The days of the full-fledged tank job appear to be over for the Boston Celtics. Whether or not that’s a good thing, if you're a Celtics fan, is a subjective conversation.
Last season, many Boston fans were openly rooting for the C’s to lose as many games as possible in order to obtain one of the top few picks in the 2014 NBA Draft. Brad Stevens’ club didn’t exactly oblige as they rarely embarrassed themselves and even had a Eastern Conference playoff worthy 12-14 record around Christmas time. In February, when teams like the 76ers and Bucks were racking up loss after loss, the anti-tank Celtics had a record of 5-6 during the month. The C’s effort in 2013-14 was admirable, but it remains to be seen if it was smart. They did not find any luck in the NBA Draft Lottery, missing out on the “Big 3” crop of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid
This year’s NBA Draft is not nearly as enticing, so winning basketball games could actually be celebrated by the TD Garden crowd this winter. While winning the 18th title in club history this June would classify as the most improbable championship win in North American sports history (Boston is 200-1 odds on Bovada), the Celtics could actually return to the postseason after a one year absence. The Eastern Conference is weak, and as we already know, Stevens and Co. – for better or worse – never fall out of “win now mode.”
Here are three players to keep close tabs on as the 2014-15 Celtics season begins:
There is great team and individual intrigue with the 2014-15 C’s. Is this an 18-win team or could they surprise and finish with an above .500 record? Is Rajon Rondo an oft-injured, overrated point guard or is he in the class of a Chris Paul, Derrick Rose or Tony Parker?
Danny Ainge no doubt hopes it’s the latter, as he contemplates whether to re-sign the guard or trade him away with a higher stock than he currently has. Ainge was probably wise to hold on to No. 9 this past summer considering other NBA executives were likely less than impressed by Rondo’s output last season. Rondo was still recovering from a right ACL tear and he finished with an underwhelming stat line of 11.7 points, 9.8 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game. While those numbers are somewhat consistent with his career numbers, last season was Rondo’s first as the Celtics’ undisputed leader. In the 30 games Rondo played last season, he finished with less than 10 points 13 times.
One of the reasons Ainge could trade away Rondo is the presence of rookie Marcus Smart. The No. 6 overall pick in the 2014 draft could get the start at point guard Wednesday night against Brooklyn, if Rondo is unable to go due to his left hand injury. Smart should quickly establish himself as a fan favorite due to his bullish defense. When Avery Bradley is on the floor with Smart, it could give the Celtics one of the top defensive backcourts in the NBA. Smart can score when asked, as he finished with a team-high 16 points in the Celtics’ pre-season finale victory over the Nets a week ago, but his 3-point shooting remains suspect. There is the feeling, though, that Smart could be the “next great Celtic” if his offense catches up with his defense.
Smart has received the most attention of any Celtics rookie since the draft, but James Young should certainly still be on everyone’s radar. The 19-year-old out of Kentucky was drafted 11 spots after Smart and there’s plenty of reason to believe that he could be – at the very least – an NBA starter. The 2013 McDonald’s All-American averaged 14.3 points per game in his only season at Kentucky and helped the Wildcats advance to the NCAA National Championship game. Young’s thunderous “And-1” dunk against UConn was one of the more memorable plays of the entire 2014 NCAA tournament. In addition to his dunking abilities, Young has a silky smooth, lefty stroke from beyond the 3-point line.