Predicting Boston Celtics' Final 15-Man 2016-17 Roster
The Boston Celtics begin the 2016-17 season saddled with high expectations for the first time during Brad Stevens’ tenure as head coach.
Those lofty aspirations have created an incredibly competitive atmosphere during the preseason, as 16 players with guaranteed contracts battle for 15 spots.
While the starting lineup looks settled with the addition of free agent Al Horford in place of Jared Sullinger, uncertainty remains throughout one of the league’s deepest rosters.
Guards James Young and R.J. Hunter are two players squarely on the bubble, both trying to prove they could be useful shooters at the end of the bench. Plenty of rotation minutes are also up for grabs following the departures of Sullinger and Evan Turner in free agency.
|In the Mix||Tyler Zeller||7'0"||253||26|
Question marks surrounded the starting center spot during the past two preseasons as Brad Stevens was forced to decide between a number of flawed options. Team president Danny Ainge solved that dilemma by adding Al Horford to the mix on a four-year, $113 million deal.
The three-time All-Star has already made a measurable impact in the preseason, as the Celtics are outscoring opponents by 55.7 points per 100 possessions with the 6'10'' big man on the floor, according to NBA.com.
Teammate Isaiah Thomas believes the transition has been seamless thanks to Horford’s extensive experience.
"With Al, you put him anywhere and he's going to figure it out," Thomas said. "He's an ultimate pro. He's always in the right spots. I don't think coach has told him that he's in the wrong spot since he's learned the plays. That just shows his intelligence and high basketball IQ."
Kelly Olynyk is the best bet for minutes off the bench at the 5 thanks to his impressive three-point range. It’s unclear if he will be ready for the start of the regular season as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery, according to Chris Forsberg of ESPN.com.
Tyler Zeller has seen those reserve minutes in the preseason while Olynyk rehabs, but the 7-footer’s offensive limitations could make him the odd man out of the rotation once Olynyk recovers.
|In the Mix||Jordan Mickey||6'8"||235||22|
Amir Johnson will hold down the starting power forward spot for the second straight season. The 29-year-old was the most consistent big man last year, but he could see his minutes cut if Stevens opts to play more small ball late in games with Jae Crowder manning the 4.
That possibility does not bother the 10-year veteran as he enters a contract year.
"This time in my career, all I'm working to do is win," Johnson explained. "Anything that works for this team that gets us that next championship, I want to be a part of it. Anything that happens on the roster, or if I'm starting or sitting, I'm pretty much fine. As long as we are winning, I'm happy."
Jonas Jerebko will also push for more minutes as a stretch 4 after breaking out with a pair of double-doubles during last year’s postseason series against the Atlanta Hawks. His three-point shooting range (39.8 percent in 2015-16) will help spread the floor alongside a reserve backcourt that struggles beyond the arc.
Jordan Mickey should feel secure earning one of the final spots in his second season and could challenge Zeller for frontcourt minutes if Olynyk is sidelined in November. The 22-year-old impressed the coaching staff in the NBA D-League last year with his strong rim protection (4.3 blocks per game) and consistent production (17.4 ppg, 10.2 rpg) on the block. He'll have ample opportunity to play his way into the rotation in the preseason, otherwise the 6'8" forward will spend more time getting some seasoning with the Maine Red Claws.
|In the Mix||Jaylen Brown||6'7"||225||19|
Jae Crowder has earned the starting small forward role for the foreseeable future after a breakout 2015-16 that featured career-highs in nearly all major statistical categories.
The 6'6" swingman’s improved offensive production (14.2 ppg) is a nice bonus, but Crowder’s main value remains on the defensive end. The 26-year-old fell just a few votes short of earning a spot on the NBA All-Defensive second team and stands out as one of the few wing defenders in the Eastern Conference who has a chance against LeBron James.
Look for his defensive aggressiveness to only increase now that he has an All-Star in Horford patrolling the paint behind him.
"We’ve been working on that," Crowder said of Boston’s perimeter defense. "We are trying to get in the ball more and direct it to where we want to direct it because we know if we get beat we have help behind us. Amir did a great job last year, and we have another guy who’s just as good at defending the rim as him. So we know we can get up in the ball a little more and be aggressive."
The battle for second unit minutes behind Crowder will involve the oldest and youngest members of the Celtics: Gerald Green and Jaylen Brown.
Green, 30, is a journeyman who should provide an offensive spark off the bench if he can match his career scoring production of 17.8 points per 36 minutes.
Green will face a challenge for minutes from Brown, who is already impressing coaches with his athleticism and defensive versatility. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2016 draft has an outside jump shot that’s a work in progress, though. If Boston’s second unit is struggling to create offense, Green’s ability to help now could take priority over Brown’s development.
|In the Mix||R.J. Hunter||6'5"||185||22|
|In the Mix||James Young||6'6''||215||21|
Avery Bradley is now the longest tenured member of the Celtics, having been with the team since 2010, and he’s determined to become more than a one-trick pony on the offensive end during his seventh season. Despite being a strong secondary option on offense, the 6'2" guard has never been much of a threat to create opportunities for teammates (1.6 career assists per game).
He’s shown progress on that front already, dishing out 11 assists in his first two preseason games.
"I know it’s something that I needed to improve in order to take my game to the next level," Bradley said last week. "I needed to add that to my game, trying to get my teammates involved and not just being a lockdown defender and shot-maker off of pin-downs. I wanted to add something else to my game. And that’s something that I’m challenging myself every single game, every single practice to get my teammates involved.
"I know I have a lot of opportunities to do it, and I’m starting to look at the game and see the game different. I’m starting to understand where my spots are and where I can get guys shots, how guys play. And I think it’s going to be good for our team this year."
Terry Rozier has built upon an impressive Summer League performance (20 ppg, 52.9 percent shooting) in the preseason and should share ball-handling duties with Marcus Smart off the bench.
However, the matchup to watch at this guard spot is Hunter and Young fighting for one of the team’s final roster spots. Both shooters have shown flashes of potential in training camp, but we give the edge to Hunter due to his defensive IQ. The eventual loser of the battle could be dealt away by opening night or cut outright.
|In the Mix||Demetrius Jackson||6'1"||201||22|
The Celtics have had an embarrassment of riches in the backcourt for a couple years now, and that trend will continue in 2016.
Isaiah Thomas will be the catalyst for the offense yet again, and he could increase his career-high 22.2 ppg as defenses have to respect his improved supporting cast.
"We're looking to not just get a good shot, but a great shot," Thomas said of the starters. "The ball is going from side to side. I think we're not holding it and standing in one place. It's been effective. We got guys out there that are in the right spots and are more comfortable in their role and where they should be at at all times. I keep saying it, but Al makes it that much easier. He knows how to play and makes it easier for everybody else."
Marcus Smart will remain a defensive bulldog behind Thomas and could serve as a "sixth starter," according to Stevens, when he elects to go small and roll out three guards. Smart will need to become less of a liability on the offensive end (35 percent career shooter) in order to earn the heavier minutes load.
Boston guaranteed Demetrius Jackson’s 2016-17 salary upon signing the second-round pick to a four-year deal in July. His playing time has been limited, but he's already impressed veterans in practice with his poise.
"Demetrius plays very old school," Crowder explained. "We were laughing about that the other day because he doesn’t hurt himself. He’s not going to turn the ball over. He’s going to run the offense. He’s not going to do anything he can’t do. And I like that about him. He comes to work every day."
Jackson’s shown enough promise in the preseason to feel secure about his roster spot for the time being but will have to continue outplaying Hunter and Young over the next couple of weeks to stick.
All statistics and contract information from Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.