The Celtics made their bones in 2015-16 by being one of the deepest teams in the league, allowing them to dominate on the second night of back-to-back games. That’s cool and all for the regular season, but being deep didn’t do much for them in the playoffs as they were ousted by the Hawks in six games.
The NBA remains a league in which having a handful of top tier players is the best method for success. In other words, five "very good" players is better than eight "good" players.
That said, let’s take a look at the potential contenders in the Eastern Conference and see how the Celtics’ starting five measures up.
1. Cavaliers: LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, JR Smith, Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love
They still have the best player in the conference in LeBron. Kyrie showed what he’s capable of in the Finals, and look for a bounceback year (or at least a bounceback from the Finals) from Kevin Love in 2016-17. The easy choice for No. 1.
2. Celtics: Al Horford, Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson
Al Horford changes everything for the Celtics as he’s the classic case of a player who makes everyone around him better. It might be possible that Isaiah Thomas trumps his amazing 2015-16 campaign this coming season thanks to Horford’s presence, Avery Bradley wants to be defensive player of the year, and Jae Crowder remains one of the more underrated players in the league.
All that said, though, the Celtics’ spot here at No. 2 is a little generous. This starting five is really not much better than the No. 6 or 7 team on this list. It’s still very much the Cavs and everyone else.
3. Raptors: DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, DeMarre Carroll, Jared Sullinger, Jonas Valanciunas
Speaking of underrated forces, the Raptors’ entire starting five is underrated throughout the league. After bouncing around the league for a few years, Carroll is a player who is now consistently averaging double-digit point totals.
Oh, and old friend Jared Sullinger is now playing up North. If he gets in shape … oh wait, we’ve heard that before. Seriously, maybe a change of scenery will be good for Sullinger. If not, he’ll be out the league by 2018.
4. Pacers: Paul George, Thaddeus Young, Jeff Teague, Monta Ellis, Al Jefferson
An interesting team for sure, this team is now stocked with an A-lister, in George, and a bunch of B-players. Thaddeus Young could turn out to be a beast for the Pacers as he now won’t be the primary focus for opposing teams as he was in Brooklyn.
5. Pistons: Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell Pope, Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris
The Pistons are emerging as a force in the East. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is one player to watch here as he could make the leap to All-Star status. He’s seen his point totals climb from 5.9 to 12.7 to 14.5 the past three seasons and is still just 23-years-old.
6. Knicks: Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose, Courtney Lee, Kristaps Porzingis, Joakim Noah
If it’s big names you crave, then this is the best starting five in the East. So many ifs though (IF Derrick Rose is healthy, IF Carmelo can share the stage, IF Porzingis avoids a sophomore slump, IF Noah has a bounceback year).
7. Hawks: Dwight Howard, Dennis Schroder, Paul Millsap, Kent Bazemore, Kyle Korver
The Hawks were no match for the Cavs in the Eastern semis last season as they were swept after beating the Celtics in the first round. Basically, they swapped out Horford and Jeff Teague for Dwight Howard and Dennis Schroder. It’s wholly risky as Howard is the anti-Horford … far from Mr. Teammate, but Schroder could provide a spark for this team – specifically Howard. This is very much a boom or bust team.
8. Hornets: Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams, Roy Hibbert
The hope here is that Kemba continues to ascend and becomes the second best player in the conference behind LeBron. Guessing that the Hibbert signing won’t help matters much when it comes to win total (the Buzzing Jordans won 48 games last season).
9. Wizards: John Wall, Bradley Beal, Markieff Morris, Otto Porter, Marcin Gortat
Bradley Beal has been in the league four seasons now. He has played in more than 63 games in one season just once – playing in 73 games in 2013-14. The guy just needs to stay healthy to make this thing work in D.C.. Meanwhile, Gortat is a player who seems like he’s been in the league since the [Bill] Clinton administration. He’s actually 32-years-old and had arguably the best season of his career last season (13.5 ppg, 9.9 rebounds per game).
10. Bucks: Greg Monroe, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokunmpo, Jabari Parker, Matthew Dellavedova
The Bucks seem to really like Matthew Dellavedova, but this feels like the late 1990s/early 2000s when people thought Randy Brown was legit. Players like LeBron and MJ lift all boats.
11. Bulls: Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo, Jimmy Butler, Robin Lopez, Nikola Mirotic
Like the Hawks, this is a boom or bust starting five. Maybe throwing three talented guards on the floor at the same time will make it confusing for opponents but it’s just as likely to make it confusing for Robin Lopez and Nikola Mirotic. This will be a feisty group for sure though with Wade and Rondo, as both players will have huge chips on their shoulders in 2016-17.
The odds say it will quickly devolve into a toxic environment in Chicago, but there’s at least a chance of a “so crazy it works” scenario.
12. Heat: Chris Bosh, Justise Winslow, Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson
The Heat need Justise Winslow’s scoring numbers to jump significantly this coming season to make up for the lack of Mr. Wade.