Editor's note: With the new NBA season around the corner, we preview the top five teams contending for the 2017-18 title in this series The Contenders. We continue with the Boston Celtics at number three.
It was an unprecedented feat. The two best-ranked teams in the Eastern Conference and the two teams who matched up in the Eastern Conference Finals decided to deal directly with each other over the offseason, swapping point guards and other auxiliary pieces. The Boston Celtics ended up with Kyrie Irving. The Cleveland Cavaliers ended up with Isaiah Thomas and more.
With a total of 17 championships to their name, the Celtics are the NBA’s most successful franchise. Only one of those titles, however, have come in the past 30 years. After a memorable renaissance and title with the Garnett-Pierce-Allen squad, the Celtics have rebuilt, and under the shrewd guiding light of Danny Ainge, they have done it as well as any franchise in modern history. Within a matter of years, Ainge was able to construct a contender again and the team finished 2016-17 with the best regular season record in the East.
Which is why this offseason has been a true shocker. Last year’s successful side is all but gone. Enter, Irving, All Star free-agent signing Gordan Hayward, trade acquisition Marcus Morris, rookie Jayson Tatum, and another youngster hoping to become a regular starter: Jaylen Brown. With Al Horford and coach Brad Stevens, this team is loaded on paper. But could they repeat or improve on last season? Will Kyrie, Hayward, and more be enough to finally dethrone LeBron James from the East? And what about the looming threats out West?
The story last year
The Celtics added Horford to a young, well-coached team, and even if his numbers didn’t reflect it, the big man was able to play a strong auxiliary role in helping the team make a huge leap atop the East. The real ‘jump’ came courtesy of the smallest guy on the floor, Thomas, who developed into a superstar and one of the league’s best scorers over the course of the season. After a memorable post-season run, Boston were easily taken down in the Eastern Conference Finals by James' Cavaliers in a series Thomas missed to injury.
Everything changed. Hayward joined the team from Utah as a free agent, Morris came in a trade for Avery Bradley from Detroit, and most-crucially, Irving was acquired in a trade that lost Boston Thomas and Crowder. They were also the only true contender to have a high draft pick and picked exciting young swingman Jayson Tatum at third. Kelly Olynyk left for Miami.
Irving, Hayward, Horford, Brown, Marcus Morris, Marcus Smart, Tatum and Terry Rozier.
They will win a title if…
Irving can truly become the super-duper-star that he is betting himself to be. The Celtics have a magnificent coach (Stevens), important young players (Brown, Tatum, Rozier), a smart, versatile veteran (Horford) and an All Star sidekick (Hayward). But this season is going to be all about Irving.
Irving has been to three NBA Finals, won a championship, and made huge, huge shots. His trade request was a sign that he was ready to be a leader on his own, outside the looming shadow of James. For Boston to be successful, Irving’s belief in his own future has to pay off, and as this team’s point guard, he has to exceed in improving himself and his teammates to disrupt swinging pendulum between Warriors and Cavaliers in the Finals.
Cause for concern
Speaking of disruption, there might have been a little too much in Boston, and very rarely do NBA teams gel instantly when they have made so many major changes. With Irving and Hayward now leading the offense, the Celtics are sure to have a slow start to the season. What if Irving fails to excel in this new role as a leader and distributor instead of playing second-fiddle to James? Even if they are able to generate quick team chemistry, I feel their new injection of talent may still not be enough to defeat the top two.
After all the drastic changes, I foresee the 2017-18 Celtics season to unfold much as the 2016-17 one did. They will be a 50+ win team, finish top two in the East, and make the Eastern Conference Finals, but come up short once again against that almighty ruler of the East: LeBron James.
Updated Date: Oct 15, 2017 19:59 PM