Amid the most dormant part of an NBA cycle, we at Liberty Ballers will be sizing up the Philadelphia 76ers’ 14 Eastern Conference foes. Next up are the Boston Celtics.
Previously on our offseason review series: Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Washington Wizards, New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks.
On Jan. 21, the Boston Celtics were embroiled in a second consecutive scuffling season. They were 23-24, fresh off a home loss against the Damian Lillard-less, 19-26 Portland Trail Blazers and 10th in the Eastern Conference. From there on, they closed the season 28-7, including a 24-4 stretch, and established a clear two-way identity, accelerated by the acquisition of Derrick White before the trade deadline. Over this span, they led the NBA in rating (plus-15.5), offensive rating (120.2) and defensive rating (104.8). The Miami Heat were second in defensive rating during that time at a distant 109.4.
At 51-31, Boston didn’t quite nab the No. 1 seed, but nobody was playing better ball out East entering the playoffs. That continued, as it won a pair of Game 7s in back-to-back rounds and earned its first Finals appearance since 2010 before falling to the Golden State Warriors in six games.
Despite coming within earshot of a championship, the Celtics were not complacent this summer. In early July, they sent Aaron Nesmith, Daniel Theis, Nik Stauskas, Malik Fitts, Juwan Morgan and a 2023 first-round pick to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for Malcolm Brogdon. Two of their primary downfalls against Golden State were an inability to get downhill and a lack of reliable, steady ball-handling. Brogdon can help address both issues and didn’t require them to move any of their integral rotation players.
They weren’t done there, though, signing veteran sharpshooter Danilo Gallinari to a two-year deal and adding some welcomed floor-spacing in the frontcourt. Unfortunately, Gallinari tore his ACL last month during international play and is slated to miss six-to-12 months. Boston was also heavily linked to Kevin Durant before the superstar wing decided to remain with the Brooklyn Nets.
Regardless of Gallinari’s injury or Durant’s recanted trade request, this is absolutely one of the league’s top teams and among the preeminent title favorites. They’re led by a superstar in Jayson Tatum and excellent head coach in Ime Udoka. The starting lineup of Marcus Smart-Jaylen Brown-Jayson Tatum-Al Horford-Robert Williams III is arguably the best in the NBA. They have playoff-caliber depth in Brogdon, White and Grant Williams. All the makings of a team primed for another deep run are prevalent.
A couple areas of concern do exist nonetheless. Can Horford, in his age-36 season, replicate another renaissance campaign? He was excellent and crucial last year, and I expect him to be again. The age and 2021-22 inconsistencies (he had a lengthy lull during the regular season) are worth monitoring still. Who emerges to help solidify the regular-season rotation? Boston’s top eight is stellar, but adhering to an eight-man rotation for 82 games is a recipe for exhaustion come April and beyond.
These are all minor angles to fret over. Boston is really freaking good. Following Donovan Mitchell’s move to Cleveland, I’d put Boston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Cleveland in the premier tier, roughly in that order. Miami could also be there, though I’m a tad lower on its prospects entering the year.
Unlike every other team I’ve previewed — Orlando, Washington, Cleveland and Toronto — I deem the onus on the Sixers to affirm or refute they’re as good as Boston. All those other clubs felt a step below when I wrote about them (pre-Mitchell trade). The Sixers will be good, but this is a multifaceted Boston team with continuity and star power that was comfortably better than Philadelphia a year ago. Now, that doesn’t have to maintain, but it’s entirely plausible to repeat.
The Celtics hit their stride for 4.5 straight months and returned everyone from their top eight, while bolstering it as well. A challenging three-game losing streak to the NBA champs doesn’t negate that. Boston is gonna be dynamite in 2022-23.