The Boston Celtics are the best team in the Eastern Conference and it begins with the play of point guard Kyrie Irving.
X-Boston Celtics 51-31 (3)
For teams in the NBA who are really serious about rebuilding, they need to sit back and see what the Boston Celtics are doing. After the Celtics won the NBA Championship in 2008, they were able to remain as a title contender until 2013 when their age began to show. And instead of hanging on to players that were over the hill, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge immediately pushed the rebuild button as his team began the process of starting over.
Ainge’s first order of business was to find a head coach who was on board with his rebuilding plan and he found his man in former Butler Bulldogs men’s head basketball coach Brad Stevens. Stevens had never coached at the profession level and his first season in Boston only saw the Celtics win 25 games. However the Celtics would quickly be ahead of schedule in regards to rebuilding as in year two of the Stevens regime, they would be playoff bound. Last season the Celtics would win 53 games en route to winning the Atlantic Division Title as well as having the best record in the Eastern Conference. Boston would reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2012, and although that they were swept there by the Cleveland Cavaliers, the C’s have served notice to the rest of the NBA that they are once again ready to be a title contender.
Heading into the summer, Ainge knew that he had a team that was a good enough to be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, but what could he do in order to give the Cavaliers a run for their money?
Courtesy of a lopsided trade with the Brooklyn Nets in 2013, the Celtics acquired multiple first-round draft picks. And after the Nets the finished with the worst record in the NBA last season, they earned the first overall selection in the draft. However the Celtics had the option to swap first-round picks with Nets which they did. But Ainge wasn’t done wheeling and dealing as he made a deal just prior to the NBA Draft with the Philadelphia 76ers as he moved down to the third overall slot, and in the process he was able to obtain more draft picks.
The Celtics would select Duke Blue Devils small forward Jayson Tatum who after averaging 16.8 points and 7.3 in his only collegiate campaign showed that he was ready to take his game to the next level. Tatum would add to that in the NBA’s Summer League as he was able to average 18.7 points and 9.7 rebounds for the Celtics as he gave them a glimpse of what to expect from him this season.
Ainge wasn’t done there as he pulled off a huge shocker when he was able to acquire All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving from the Cavs. Irving is just entering the prime of his career and he has been integral in Cleveland’s three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. However Irving has gotten tired of being in the shadow of small forward LeBron James.
In acquiring Irving from Cleveland, the Celtics parted with a pair of draft picks which includes a first-round pick for next year that originally was the property of the Nets, as well as small forward Jae Crowder, and point guard Isaiah Thomas. The past few years had seen Thomas morph into being the heart and soul of the Celtics due to his scoring ability as well as his fearlessness which endeared him to the Boston fans. However a hip injury put Thomas’ future with the Celtics in doubt, and when Irving was put on the trading block after letting the Cavs front office know of his desire to no longer be a member of the organization, the trade went down.
What Irving gives the Celtics is a proven scorer who has shown that the bigger the stage, the more that he produces. For Irving’s six-year NBA career he has averaged 21.6 points per game. But Irving is not in that typical point guard mode as he is more of a shooting guard in a point guard’s body. However Irving should have no problem fitting into the offensive system that Stevens operates due to the fact that it comes down to ball movement, moving without the ball, and getting to the basket. Irving should have a big season for the Celtics as he looks to not only endear himself to the folks in Boston, but also show that he can succeed without LeBron.
Sandwiched in between drafting Tatum and obtaining Irving was the Celtics being able to sign free agent small forward Gordon Hayward. Hayward was one of the most coveted free agents over the summer after he averaged 21.9 points per game and helped the Utah Jazz reach the Western Conference Semifinals for the first time since 2010. All signs pointed to Hayward not re-signing with the Jazz, and it appeared to be a slam dunk decision for him to join the Celtics as Stevens was his college head coach.
Hayward made his decision official on July 4 when he and the Celtics came to terms on a four-year deal for $128 million. What Hayward gives the Celtics is a point forward who has what it takes to excel in Stevens’ system. Hayward can move well without the basketball, while can also score, while making the people around him better. And Hayward’s ability to handle the basketball can take some pressure off of Irving while also allowing him to concentrate more on being a scorer.
However things would become bad for Hayward and the Celtics on opening night when he fractured his ankle. More than likely Hayward is done for the season, but luckily the Celtics do have depth in the front court, while this injury occurred at the beginning of the season as this team will still have time to gel.
Boston would also lose some depth in their backcourt when they traded guard Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons. In exchange for sending Bradley to Detroit, the Pistons received power forward Marcus Morris who provides with interior scoring as well as some toughness that they lost when they traded Crowder.
Boston still has guard Marcus Smart who has proved to be a valuable bench player, while also providing toughness to the squad. In 2016, the Celtics drafted small forward Jaylen Brown third overall and he showed flashes of his potential. And with the Hayward injury, he will be a valuable player due to his athleticism.
The Celtics also have veteran center Al Horford who will never be a player that will consistently get 20 points and 10 rebounds, but he is a guy that could give Boston 15 points and 8 boards, while his decade long experience in the NBA, as well as winning a pair of national championships collegiately with the Florida Gators should pay dividends.
It will take the Celtics some time to gel, but they should improve as the season goes along as they’ll seek to fill the void of Hayward’s absence.
Y-Toronto Raptors 50-32 (4)
The Toronto Raptors currently find themselves in their best stretch in franchise history. The Raptors have made the NBA Playoffs in each of the last four years which included making the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 2016. But after three straight Atlantic Division Titles, the Raptors finished second in the division last year due to a surge by the Boston Celtics. And as the Celtics appeared to have passed the Raptors in regards to being the team to beat in the Atlantic, will they have enough in their arsenal to keep up with them and the other top powers in the Eastern Conference?
