Biggest Reasons Why Boston Celtics Will Exceed Expectations Next Season
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Don’t count the Boston Celtics out just yet.
Sure, the loss of Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will be a tough pill to swallow. But with the additions of a young, talented head coach and several new faces in the locker room, it’s the dawning of a new era in Beantown.
And more often than not, change is good.
The Celtics finished last season 41-40 and made a quick first-round exit from the playoffs. It was the franchise’s worst finish since 2006-07.
However, it’s easy to forget that season-ending injuries to significant players—Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger—had Boston predicted to fall flat on its face. Given the circumstances, reaching the playoffs even seemed out of the question.
Now, with the Big Three era officially in the past, those predictions of mediocrity have returned in full force. Maybe even stronger than before.
Luckily for the Celtics, there are several reasons to believe that they can exceed their lowly expectations once again.
The New Guys
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Don’t feel too bad if you can’t recognize half of Boston’s current roster. As it stands, the team will be adding eight new faces to the squad.
However, some will stand out more than others.
With the 13th pick in June’s draft, the Dallas Mavericks selected Gonzaga center Kelly Olynyk. He was then immediately traded to the Celtics in return for the rights to Lucas Nogueira and two future second-round choices.
Thus far, Olynyk has proven to be worthy of the price.
In five Summer League appearances in Orlando, the 22-year-old averaged 18 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals over 24.3 minutes per game. Furthermore, according to Synergy Sports Data, via ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg, Olynyk averaged 1.084 points per play—only Utah’s Chris Roberts (1.113) fared better among players with at least 30 offensive attempts. Olynyk was named to the All-Tournament first team for his efforts.
Sure, it’s just the Summer League, but Boston has to like what they see from the young seven-footer. His height and ability to score make him a valuable asset to a team desperately in need of frontcourt depth.
A Hidden Gem
Due to his involvement in the deal that saw Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry leave town, there wasn’t much excitement surrounding MarShon Brooks’ arrival. Not to mention the fact that the 24-year-old averaged just 5.4 points per game last year.
But let’s not forget, Brooks is the same player who two years ago averaged 12.6 points and 3.6 rebounds over 29.4 minutes per game during his rookie campaign. He was named to the NBA All-Rookie second team for his accomplishments.
With Brooks, the Celtics are getting a young guard who has the potential to become a spark off the bench. And if the experiment doesn’t work out, Boston has a $2.2-million team option for 2014-15 that it can exercise.
A Fresh Face to Usher in the New Era
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The Celtics made a bold decision by bringing in former-Butler head coach Brad Stevens to take over for Doc Rivers. Not only was he without prior NBA experience, but he also was just 36 years old.
Yet Stevens is exactly what Boston needed.
Over his five years with the Bulldogs, Stevens put together a 166-49 record. He also compiled a list of accolades that include three Horizon Conference titles, the 2011 Clair Bee Coach of the Year Award and reaching back-to-back NCAA title games in 2010 and 2011—as the No. 5 and No. 8 seeds respectively.
Success seems to follow Stevens.
Back when he took over the helm at Butler in 2007, many believed Stevens was too young to coach a Division I program. He proved them wrong by breaking the NCAA record for most wins during a coach’s first three years (89). The Bulldogs lost just 15 games during that span.
Stevens also gained a lot of notoriety for his use of advanced statistics in analyzing opponents. It’s a strategy he seems set to utilize in the NBA, as his hiring of 23-year-old statistician Drew Cannon indicates.
Although unorthodox, Stevens’ methods will fit perfectly with the Celtics.
He gives the team a coach that not only has the ability to connect with his players, but also squeeze every last drop of talent out of them. It’s the reason why so many of Stevens’ former players only have good things to say about him.
Without a doubt, Boston found its guy.
First-Time Starters with a Lot to Prove
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The departures of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce left the Celtics in shock. But more importantly, it left two gaping holes in the team’s starting lineup.
They are holes that will likely be filled by Jeff Green and Jared Sullinger.
Greener on the Other Side
For Green, it’s a story of two halves.
From the get go, the 26-year-old struggled to make an impact with the team. He looked hesitant with the ball and constantly made bad decisions. Green’s play in January pretty much summed it all up—9.3 points over 23.9 minutes per game during 15 contests.
