take advantage of Thomas’ strengths so he is not bricking up shots, even as he is a streaky shooter and clutch shot maker.
As the point guard for the Celtics, Thomas averaged 6.2 assists, almost a career high, while still making 7 out of 17 shots. With Avery Bradley next to him, the two guards, one on offense, one on defense, are a nice back court combo.
Where does that leave Marcus Smart? On the bench. Smart isn’t a reluctant shooter but he has a lot of flaws in that part of his game. He isn’t efficient putting the ball in the hole- okay he’s pretty lousy at it, missing 65% of his shots in his sophomore year. Where Smart is truly awful is distance shot making: 25% on threes. He’s a tad bit better out on the perimeter and he’s very streaky, but his ability to come in and score is his grand weakness. But he’s a tough effort player. You can throw him and his body onto a guard to try to disrupt their rhythm.
The Celtics lost Jared Sullinger and replaced him with Big Al. Sullinger is a better rebounder (8.3 last year to Horford’s 7.3) but Horford scored five points more per game than Sullinger. Kelly Olynyk wan’t much of a rebounder last season at 4.1 a game but he was a good three point shot maker, 40%.
Jae Crowder had a breakout year, 14.2 points. He had career highs in field goal percentage (44.3%), 2-point percentage (52.9%), 3-point percentage (33.6%), free throw attempts, defensive rebounds, total rebounds, assists, steals, blocks. How much of that was Crowder coming into his prime- he’s 26-or Crowder living up to his $35 million contract. This year will be telling as teams will play Crowder differently. They’ll show him respect.
Though not a great center, not particularly explosive nor is he a dominant athlete, Amir Johnson’s shooting skill is deceptive. Last season, he was a solid mid-range shooter and great at the rim.
Although the Celtics open up against the awful Nets, they play the Bulls, Hornets, Bulls, and Cavs to kick off 2016-17. After a breather against the Nuggets, they have the Wizards, Knicks and Pacers on tap. The C’s will be competitive all year but have to adjust to life with Al Horford, a multi-versatile player who is highly skilled. Is Big Al enough to get the Celtics into the Eastern Conference Finals? Horford has only been there once in his career so his presence isn’t an automatic qualifier.
But Horford is the star that stirs the Celtics drink. His career has gotten an East Coast breath of fresh air. The city of Boston is behind him. It’s go time.
photo via llananba