Dwane Casey is set to begin his seventh season as the head coach of the Raptors and by far he has had the most successful tenure of any head coach in franchise history which is also a credit to team president Masai Ujiri who has put the right players in place in order for the team to have success.
The Raptors still possess one of the best backcourts in the Eastern Conference which consists of shooting guard DeMar DeRozan and point guard Kyle Lowry. The confidence level of DeRozan has continued to increase throughout his eight-year NBA career. Last year DeRozan averaged 27.3 points per game which was fifth in the NBA as he has become “the guy” in Toronto. DeRozan has never been known to be a perimeter shooter as he has only shot 28% from behind the three-point line for his professional career. But what DeRozan specializes in is getting buckets as he is one the quicker players in the NBA in regards to his first step which helps him to get to the basket.
It may not seem like it, but Lowry is set to begin his 12th NBA season and sixth with the Raptors. Lowry has become a steadying force for the Raptors at the point guard position which led to him agreeing to return to the club last summer after agreeing to a three-year deal for $100 million. But as good as Lowry and DeRozan have been for Toronto, who else will step up in order to make this a championship team?
Last season saw the Raptors acquire power forward Serge Ibaka from the Orlando Magic. What Ibaka gives the Raptors is a stretch four who can knock down perimeter shots which opens up the lane for both Lowry and DeRozan. Center Jonas Valenciunas has been a project for the Raptors and he has now turned into a player who can get 15 points as well as 10 rebounds per night. But will this frontcourt production be enough for Toronto to keep up with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Celtics in the Eastern Conference?
The schedule makers were not kind to the Raptors as they will begin a six-game road swing in late October. This stretch will see the Raptors face some of the top teams from the Western Conference which includes games against the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors. The Raptors are still one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference, however they are still not on the level of the Cavs.
New York Knicks 38-44
There was a time when the New York Knicks were one of the top teams in the NBA, but for their disgruntled fan base, that was a lifetime ago. Since 2005, the Knicks only have three playoff appearances, while each of the last three years has seen them lose at least 50 games. The Knicks have been the epitome of dysfunction which was further illustrated by the failed tenure of Phil Jackson as the team’s president. The Knicks have been nothing short of a circus with none of the key people within the organization on the same page, and it doesn’t appear to be that much better at Madison Square Garden heading into the new NBA season.
After Knicks owner James Dolan decided to part ways with Jackson in June, he decided to hire Steve Mills as the team’s president and Scott Perry as the general manager. Dolan decided to retain Jeff Hornacek as the Knicks head coach as he should finally have a chance to flex his basketball muscles.
Last year was Hornacek’s first year as the Knicks head coach and under him New York lost 51 games. A big reason for the Knicks struggles was that Jackson wanted Hornacek to operate under the umbrella of the triangle offense, while his system is more wide-open. But now with the Jackson debacle behind the Knicks, we should see a more wide-open brand of basketball being played at Madison Square Garden this season.
Another reason why this season shouldn’t be as stressful for the Knicks is that the team finally came to grips and traded small forward Carmelo Anthony. When the Knicks acquired Anthony from the Denver Nuggets in 2011, he immediately became their first true franchise player that they had since the days of Patrick Ewing. However Anthony and Jackson were never on the same page, and with the star small forward turning 33-years of age this past May, he wanted to go a team that would give him an opportunity to win an NBA Championship.
Last month the Knicks would trade Anthony to the Oklahoma City Thunder and in process they handed the keys to their franchise to power forward Kristaps Porzingis.
In 2015, Porzingis was the fourth overall pick of the NBA Draft by the Knicks and it has not taken him that long to establish himself with the fans in the Big Apple. Last season Porzingis averaged 18.1 points and 7.2 rebounds, but with Anthony no longer in New York those numbers should increase. Coming into the NBA there were some scouts who compared Porzingis’ skill set to that of Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki. And the scoring ability of Porzingis as well as his prowess for passing will once again be a thing of beauty at Madison Square Garden.
In trading Anthony to the Thunder, the Knicks were able to acquire center Enes Kanter and small forward Doug McDermott. The last two seasons have seen Kanter used as a bench player in Oklahoma City, but he will be a starter in New York City. What Kanter gives the Knicks is a player that can score close to the basket, while also being able to consistently grab boards which was a category that New York flourished in last season as they averaged pulling 45.2 rebounds per game, and that was fifth in the NBA.
After McDermott was a three-time All-American for the Creighton Blue Jays, he has gone on to be a solid scorer coming off of the bench in the NBA. And with the scoring ability of Porzingis and Kanter, McDermott should get his fair share of open looks at the basket.
The Knicks were 19th in the NBA in assists last season and this will once again be a category that they’ll struggle in due to the struggles at the point guard position. The Knicks did sign veteran point guard Jarret Jack as this will be the ninth different NBA team that he’ll play for, but injuries have limited him over the past few years. The Knicks used a first-round pick on point guard Frank Ntilikina who was injured before he even signed a contract with contract with New York as that doesn’t bode well for him or the team.
This will be an interesting season for the Knicks as they will be good enough to take care of the also-rans in the NBA, but they will have their struggles versus the contenders.
Philadelphia 76ers 35-47
The Philadelphia 76ers are set to begin their 69th year as an NBA franchise. The 76ers have claimed three NBA Championships, while they’ve had some of the greatest players in league history such as Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, and Allen Iverson play for them. But the Sixers recent history has been marred by a philosophy which has revolved around “tanking”. Philadelphia has not made the playoffs since 2012, while they have only won 73 games over the last four years. The last four NBA Drafts have seen the Sixers picking no lower than third in the first round. However with the penchant to select injured players by former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, the turnaround in Philadelphia has taken longer than it should. But for the first time in a long time, there is some optimism in the City of Brotherly Love for this team.
