In the first episode of the Hardwood Houdini Podcast, Barstool Sports writer Dan Greenberg and I discuss what to expect from Boston this season and what must occur for them to become legitimate title contenders.
Following the franchise-altering summer that has occurred over the course of the past few months for the Boston Celtics, expectations are soaring heading into the 2016-17 season. With 22 nationally televised games, the pressure will now be on the former underdogs to perform at a top-tier level in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics ranked third in ESPN’s Future Power Rankings behind solely the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers and the superstar-laden Golden State Warriors, and were chosen as the third-most promising team in the Eastern Conference by CBSSports.com in their preseason NBA Power Rankings.
Despite all of the promotion that the team has received from major media outlets, is the acquisition of four-time All-Star Al Horford and the selection of third overall pick Jaylen Brown enough to propel the Celtics to a squad capable of exceeding heightened expectations?
The first factor falling in favor of the team is their strength of schedule. According to ESPN, Boston has the easiest overall slate throughout the 2016-17 campaign. While the season begins with heavily-anticipated contests against the Cavaliers, Warriors and San Antonio Spurs in the month of November, the team’s schedule difficulty decreased in significant fashion heading into the latter part of the season.
In January, Boston spends just four of their 14 outings on the road, with their toughest home tests coming against the Damian Lillard-led Portland Trail Blazers. While “Rip City” did cause the Celtics fits last season, they are not a formidable foe to the extent that Golden State or San Antonio is.
Should the Celtics wish to make a substantial step forward in the Eastern Conference this season, their ultimate goal should be to leapfrog the Toronto Raptors for an Atlantic Division title. The Raptors have garnered division titles in each of the last three years, and dethroning them will be the toughest task for Boston this season. However, the acquisition of Horford makes this objective attainable.
In head-to-head battles, the most challenging aspect of the battle is the matchup at center, as Toronto big man Jonas Valanciunas has developed astronomically on both sides of the ball. His presence on the boards is almost unparalleled, as he finished the 2015-16 with the fifth-highest offensive rebounding percentage (13.8 percent) and the eighth-highest total rebounding percentage (20.1 percent) in the NBA. Offensively, his ability to score out of the low post and knock down the midrange jumper has increased dramatically, as he posted the eighth-best offensive rating (120.8) in the league last season.
With the addition of Horford, the Celtics now have a big man who can contend with Valanciunas and decrease the likelihood of him repeating the 19-point (9-of-9 shooting), 12-rebound outing he recorded in a win over Boston on January 20. The former Atlanta Hawks star ranked eighth in the NBA in defensive win shares (4.5) in 2015-16, and provides Boston with a defensive option that has the potential to keep Valanciunas in check.
At the guard position, the Celtics are undeniably deeper than Toronto, a team that could struggle to keep up with Boston in the division standings should guards Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan scuffle with shooting issues to begin the season. Furthermore, defensive stalwarts Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley match up soundly against the Raptors dynamic backcourt pairing when these teams meet on four separate occasions this season. DeRozan shot just 42.8 percent in four matchups against Boston last season while Lowry converted on just seven of his 22 shot attempts in his first two appearances versus the Celtics.
With the acquisition of Horford and yet another season of development for a young, chemistry-rich squad, expect the Celtics to add four wins to the total of 48 that they compiled last season. Their ability to accomplish this feat will likely hinge on the consistency of their three-point shooting, an area of performance that plagued them throughout 2015-16.
If Smart and small forward Jae Crowder can morph into dependable long-range options while continuing their trademark defensive intensity, look for Boston to make a run for the second seed in the conference come the postseason.