The dog days of summer are upon us. The NBA Summer League is over, the initial buzz of free agency has died down, and the draft seems like it was about a year ago now. Luckily we have the Olympics and Team USA to keep us somewhat sane, but unfortunately no Celtics made the cut.
To help fill that shamrock-shaped hole in your heart’s, ESPN’s Chris Forsberg has been doing his annual Summer Forecast. If you’re not familiar with it, Forsberg and his panel of local Celtics writers and on-air personalities answer a question a day about the Celtics. My invitation to said panel is probably still in the mail right? Maybe I accidentally moved it to the spam folder? Either way, I’m sure I’ll get one soon, but for now I’ll answer the first four available questions here, where instead of a panel, you’ll get the only opinion that matters: Mine, of course.
Question 1: How many wins will the Celtics finish the regular season with?
ESPN has the Celtics projected win total at 51 games, but I think that’s selling them a bit short. Last season the Celtics limped out of the gates, Brad Stevens had a bit of trouble finding the right player combinations on the court, and the team was plagued by injuries for a solid portion of the season. The result? 48 wins and 34 losses. During the off-season, the Celtics only lost one player that will truly be missed, in Evan Turner, while Sullinger’s departure was completely overshadowed by the addition of Al Horford. I think it’s likely that Stevens takes some time again this year to figure out the best player-combinations early, but with the added talent of Horford, Gerald Green, Jaylen Brown, and an improved Terry Rozier, it’s tough to see this team start as slowly as they did last season. Horford and Green both add a veteran presence this team lacked last year, while the core of this team moves into their second full season together (an intangible that shouldn’t be overlooked, basketball is a TEAM sport after all). Final prediction: 54-28.
Question 2: How far will the Celtics run last this season?
The Boston Bias inside me is screaming “Championship or bust!!” but after seeing the Warriors in person last year and thinking about Kevin Durant replacing Harrison Barnes, this year’s NBA Finals are a forgone conclusion in my mind, Warriors in 4. The short-term goal from the teams perspective is obvious; make it past the first round of the playoffs. This is a modest goal and definitely attainable, but I think after adding Horford, most of the players are probably envisioning a run the Eastern Conference Finals, whether they’ll admit it or not. In terms of their roster, they’re arguably the second best team in the east, right behind the Cavaliers, and just barely a step above the Pacers and Raptors. A second-round appearance is expected and anything less would be a major disappointment, but I see this team making the Eastern Conference Finals and taking the defending champs to the brink of elimination. Final Answer: Eastern Conference Finals.
Question 3: Who will take the final two roster spots this summer?
This is where I’ll stray from Forsberg a bit. He lists five players – R.J. Hunter, Ben Bentil, John Holland, Demetrius Jackson, and James Young – and asks which two will take the final two spots when the now-18 man roster is trimmed to 15. However, I don’t Hunter not making the team this year and am willing to say that his roster sport is guaranteed, even this early in the summer. So I’ll take him off this list entirely, leaving just one spot for the remaining four players. Holland is an easy cut since his contract is non-guaranteed and he was basically signed as insurance last season prior to playoffs. Young, is another easy cut. He has done nothing to prove that he should be on this team, plain and simple. He’s spent the past two seasons in the D-League where he’s done nothing noteworthy, and he was a no-show in this year’s Summer League. He’s still young (no-pun intended) so I haven’t given up hope on him yet, but he’s just not ready to play a the pro-level at this point. Narrowing it down to one player between Bentil and Jackson is where it gets tough for me. I like Bentil a lot in today’s NBA. At 6’9″ 235 he has the size to cover multiple positions on defense, and his shooting ability will help spread the floor, but I don’t think he’s done enough to guarantee him a spot. Jackson on the other hand, was projected to go in the first round at one point and fell to the Celtics in the second. The Celtics are a bit thinner at the guard position than they are at wing/big-man, so adding Jackson would offer a nice little security-blanket. On top of all that, Jackson has already inked a a 4-year $5.5 million deal, so he’s the obvious choice to make the squad, even though I like Bentil’s versatility more. Final answer: Demetrius Jackson.
Question 4: Who will start alongside Al Horford?
My answer here is two-fold, due to the struggle I foresee Stevens having with on court player-combinations. The tow most common answers on Forsberg’s panel were Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk, with Johnson just barely winning the vote. I agree here. The argument for Olynyk was spacing and I can see why this makes sense, however I think you get the spacing you need from Horford, and I’d ratehr see Horford hanging around the 3-point line than Olynyk 10 times out of 10. My other argument against Olynyk is the fact that his shoulder injury kept him sidelined for a majority of the end of last season and I don’t see Stevens throwing him right into the starting lineup, at least at the beginning of the season. Plus, Stevens seems to like to start out the game with his best defensive unit, making Johnson the clear candidate.
The second part of my answer here may seem a bit wacky, but hear me out. At some point this season, one of two things will happen; A) Stevens will implement a small-ball lineup that he will start night-in, night-out, or B) Stevens will go the Golden State Warriors route and start big, with Johnson and Horford (Draymond and Bogut) and go small early and often, meaning Johnson would only see about 10-15 minutes a game. The Celtics have two of the best on-ball defending guards in the league in Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart, it’s only a matter of time before Stevens unleashes them on teams a the same time. Add Crowder and Horford to that mix on defense and you’ve got yourself a defensive juggernaut, even with Thomas on the floor. The NBA is obviously trending towards going small, and with Horford, the Celtics finally have the ideal small-ball center that can run, play defense on multiple positions, and space the floor with shooting. The three-guard lineup is inevitable, it’s just a question of whether Stevens starts the game with it or implements it 7-8 minutes into the first quarter.
So far Forsberg’s panel has answered six questions, with more presumably coming later this week. For now I’ll leave you with these, part two will feature the next four questions including, who will make the biggest jump this season, and best candidates for an All-Star appearance this year.