Bryan Colangelo has one full season under his belt as the 76ers president/general manager. Colangelo knows how to build a roster as he was twice named as the NBA’s Executive of the Year during his tenure as the general manager of the Phoenix Suns, while he also helped to turn around the fortunes of the Toronto Raptors when he served as their general manager. Philadelphia went 28-54 as Colangelo set out to restore some order to the franchise last season. And as the Sixers learned how to compete, they showed that their days of being a pushover in the NBA could be coming to an end.
The brightest spot for the 76ers last season was the impact that center Joel Embiid had. Embiid was the third overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft by Philadelphia, however injuries forced him to sit out his first two seasons in the NBA. Embiid became a force for the Sixers last season as he averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks. But the injury bug once again did Embiid in as he was limited to just 31 games. However if Embiid is ever to remain healthy, he will be a force in the interior at both ends of the floor for Philadelphia.
2016 saw the 76ers use the first overall pick of the NBA Draft on small forward Ben Simmons. However Simmons would suffer a fractured foot last September which saw him miss the entire 2016-2017 NBA season. But Simmons is now healthy and ready to go which will be a huge plus for Philadelphia. Heading into the 2016 NBA Draft, Simmons was compared to Cavaliers small forward LeBron James due to his ability to pass and be an all-around player at the small forward position. At 6’10”, Simmons has the ability see over most of his opponents, while he has made the players around him better at each step of the way along his basketball journey.
Philadelphia would once again select first this year in draft, but it was after they made a deal with the Boston Celtics. Originally the Sixers were slotted to select third overall, but with the Celtics feeling that they could trade down and still get the player that they wanted, Philadelphia moved up to select point guard Markelle Fultz.
In one season collegiately for the Washington Huskies, Fultz averaged 23.2 points, 5.9 assists, and 5.7 rebounds to become a third-team All-American. And now as the first overall pick of the draft, Fultz is ready to live up to the hype.
In 2015, Philadelphia selected center Jahlil Okafor third overall. And although that Okafor has tremendous upside to score in the low post, he has fallen out of favor in Philadelphia as it would not surprise me to see him traded at some point this season.
Very quietly shooting guard J.J. Redick has become one of the better three-point shooters in NBA history. The Sixers shocked many observers during the off-season when they gave him a one-year for $23 million as his game is one-dimensional. However Redick can provide the young Sixers with a veteran presence who knows what it takes to get to the playoffs as it all about changing the culture in Philly.
The schedule makers were not kind to the 76ers as four of their first five games this season will be versus teams who reached the playoffs last season. Philadelphia should be an improved team, but there success primarily hinges on their key young players remaining healthy.
Brooklyn Nets 22-60
The spend today and not worry about tomorrow philosophy that the Brooklyn Nets have employed for the last five years has finally caught up to them in a very bad way. Several “win-now” trades by the Nets saw them part with multiple first-round picks which could have been vital for them, but instead those draft picks are being used to build other teams. In 2013, the Nets sent multiple first-round picks to the Boston Celtics for small forward Paul Pierce, power forward Kevin Garnett, and shooting guard Jason Terry. None of these players suited up for the Nets for two seasons, while Garnett and Pierce are now retired. The Nets have helped the Celtics to become a title contender as Boston has consistently been picking early on in the NBA Draft courtesy of Brooklyn. And to make matters worse, the Celtics who own the Nets first-round pick for 2018 have already traded that pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a deal that saw Boston acquire point guard Kyrie Irving. The Nets are coming off of consecutive seasons in which they lost at least 60 games and for the folks who follow the squad that calls New York City’s most popular borough home, don’t expect things to get that much better heading into the new NBA season.
Kenny Aktinson is set to begin his second season as the Nets head coach and he has a tall task in front of him in regards to making this team compete in the Eastern Conference. This off-season saw the Nets make a very questionable trade with the Los Angeles Lakers. The Nets sent center Brook Lopez, along with the 27th overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft to the Lakers for center Timofey Mozgov and point guard D’Angelo Russell. Lopez was coming off of one of his best seasons with the Nets, and he leaves Brooklyn as the franchise’s all-time leader in points with 10,444. In trading Lopez, the Nets parted with a quality big man for a point guard in Russell who comes to Brooklyn with question about his maturity. In two seasons with the Lakers, Russell never showed that he could be a leader for the team, and when Magic Johnson became the franchise’s president of basketball operations earlier this year, it made the young point guard expendable. And whereas that the Lakers gave up on Russell, will a fresh start with a new team be able to motivate him?
In looking at the Nets roster there is not that much optimism heading into a new NBA season as this team could once again finish with the worst record in the league and not even have a top draft pick to show for it.
From 2008-2013, the Boston Celtics were always in contention to win the NBA Title which included them winning it all in 2008. However following Boston’s elimination in the first round of the NBA Playoffs in 2013, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge decided that it was time to start over. And instead of Ainge waiting for aging players such as small forward Paul Pierce and power forward Kevin Garnett to completely break down physically, he was able to ship them off to the Brooklyn Nets while receiving a litany of draft picks in the process. And as longtime Celtics head coach Doc Rivers did not want to participate in a rebuild in Boston, he was sent to the Los Angeles Clippers which resulted in more draft picks for the C’s since Rivers was still under contract with them.
Ainge would then raise some eyebrows when he pegged Brad Stevens to replace Rivers as the Celtics head coach. Stevens had never coached in the NBA as he was the men’s head basketball coach of the Butler Bulldogs. Stevens’ time at Butler was highlighted by him reaching the championship game of the NCAA Tournament in 2010 and 2011, but how would he be able to fare in the NBA?
