2009-10 Regular Season: 50-32
2009-10 Playoffs: #4 seed; lost in NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games
Additions: Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal, Delonte West, Avery Bradley, Semih Erden
Key Losses: Tony Allen, Michael Finley, Rasheed Wallace, Brian Scalabrine, Shelden Williams
Projected Rotation Players: Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kendrick Perkins (out until at least January), Glen Davis, Nate Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal, Delonte West, Marquis Daniels
Look for the Celtics’ first two regular season games to be representative of 80 to come.
Just to clarify, I’m not predicting a .500 finish for the 2010-11 Celtics. This remains an extremely smart, talented and deep team whose place in the NBA’s top tier is set in stone.
However, the aging (now more than ever!) Celtics will struggle to score, leading to some unexpected losses, not unlike Wednesday night in Cleveland. For all of their talent and toughness, there is an alarming lack of a go-to move on the Celtics. This team has only one player, Rajon Rondo, who’s capable of getting his own shot. And while Rondo can dominate without making a mark on the score sheet and is capable of getting to any spot on the floor, if he’s more than 10 feet away from the rim, he’s probably not going to score.
Of the remaining Celtics, two (Ray Allen and Paul Pierce) possess a consistent 3-point shot, three (Allen, Pierce, Kevin Garnett) can consistently hit a mid-range jumper and no one (maybe Garnett) commands a double team in the post. One of the O’Neals will occasionally find a rhythm inside, but both are shells of their former offensive selves. An overwhelming majority of this team’s easy buckets hinge completely on Rondo being able to penetrate and lay the ball off. This happens with incredible frequency, but puts the offense in the precarious position of being overly-reliant on a guy that doesn’t need to be guarded outside of 15 feet.
What all of that said, if we learned anything on Tuesday night (other than the fact that a Laker fan can root for the Celtics without bursting into flames), it’s that even in the absence of elite post stopper Kendrick Perkins and departed “defensive coordinator” Tom Thibodeau, the 2010-11 Celtics may be one of the best defensive teams we’ve seen in a long time. For starters, everyone in the rotation with the exception of Allen and Nate Robinson qualifies as at least a “good” rebounder.
On the perimeter, Rondo is an outstanding (and still improving) defender and one of the NBA’s elite ballhawks. He’s joined by rookie Avery Bradley, who’s expected to be a defensive stud, and Delonte West, another solid defensive guard. At the “3” position, Paul Pierce is still an excellent (and underrated) defender, and he’s backed up by a capable defender in Marquis Daniels.
Finally, up front, there’s KG, who looks better than he has in two years and should return to being an elite defender. Joining him is Glen “Big Baby” Davis, who’s undersized but a decent defender and a battler, and the Incredible Aging O’Neals. Shaq is practically cemented to the ground these days, but he’s still an experienced 330-pounder that can wear opposing bigs down by simply leaning on them. Meanwhile, for all that he’s lost at the offensive end, Jermaine remains a very good interior defender and shotblocker. All this, and not a mention of one of the game’s top-three interior defenders- Kendrick Perkins, who hopes to return from ACL surgery in January.
Look for the Celtics to regularly keep teams in the top third of the NBA in the 80s (or lower), and make them look silly in the process. However, this is also a team that will drop a handful of games to lottery-bound teams, and struggle to score 90 points in the process.
Bottom line: Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Celtics at 54.5. Like the Lakers out West, this is a veteran team that’s not concerned with regular season wins. Doc Rivers will push this team hard enough to secure a top-four seed in the playoffs, but not so hard that he drives them into the ground. There’s only one goal for these guys: a championship.
This team is built for the postseason, when the pace of games slows down and rest is easier to come by. The Celtics will win 50+ games, but as they prioritize rest for their veterans, some slippage may occur, just like last season. Look for these guys to win between 51 and 55 games in the regular season.