Last Season: 48-34, 5th seed in East
Off-season Gains: C/PF Al Horford (free agent), SF Jaylen Brown (draft), SG Gerald Green (free agent), PF Guerschon Yabusele (draft), C Ante Zizic (draft)
Off-season Losses: SF Evan Turner (free agent/Portland), C Jared Sullinger (free agent/Toronto)
Off-season Stock: Buy, but don't go crazy.
League Pass Team?: If you're a sideline out-of-bounds play X's and O's fetishist, but I wouldn't make a habit of it.
At long last, Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge finally got a noteworthy free agent to sign on the dotted line, and to think it didn't even cost the team any of their precious #assets. No, they didn't get Kevin Durant, despite Ainge getting Tom Brady to make a cameo during the pitch meeting at the Hamptons, but Horford is not a bad consolation prize at all. Actually, Spurs fans owe a debt of gratitude to Horford. The Thunder were going after him hard, and cleared cap room to land him by shipping Serge Ibaka to Orlando. Supposedly he didn't commit to them because Kevin Durant's situation was still up in the air. Imagine if OKC landed Horford to go with Durant, Russell Westbrook, Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter? Welp, indeed. I'm not saying we should all go out and buy Horford Celtics jerseys in tribute, but how about some polite applause during the pregame intros when Boston's in town.
Horford, 30, is no world beater, but he instantly becomes the Celtics' best player. A textbook definition of Eastern Conference All-Star, he's been positively Duncan-esque the past couple of years consistency-wise, averaging exactly 15.2 points and 3.2 assists both seasons, while his rebounding, shot blocking, turnovers and steals averages were all within a tick or two from one year to the next. He did add the three-ball to his repertoire, sinking 88 of them last season after connecting on just 21 combined through his first eight years in the league, and no doubt Brad Stevens will look to exploit that, especially since outside shooting is something Boston has sorely lacked. I assume Horford will have to play most of his minutes at the five since the only other bigs on the roster are Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynyk, but I'm guessing there will be extensive tinkering.
The other big acquisition was picking Jaylen Brown with the third overall pick, one of the first-rounders they got from the Nets for sending them Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett a few years back. I confess to not knowing much about Brown, who certainly didn't light the world on fire his one season at Cal-Berkeley, but apparently Ainge has been high on him for a while. He flashed top-pick-type athleticism during the Las Vegas Summer League and had no problem creating his own shot, but couldn't hit the side of the barn or finish around the basket. The tricky spot for Stevens here will be finding minutes for Brown, who'll turn 20 a couple days before the opener. Unlike the 76ers or Lakers who can afford to run their top picks out there without the burden of having to be competitive, the Celtics are expected to be a 50-win club. At the least you'd think he'll fill Evan Turner's spot as the backup small forward, albeit playing considerably less than the 28 minutes a night the self-branded "Villain" averaged for the C's last year.
The starting lineup around Horford is a bit of a mystery. Avery Bradley had his best season last year, and was dearly missed after injuring his hamstring in Game 1 of their playoff series against the Hawks. He's undersized for a two-guard but still a dogged defender, like a poor man's Joe Dumars. Jae Crowder will be the in there too, I imagine and he's a guy who moves a lot better laterally defensively than his physique suggests he should. I really have no idea how he's as good as he is, but he's fit in well in Stevens' system. Amir Johnson is pretty much a league-average starting four, but again Stevens could slide Horford there and go with a seven-footer at the five or completely go the other way, with Crowder or Jonas Jerebko as a stretch-four to space the court.
You'd think Isaiah Thomas would be their starting point guard, coming off an All-Star campaign, but perhaps he'd be better suited for the sixth-man role, especially with Turner off to Portland. The Bradley/Thomas back court is awfully small and Marcus Smart would add a badly-needed dose of size and athleticism to the lineup. It's no secret that Smart has been a disastrous shooter so far in his career, to the degree that his jumper makes Ricky Rubio shake his head, and he's not the play-maker that Thomas is either, but he told Celtics.com that he's planning on "being more of an offensive threat" this year, so what more proof do we need?
Stevens has always been a guy who has mixed and matched his different pieces on the bench and I expect that to continue. Olynyk and Jerebko both shot around 40 percent from deep last season and adding Horford's range to that mix will cause match-up problems and should open up the lane for their penetrators. We've already discussed Brown and Smart but the guy I'm intrigued about is Terry Rozier, who didn't do anything his rookie year but was a monster in Summer League. If he can score off the bench, it will take pressure off Thomas or Smart from having to take hero-ball shots. They also signed Gerald Green, who was awful for Miami last season, but he seems to be useful every other year.
Ideally, once Horford hits his decline phase in a couple years, Brown will be ready to be their main guy and then they'll really have something. Meanwhile, Guerschon Yabusele (supposedly a French Draymond Green) and Ante Zizic will be ready to contribute by then.
As for this season, Horford will give Stevens a fulcrum for his offense and the Celtics shouldn't have to rely on out-scheming, out-hustling or out-Thomas-ing people for every point now. There will be some kinks to work out for everyone, but if they stay healthy I expect this crew to start humming by the new year. Anything less than a three-seed and at least a second-round appearance in the playoffs will have to be considered a disappointment.