In Stevens’ first year with the Celtics, Boston would go 25-57 which was to be expected. However the following season would see the Celtics win total improve by 15 games and they earned the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics would continue to build off of that as they won 48 games during the 2015-2016 NBA season, and this past campaign would see them earn the best record in the Eastern Conference with a mark of 53-29. Boston would make it to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2012, however after being eliminated by the Cleveland Cavaliers, it was clear that the C’s still had a ways to go in order to close the gap on them and become legitimate contenders to win the NBA Championship.
That gap closed somewhat on Independence Day when the Celtics signed small forward Gordon Hayward to a four-year deal that is worth $128 million. Hayward has spent his entire NBA career with the Jazz which included him averaging 21.9 points per game this past season while earning his first NBA All-Star Game selection. The acquisition of Hayward reunites him with Stevens who was his head coach at Butler, while it also displays that Ainge’s plan is coming to fruition.
Although that the Celtics 17 NBA Championships are more than any other organization in league history, no star player wanted to come to Boston when Ainge decided to rebuild. And instead of Ainge going for a quick fix in order to turn around the fortunes of the Celtics, he did it the old-fashioned way which required patience on his part, along with the ability to take some ridicule in Beantown.
Ainge has never been willing to give away draft picks as he has instead stock piled them like poker chips. In sending Pierce, Garnett, and shooting guard Jason Terry to the Nets, the Celtics received four, first-round picks in the NBA Draft. Ainge’s ability to sell water to a whale has been magnified as the trade with Brooklyn allowed the Celtics to select small forward Jaylen Brown third overall last year. This year the Celtics had the right to swap first-round picks with the Nets who earned the first overall selection in the NBA Draft. And with Ainge not blown away with point guard Markelle Fultz who was projected to be the top pick in the draft, he made a trade with the Philadelphia 76ers and moved down to the third overall selection. The Celtics would then select small forward Jayson Tatum and in the process they procured a first-round pick from the Sixers for next year. The Nets also owe the Celtics a first-round pick for next year which will more than likely be in the top five of the draft which means that Ainge can draft another quality player early, or find a sucker that is willing to give him a king’s ransom in order to move up as the rich simply get richer.
Ainge has also taken chances on bringing players to the Celtics that nobody else wanted. In 2011, point guard Isaiah Thomas went undrafted by the NBA. Thomas would begin his NBA journey with the Sacramento Kings. In three years with the Kings, Thomas’ numbers improved and in his final season in Sacramento, he averaged 20.3 points per game. Thomas was then traded to the Phoenix Suns where he averaged 15.2 points in 46 games. Thomas would then be traded to the Celtics in 2015 and he has gone on to become a household name.
Thomas has averaged 24.7 points per game during his time with Celtics and this past season saw him become an MVP candidate as he averaged 28.9 points. And once you factor in the emergence of Thomas, along with the overall improvement of the Celtics, things are changing as far as this organization’s reputation around the NBA.
Now Boston is once again becoming a popular destination among free agents around the NBA which was illustrated by Hayward joining the Celtics, and there is more to come.
The draft picks that the Celtics are in possession of gives Ainge plenty of flexibility if he needed to get another star player to team with Thomas and Hayward. This past season saw Brown show flashes of his potential, while Tatum has gotten off to a hot start in the NBA’s Summer League as the Celtics now have one of the deepest teams in the league.
Ainge has built the Celtics into a contender simply off of the fact that there is always a sucker in regards to making a trade. Ainge was able to find that sucker in the mode of former Nets general manager Billy King who mortgaged the future for three washed up players. Pierce and Garnett are retired, while Terry is currently playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, but the Nets are still on the hook for one more first-round pick to the Celtics.
Ainge learned from one of the best as far as making trades as former Celtics general manager Red Auerbach knew how to exploit loopholes in the NBA’s rule book, while also finding a sucker to make a trade with. And this ability by Auerbach allowed the Celtics to draft Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, while acquiring Robert Parrish to form one of the best front court’s in NBA history as the combination helped Boston win three titles in the 1980’s.
Now Ainge is writing his own chapter and as he doesn’t appear to be slowing down with making moves, the 18th NBA Title for the Celtics doesn’t appear to be that far around the corner.
When the Boston Celtics were eliminated in the first round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs by the New York Knicks, it marked the end of an era. After the Celtics won the NBA Championship in 2008, they were still title contenders, but they were showing signs of age. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge saw this and would broker a pair of blockbuster deals. Ainge would trade power forward Kevin Garnett, small forward Paul Pierce, and guard Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets in a deal that would see the Celtics receive first-round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018, along with the ability to swap first-round picks with the Nets for the upcoming NBA Draft. Doc Rivers was the head coach who led the Celtics to the NBA Championship in 2008 didn’t want to be a part of a potential rebuilding process in Boston. And since Rivers was still under contract with the Celtics, Ainge was able to trade him to the Los Angeles Clippers in 2013 for a first-round pick.
Ainge would pull off another shocker in finding the new head coach of the Celtics when he went to the collegiate ranks to talk Brad Stevens into leaving Butler University. Stevens was an up and coming head basketball coach at Butler as he led the school to a pair of Final Four appearances.
Stevens’ first NBA season would be tough as the Celtics were only able to win 25 games, but you could see the writing on the wall that he was on to something.
By Stevens’ second season, the Celtics were back in the playoffs and they’ve continued to build since then. More than anything Ainge has been selecting projects in the draft, or using players for trade bait. Ainge’s best move flew under the when he acquired point guard Isaiah Thomas from the Phoenix Suns in February 2015.