However, something must have woken him up along the way.
Over Boston’s final 16 regular-season games, Green averaged 19.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks over 35.1 minutes per night. He also shot 50.9 percent from the field and 51 percent from beyond the arc. The stretch also includes performances of 43 and 34 points.
The hot streak continued into the postseason.
During the Celtics’ six contests against the New York Knicks, Green averaged 20.3 points and 5.3 rebounds over 43.2 minutes per game. He also shot 43.5 percent from the floor and 45.5 percent from three-point range.
If anything, Green has certainly proven he is worthy of a starring role in Boston’s offense.
Experience Beyond his Years
In just one season, Sullinger has grown tremendously as a player.
His overall stat line shows a 21-year-old rookie who put together a decent first season in the NBA—6.1 points and 5.9 rebounds over 19.8 minutes per game. However, a deeper look shows a player who is ready to step up as a leader for one of the most storied franchises in the league.
Nine times this season Sullinger logged a total of 25 minutes or more. In those games, he averaged 12 points and 10.3 rebounds while shooting 59.5 percent from the field.
On defense, Sullinger was even better.
According to Synergy Sports Data, via ESPN Boston’s Chris Forsberg, the former-Ohio State standout allowed just 0.708 points per play. He ranked third among all players with at least 300 possessions.
Not to mention, Boston finished plus-42 with Sullinger on the court compared to minus-60 when he was off it.
Just goes to show, although he is young, Sullinger has a significant influence on the team’s success. Look for that to grow next season.
The Best Point Guard in the NBA Is on the Roster
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The Celtics made the playoffs without Rajon Rondo. Just imagine what they could have done with him.
In 38 contests last season, Rondo averaged 13.7 points, 11.1 assists and 5.6 rebounds over 37.4 minutes per game. He also shot 48.4 percent from the field.
Not surprisingly, the 27-year-old led the league in assists. He also led the league in triple-doubles with five. It’s impressive given he played 38 games less than the second-place finisher.
Rondo has always had the potential to be a team captain. With the departure of Paul Pierce, it’s looking likely that he will officially be given the title.
But is he capable of leading a team?
The one knock on Rondo is that he isn’t mature enough to handle the role. His previous run-ins with referees and opponents proves as much. He’s served suspensions on four different occasions.
In comparison, Pierce—Boston’s captain since 2000—hasn’t been suspended once in his career.
However, it’s hard to look past his contributions on the court. This is the same guy who averaged 20.9 points, 11.3 assists, 6.9 rebounds and 1.9 steals over 45.1 minutes per game during the Celtics’ seven-game series with the Miami Heat in 2012’s Eastern Conference finals.
If Rondo can just put his attitude issues in the past, the places he could take Boston are unlimited.
Familiarity with the Underdog Role
There’s nothing quite like an underdog.
All the odds are against you. You have nothing to lose. Even a minor step in the right direction is a success.
It’s a role the Celtics are all too familiar with.
Back during the 2008 NBA Finals, although the team finished the regular season with the best record, Boston was considered a heavy underdog against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. In fact, only one of the 10 ESPN analysts who predicted the series had the Celtics coming out on top.
Boston won in six, wrapping up Game 6 with an embarrassing 131-92 walloping of their rivals.
In 2012, the team was considered old and past its prime. With the Big Three hampered with injuries, and LeBron James and Derrick Rose dominating the Eastern Conference, there was no room for the Celtics to contend.
Boston took the Miami Heat to Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals, even leading the series 3-2 at one point.
Last season, at 20-23, the Celtics suffered the loss of Rajon Rondo after he tore his ACL. A couple games later, Jared Sullinger was shelved with a back injury. Nobody had the team making the playoffs, let alone competing.
Boston won its next seven games, going 14-4 in the team’s first 18 games without Rondo on the way to making the playoffs for the fifth year in a row.
It’s a matter of been there, done that for the Celtics. So when the majority of fans and media alike want to count this team out, take it with a grain of salt.
Boston prides itself in finding ways to escape out of situations that seem damning. At times, it’s almost Houdini-esque.
Something tells me, this season won’t be any different.
Unless stated otherwise, all stats are courtesy of NBA.com’s Media Central (subscription required)