Brad Stevens couldn’t be more excited about the 2015-16 NBA season. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
When Celtics coach Brad Stevens says, “We have to play better than last year overall to make the playoffs again,” it’s not merely a motivating tactic in hopes of curbing complacency. He’s right.
If the C’s finish with the same 40-42 record they produced in 2014-15, they may not only fail to claim a No. 7 seed again, but miss the playoffs entirely. Just about every Eastern Conference team that finished below Boston last season has since upgraded its roster, save for the 76ers.
“From a coaching standpoint, I always go into a season looking at what I think we’ll be able to do well, and I think you look at what your potential challenges will be,” Stevens told the media gathered at Old Sandwich Golf Club in Plymouth for the team’s annual charity golf fundraiser. “So, I just look at it more as a job. I don’t look at it as what expectations are from results.
“We have such a long way to go to be where we want to be. We have to play better than last year overall to make the playoffs again. The East is better. Teams that didn’t make it really improved. We were as close to 12th as we were to fourth, so time will tell if we make the right strides, but if we take shortcuts or if we’re not connected, then we won’t. So, that’s our job.”
In what has also become an annual tradition, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge offered his list of contenders for the Eastern Conference crown this season.
“The East is good,” he said. “Obviously, Cleveland is a powerhouse, and Chicago, on paper, if they stay healthy, they’re a terrific team, and Miami is a very underrated team. Washington still has great young talent and a big front line. I think the East is a very good conference.”
Miami is one of the teams that finished behind the Celtics last season. As a result, Duke standout Justise Winslow, who Ainge coveted in the draft, fell into Heat president Pat Riley‘s lap at No. 10. The re-signing of Goran Dragic, Chris Bosh’s return from a season-ending health scare and an overhauled bench should also translate into at least one team leapfrogging the C’s in the standings.
Paul George’s Indiana comeback, Orlando’s youth movement and revamped rosters in Charlotte, Detroit and New York also leave Boston in danger of losing its grip on the seventh seed. You’ll notice Ainge cut the fourth-seeded Raptors from his list of East contenders, which would leave the Atlantic Division crown on the table, although that no longer guarantees a playoff seed, either.
“Every year it’s tough,” said Ainge, whose teams have made the playoffs in nine of his 12 years as GM. “We sit here at this time of year, and we try to prognosticate, and there’s always things that happen, but I know it’s tough. I know that we’re going to have a tough game every night, because we’re that type of team. We’re a team where if we don’t come ready to play and we don’t play well, we can get beat by anybody; and at the same time, if we do play well, we can beat anybody.
“We had a lot of close games last year, a lot of games that we won that we were very fortunate to win, and a lot of games we lost that we sort of made some critical mistakes down the stretch, so it’s very fragile. Our effort has to be there every night, and we have to be consistent.”
Indeed, 25 of their 42 losses last season came in games they either led or trailed by five points in the final three minutes. Their win percentage in those games improved from .357 before the All-Star Game to .588 after the break ‘ one major reason for the C’s 24-12 finish over the final two-plus months. The midseason additions of Jae Crowder, Isaiah Thomas and Jonas Jerebko didn’t hurt in that regard, either. And the David Lee and Amir Johnson acquisitions should further boost productivity heading into a training camp that expects to be their most competitive in years.
“We’ve just got to come out in the beginning of the year and prove that we can play that way,” said Tyler Zeller, one of seven current C’s playing for his next contract this year. “Obviously, we’re not going to win all the games. No team has yet to win all the games, but we’ve got to go out and prove we’re in every game and we have a chance to win every game. And hopefully we can put those games away when we get those chances. But at the beginning of the year we’ve just got to make sure we’re putting all the effort we can on the floor and playing as a team like we did last year.’
At least we can agree on something when it comes to Boston’s playoff chances: They won’t be 82-0.