With the Celtics, Thomas is developing into a star as he’s second in the NBA this season in scoring at 29.8 per contest. And with Thomas leading the way, along with key role players such as guard Marcus Smart and small forward Jae Crowder, the Celtics are in the first place in the Atlantic Division, while they are breathing on the necks for the Cleveland Cavaliers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
At Butler, Stevens’ system relied on ball movement on offense, while having players that were not selfish and willing to do whatever it takes to win at both ends of the floor which is something that he has quickly established with the Celtics. And whereas Ainge’s rebuild was expected to take several years in order to once again turn Boston into a contender, the Celtics are once again in contention in the Eastern Conference.
Thomas has helped to once again make the Celtics relevant, but he alone won’t be enough for Boston to have a legitimate chance to get past the Cavaliers in the playoffs. Last summer Ainge signed center Al Horford to a four-year deal that is worth $113 million. And although that Horford and Crowder have combined to average 28.9 points per game this season, the Celtics still need more production from their front court in order to become a title contender.
Ainge has tried in the past to broker deals to get star players to come to Boston, but that was when things were looking bleak for the Celtics, and thus he was rebuffed. However with the fortunes of the Celtics on the upswing, Ainge’s chances of pulling something off have increased.
With the Nets zeroing in on getting one of the first three selections in this year’s NBA Draft, that right to swap picks is money in bank as far as the Celtics are concerned. Thanks to the Nets, the Celtics had the third overall pick in last year’s NBA Draft which they used on small forward Jaylen Brown. Brown is only averaging 15.5 minutes per contest this season, but he is someone that the Celtics see as a project, while he could also be used in a future trade. And with the Celtics excess picks, those could also be enticing to another team as far as a trade goes.
The Celtics have been rumored to be set to pursue Utah Jazz small forward Gordon Hayward this summer when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Hayward played for Stevens at Butler and he is in the midst of his best NBA season as he’s averaging 19.7 points per game which has led to his first nod for the NBA All-Star Game.
But regardless if the Celtics are able to land Hayward or a star player this summer, this organization has flexibility due to Ainge’s knowledge of knowing how to play the system. Aside from Horford who will be set to earn $27.7 million next season, no other Celtics player will earn more than $8.8 million for the 2017-2018 NBA season. Since Thomas was a relative unknown upon coming to Boston, the Celtics have him for a bargain rate as he’ll only earn $6.2 next season which gives Ainge cap space flexibility.
Ainge took a page from former Celtics head coach/general manager Red Auerbach who always knew how to find a “sucker” when it came to making a deal. Ainge accepted the fact that his Celtics would have to rebuild and thus he has stockpiled draft picks as if they were currency. There’s a reason why the Celtics organization has won more NBA Championships than any other, and they are once again on the right track to being in the mix as one of the league’s better teams.
At 5’9″, Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas might be slight of stature for NBA standards, but this doesn’t mean that he cannot ball. In three years collegiately with the Washington Huskies, Thomas helped them reach the NCAA Tournament in each season, while also being a two-time Pac-10 Tournament MVP. Thomas would be the final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings as he went 60th overall, and in his rookie season he would average 11.5 points per game. By Thomas’ third season with the Kings, he was averaging 20.3 points and 6.3 assists. But Sacramento was ready to give up on Thomas as in July 2014, he was traded to the Phoenix Suns.
In 46 games with the Suns during the 2014-2015 NBA season, Thomas would average 15.2 points per game. But Thomas would only make one start for the Suns due to the fact that they had a very crowded back court. However Thomas would get a reprieve as just prior to the NBA’s trade deadline in 2015, he was sent to the Celtics. And the Celtics have been able to do something that the Kings nor Suns could not do which was to give Thomas a home in the NBA.
Thomas would appear in 21 games that season for the Celtics as he would average 19 points and 5.4 assists while coming off of their bench. But last season Celtics head coach Brad Stevens decided to make the move to put Thomas into the starting lineup and it worked.
Thomas averaged 22.2 points, 6.2 assists, and 3 rebounds in helping Boston reach the playoffs. Thomas showed the Celtics that he could be a building block for them, but no one could have envisioned what he would be doing this season.
This season Thomas is averaging 29.7 points per game which is second in the NBA to go along with 6.4 assists and he is a big reason why the Celtics currently find themselves in first place in the Atlantic Division. Thomas is also flirting with doing something that no other Celtics player has done in the history of this illustrious franchise which is to average 30 points per game for an entire season. And for all of those who have overlooked Thomas on his basketball journey, he is proving his worth while playing on the big stage, in a big market, on a big franchise.
Thomas has not scored less than 18 points in any games this season as he has been in the zone. On December 20, Thomas scored 44 points in a 112-109 win over the Memphis Grizzlies and he would finish out the month by dropping 52 points on the Miami Heat. The new calendar year has not seen Thomas slow down as for the month of January he averaged 32.9 points per contest which included him dropping 41 points and 8 assists on the Detroit Pistons this past Monday during the Celtics 113-109. Thomas would go on to be named as the Eastern Conference’s Player of the Month for January. And when the Celtics needed Thomas the most, he was front and center this past Wednesday against the Raptors when he got them for 44 points and 7 assists as Boston overtook Toronto for the top spot in the division.
Slowly but steadily the Celtics brain trust of Stevens and president of basketball operations/general manager Danny Ainge are developing Boston into a title contender with Thomas as one of the key pieces. There are rumors that the Celtics could go after Utah Jazz small forward Gordon Hayward this summer when he becomes an unrestricted free agent due to his familiarity with Stevens whom he played under collegiately with the Butler Bulldogs as he could potentially form a nice duo with Thomas in Beantown. Boston also has the right to swap first-round picks with the Brooklyn Nets ahead of the 2017 NBA Draft. And that is money in the bank for the Celtics as the Nets currently have the worst record in the league which could lead to the top pick in the draft Boston. The Celtics will also receive the Nets first-round pick outright next year which gives them the opportunity to build a dominant team which is enticing to potential free agents and Thomas alike.
Thomas is under contract with the Celtics through next season and they’ve gotten off light as he is only earning a little north of $6 million over the next two seasons, but he should be cashing in real soon.
What makes Thomas so tough to defend is that he is a versatile player. Thomas is not afraid to drive to the basket in order to mix it up with the bigger players, and he’s also shooting close to 39% from behind the three-point line. Thomas has scrapped and clawed to get to where he currently is at and the sports fans in Beantown can relate to that.
At first when the Celtics acquired Thomas, he appeared that he would merely be with the franchise for a cup of coffee. But in a very short stretch Thomas has turned into a franchise player for Boston, while making Ainge look like a genius for acquiring him from the Suns. Thomas is heading to his second consecutive All-Star Game appearance later this month. And although that Thomas was snubbed as he won’t be starting in the contest, he’ll still make his presence known as one of the league’s most dynamic players.
Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook and Houston Rockets point guard James Harden are garnering most of the interest as far as being the NBA’s MVP this season. But if Thomas continues on the pace that he’s currently on, it will be impossible to not have his name included in the discussion as well.
X-Toronto Raptors 54-28 (3)
The past three years have seen the Toronto Raptors become the class of the Atlantic Division. The Raptors have focused on basketball fundamentals which has led to more wins and a growing fan base in Canada. The Raptors will begin the upcoming NBA season as the three-time defending Atlantic Division Championships, and after Toronto reached the Eastern Conference Finals last June for the first time in franchise history, the expectations around this team have increased.
Dwane Casey is set to begin his sixth season with the Raptors and in each of his campaign’s in Toronto, the team’s win total has increased. And after the Raptors won a franchise best 56 games last season, they are poised to once again be one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference.
The backbone of the Raptors has been their All-Star backcourt of point guard Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan averaged a career-high in points last season at 23.5 points per game as he continues to improve as a perimeter shooter. Lowry’s numbers have continued throughout his NBA career as he is emerging as one of the better point guards in the league. Last year Lowry averaged 21.2 points and 6.4 assists per contest and as he intends to test free agency next summer.
Around Lowry and DeRozan, the Raptors have developing players such as center Jonas Valanciunas. Valanciunas has spent his entire four-year NBA career with the Raptors and his numbers continue to improve as he averaged 12.8 points and 9.1 rebounds last season. Valanciunas is a prime candidate to average a double-double this season which could make the Raptors that more difficult to deal with. The Raptors signed center Jared Sullinger who could be a solid role player in Toronto after he spent the last four years with the Boston Celtics. And the Raptors first-round pick in center/power forward Jakob Poltl could give them another dynamic as a big man that can stretch the floor with his ability to hit he mid-range jump shot.
Size has been the one thing that has held the Raptors back in recent years, but as this team continues to get better in the front court, their chances of being a title contender are that much better.
Y-Boston Celtics 48-34 (4)
The past two years have seen the Boston Celtics become “The Little Engine That Could” of the NBA. The Celtics are not the most talented team in the league, but they scrap and claw on a nightly basis as they are a team that opponents are not excited to face. Brad Stevens is the Celtics head coach, and it is a post that he has maintained for the last three years. And in each year that Stevens has been in Boston, the Celtics win total has increased. The last two seasons have seen the Celtics make the playoffs, but they’ve been unable to advance past the first round. However will things change for the Celtics next spring?
Last year saw point guard Isaiah Thomas turn into a star for the Celtics. Thomas led the Celtics in points per game (22.2) and assists (6.2) as he earned his first All-Star Game nod. Thomas has solid ability as a point guard being that is able to penetrate, but for the Celtics to take that next step they are going to need a consistent low-post presence.
For the last nine years, center Al Horford has been one of the cornerstones of the Atlanta Hawks. With the Hawks, Horford was a four-time NBA All-Star as he averaged 14.3 points and 8.9 rebounds during his time there. But when Horford became a free agent this past summer, the Hawks signed center Dwight Howard which made him expendable. And when the Celtics offered Horford $113 million on a four-year deal, he jumped on it.
Horford gives the Celtics a dependable scorer in the post, and he has already been named as one of the team’s captains which gives you an idea of the respect that he commands.
The combination of guards Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley continue to pester opponents with their frenetic play at both ends of the floor. Both Smart and Bradley are two of the better defenders at the point guard position along with each player providing a change of pace on offense which gives Stevens more options as he preaches versatility with his team.
Veteran small forward Jae Crowder should be able to feed off of Horford’s presence in the front court as he no longer has to be the Celtics primary scoring option in the post. The Celtics have high hopes for their first-round pick in small forward Jaylen Brown. But a sleeper on this roster could be rookie forward Ben Bentil who averaged 21.1 points and 7.7 rebounds last year in the college for the Providence Friars. Aside from leading the Friars in scoring and rebounds, Bentil also led the team with 52 made three-point field goals, and his scoring ability will be huge off of the bench for the Celtics.
Five of the Celtics first six games this season will be at home, and a fast start could be just what they need to push the Toronto Raptors for the top spot in the Atlantic Division.
New York Knicks 41-41
When Phil Jackson became the president of the New York Knicks in March 2014, he brought excitement and expectations to the franchise. But in two seasons under Jackson’s regime, the Knicks have only managed to win 49 games, while the man that he was grooming to be the next “great head coach” in Derek Fisher was fired last season after the team got off to a 23-31 start. Kurt Rambis would be named as the Knicks interim head coach for the remainder of the season as New York went 9-19 under him. But what was even more surprising than the firing of Fisher was that Jeff Hornacek was hired to be the new head coach of the Knickerbockers.
The Knicks will be Hornacek’s second NBA coaching gig after he compiled a record of 101-112 in nearly three seasons as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns. Hornacek was never able to lead the Suns to the postseason, and the highlight of his time in Phoenix was when the team won 48 games during the 2013-2014 NBA season. However it is really going to be very interesting to see how the marriage between Hornacek and Jackson will work since Jackson is notorious for hiring coaches that will solely run his triangle offense which isn’t a specialty of the Knicks new head coach who prefers a more uptempo style of offense.
The hiring of Hornacek smells of Knicks owner James Dolan once again putting his nose into the day-to-day operations of the team which makes you wonder if Jackson’s days at 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue are numbered? And even though that the Knicks can be described as the best circus in town, this group must find a way to co-exist in order to make a roster that has individual talent work as a team.
The centerpiece of any potential Knicks success is small forward Carmelo Anthony. Anthony has been with the Knicks since 2011 and he has given New York a face of the franchise while helping them reach the postseason on three occasions. Anthony also led the NBA in scoring during the 2012-2013 NBA season, but since then his offensive numbers have dipped. Anthony is 32-years of age with a bad knee. And although that Anthony can still fill up the bucket, the clock is ticking on he and the Knicks to win a championship together.
The Knicks are hopeful that power forward Kristaps Porzingis will be able to build off of his solid rookie campaign. Last season Porzingis averaged 14.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks. Porzingis came into the NBA being compared to Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki, and he could be a player that could average 17 points and 10 rebounds this season under Hornacek.
This off-season has seen the Knicks bring in an array of veteran players. The Knicks signed former Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah to a four-year deal that is worth $72 million, while also signing guards Brandon Jennings and Courtney Lee. The Knicks would also acquire point guard Derrick Rose from the Bulls to complete their roster overhaul. But unfortunately for the Knicks, these are moves that should have been made five years ago.
In 2011, Rose was the NBA’s MVP as he was one of the league’s brightest stars. However since then knee injuries have derailed Rose’s once promising career. Noah was Rose’s teammate in Chicago where they helped the Bulls to be one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference when they were healthy. Noah was the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2014 as his toughness and grit defined that era of Bulls basketball. But like Rose, Noah has been dealing with injuries as foot and shoulder issues have limited his effectiveness over his final two seasons in Chicago. The Knicks will be the fourth different team that Jennings has suited up for and he is seeking to find the explosiveness that he had earlier in his career. Like Jennings, Lee has bounced around the NBA as the Knicks will be his seventh different team. Throughout Lee’s career, he has been an underrated defender that should be able to provide a spark off of the Knicks bench for Hornacek.
The Knicks will look to push the pace of play more this season under Hornacek, but the most important thing for New York is to have everyone on the same page as it will be very interesting to see how this motley crew comes together as the season progresses.
Philadelphia 76ers 29-53
It’s no secret that the Philadelphia 76ers have become the worst franchise in the NBA. The 2011-2012 NBA season was the last time that the Sixers finished with a winning record and it was their only winning campaign over the last seven years. The last three seasons have seen the 76ers combine to win 47 games, and to give you an idea of how bad that it has been in Philadelphia, ten NBA teams won more games than the Sixers last year alone than they were able to accomplish over the last three campaigns. Last season was just about as bad as it could get for the Sixers as they managed to go just 10-72 which led to some wholesale changes.
Sam Hinkie was relieved of his duties as the 76ers general manager after he oversaw the worst stretch in franchise history. Former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo was brought in by the Sixers as an advisor and his first order of business was to name his son Bryan as the team’s new president and general manager. The younger Colangelo has a proven track record of putting a team together from his time as the general manager of both the Suns and Toronto Raptors as he was named as the NBA’s Executive of the Year in 2007. Now Colangelo is tasked with making the Sixers respectable once again and they could be a team on the rise.
Brett Brown is set to begin his third season as the Sixers head coach and although that the man who hired him in Hinkie is no longer running the show in Philly, he will still be calling the shots on the sideline.
The Sixers will begin the upcoming NBA season on the wrong foot as they will be without the services of small forward Ben Simmons. Simmons was the first overall pick of the NBA Draft this past summer after he averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 4.8 assists in one year for the LSU Tigers. But a foot injury will keep Simmons out of action for at least three months which will postpone his NBA debut.
The inability for the 76ers to win games in recent years has led to selecting early in the NBA Draft, but Hinkie rolled the dice on players that weren’t healthy. In 2013, the Sixers obtained the draft rights to center Nerlens Noel from the New Orleans Pelicans, but he missed the entire 2013-2014 NBA season after he recovered from a torn ACL that he suffered in college. In 2014, the Sixers used the third overall pick of the draft on center Joel Embiid, but injuries have prevented him from participating in an NBA game. Last year the Sixers first-round pick was center Jahlil Okafor. Unlike Noel and Embiid, Okafor was able to suit up as a rookie for the Sixers as he averaged 17.5 points and 7 rebounds in 53 games before a knee injury cut his rookie campaign short. However all three players are healthy and it should give the 76ers a huge advantage in the front court.
The good things for the folks in Philadelphia is that it can’t get any worse than it has already been. Colangelo is working to bring a competitive team to the City of Brotherly Love and the 76ers should be an improved team this season.
Brooklyn Nets 22-60
Last year was a sign of things to come for the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets lost 61 games last season which was the third worst record in the NBA and the icing on the cake was that they didn’t have a first-round pick to show for their futility. The Nets are still suffering from the moves that were made by former general manager Billy King as most of their recent and future picks are now property of the Boston Celtics after the team’s failed attempt to become an instant title contender in 2013 when they acquired aging players such as power forward Kevin Garnett and small forward Paul Pierce. The Nets run at a title was short lived as they are coming off of their worst campaign since 2010 when they were still the New Jersey Nets.
Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov has finally realized that winning an NBA Championship is not an easy process and instead of the quick process, he has finally decided on the slow, methodical process. Prokhorov has hired Sean Marks as the Nets new general manager and he’ll be tasked with making Brooklyn respectable.
Marks played for 11 seasons in the NBA and he won a championship as a member of the San Antonio Spurs in 2003. Marks has spent the last four years working in the Spurs front office and he is looking to bring some of that winning formula with him to Brooklyn.
Marks’ first order of business was to hire a new coach in Kenny Atkinson. The Nets will mark Atkinson’s first head coaching gig in the NBA, but he has had stints as an assistant coach in the league with the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks. And now that Atkinson is running the show in Brooklyn, you can expect him to preach ball movement for the Nets.
One of the few bright spots that the Nets have on their roster is center Brook Lopez. Lopez is coming off of one of his best NBA seasons as he averaged 20.6 points and 7.8 rebounds in 73 games for the Nets. Lopez gives the Nets a solid presence in the post, but trading him to a contending team could return draft picks to Brooklyn that will be needed in order for them to turn things around.
Aside from Lopez, the Nets are a team that is mainly comprised of youngsters that are thankful to be on an NBA roster and veterans that are attempting to hold on. This past summer the Nets signed point guard Jeremy Lin to a three-year, $36 million deal as they are hopeful than he can give them a dose of “Linsanity” as he did when he suited up for the Knicks in 2012. Rookie shooting guard Isaiah Whitehead is a native of Coney Island and he won’t be fazed by playing in front of the hometown fans as he could have a positive impact on this team.
The Nets will be fighting an uphill battle all season long as they have finally come to grips of the reality that is their rebuilding process.
It was a bit of shock in 2013 when Brad Stevens was hired to be the new head coach of the Boston Celtics. Stevens was never around the professional game as he had spent the previous six years as the men’s head basketball coach of the Butler Bulldogs. Stevens would have immense success at Butler as he complied a record of 166-49 which was highlighted by a pair of trips to the championship game of the NCAA Tournament. During Stevens’ time at Butler, he stayed loyal to the school as he he turned down bigger collegiate jobs, but you knew that there would come a point when he could not say no which happened when the Celtics came calling.
In Stevens’s first season with the Celtics, the team suffered through their worst season since 2007 as they managed to only go 25-57. It was a learning process for both Stevens and the Celtics that season, but team general manager Danny Ainge has made the right move in hiring the guy with the baby face.
Last season the Celtics made a 15-game improvement in the win column as they earned a playoff berth. The Celtics would be swept by the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers, but they were in each game of that first-round playoff series which is a staple of Stevens coached teams.
This year Stevens and the Celtics have continued to build as they’ve once again eclipsed their win total from the previous NBA season. Boston currently has a record of 44-32 which is good enough for sixth place in the Eastern Conference while they were able to add a huge feather in their cap last night.
The Golden State Warriors are in the midst of having a magical season as they are on pace to break the NBA record for most victories in a season which is held by the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls who went 72-10. On top of that the Warriors won their first 36 home games as they are seeking to tie the 1985-1986 Celtics who went 40-1 at the Boston Garden.
The Celtics would travel to the Oracle Arena in Oakland, California last night for a meeting with the Warriors. But as it appeared to be just another night at the office for the Warriors who have been a runaway freight train this season, somebody forgot to mention that to the Celtics.
Whereas some teams have been in awe of the Warriors this year, the Celtics weren’t as they went blow-for-blow with the defending NBA Champions for 48 minutes. Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas who is the team’s leading scorer at 22.3 per game was held scoreless in the first half by the Warriors which would typically symbolize that Boston was in trouble. But in spite of Thomas’ struggles, the Celtics took a 45-43 lead to the locker room at halftime.
Thomas wouldn’t stay quiet for long as he finished the game with 22 points while staying step-for-step with Warriors point guard Steph Curry who is the reigning NBA MVP. Curry was still able to manage 29 points, but Thomas is a guard that is quick enough to hang with him while also making him work on the defensive end of the floor. And when the game finished, the Celtics were able to do what the Warriors first 36 opponents at home this NBA season were unable to do which was to leave Oakland victorious.
The same coaching style that Stevens had at Butler has been able to translate to the NBA while he has also adjusted to the professional game. At Butler, Stevens’ teams were always scrappy at both ends of the floor as they never gave up which is the same case for the Celtics. At Butler, there was never a player that thought that he was bigger than the team as everyone bought in to what Stevens was selling which is the same case for the Celtics. But at the same time Stevens has made a smooth transition to the professional game as he treats his players as men which can be difficult for a coach who has only been at the collegiate level to do.
In three years under Stevens, the Celtics have gone from a team that appeared to have a rather lengthy rebuilding process on their hands, to a group that nobody wants to play. Ainge has been very solid in the rebuild of the Celtics as he has built this current Celtics team and the best is yet to come for this organization.
In what could be one of the most lopsided trades in professional sports history, Ainge orchestrated a nine-player trade that included the Celtics sending power forward Kevin Garnett, small forward Paul Pierce, and shooting guard Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets. As a part of the Celtics compensation, they would receive three first-round picks from the Nets with one of those picks in this year’s NBA Draft. And once you factor in that the Nets have one of the worst records in the NBA this season, the Celtics stand to find themselves a top-tier player to bring to their team which could also look promising to potential free agents over the next few summers as well.
But this current Celtics team has a group of scrappy players that includes Thomas, point guard Avery Bradley, and small forward Jae Crowder who are the teams three leading scorers. And whereas this Celtics team might be undersized, they make up for it in the categories of hustle and determination which is a big reason why they are a playoff team. In 2007, Ainge pushed all of the right buttons when he put together the Celtics first championship team since 1986, and he has now set the blueprint for another contender which started with hiring a head coach in Stevens that was destined for big things.