With Al Horford on board, the Celtics are a popular pick to reach the Eastern Conference finals this season. (Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)
As the Celtics begin their journey to Banner 18 with Wednesday night’s opener against the lowly Nets, optimism runs high in Boston. And it should, because this team should have an entertaining and successful regular season.
But any Celtics fan rooted in reality knows this to be true as well: This team is not built to win a title.
No doubt you’ve already read plenty of breakdowns about how a team needs a true star to win an NBA championship, and even the C’s front office has acknowledged there is a piece missing from this club.
On the positive side, the offseason acquisition of free agent center Al Horford was a good one, and it presents an apt comparison for this Celtics team in Horford’s former employers.
Two years ago, a smart young coach took a team with rising stars but no superstar and led that squad to an impressive 60-22 record — best in the Eastern Conference (by a whopping seven games over the Cavaliers) and second best in the entire NBA. In the playoffs, Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks took out the underwhelming Nets and Wizards in six-game series. Then, faced with LeBron James’ Cavs in the conference finals, Atlanta became the fourth No. 1 seed in NBA history to be swept in a playoff series.
The postseason awards were telling. Budenholzer was named Coach of the Year, but no Hawks were on the All-NBA first, second or third teams. Nor was there a Hawk found on the All-Defensive first or second team, or the All-Rookie first or second team.
In a nod to the team’s balance, the entire starting lineup — Horford, DeMarre Carroll, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague — was named Eastern Conference Player of the Month for January after Atlanta went 17-0 to start the year. But that was it for major awards.
Like those Hawks, these Celtics have solid balance and depth, crucial factors to help overcome injuries that are sure to pop up during the season. And with the Eastern Conference perhaps even less challenging than the last couple of years, a run at 60 wins is not out of the question. But come playoff time, temper those expectations.
Fortunately for the Celtics, even if this year turns out similarly, they are in a much better position to rectify the situation, as they are likely to draft in the top three the next two years, courtesy of the Nets. Or, if another general manager has the guts to deal with Danny Ainge this season, the Celtics could acquire a proven star and make a run at a championship next spring.
For now, let’s focus on a regular season that is sure to please the TD Garden crowds.
1. Raptors, 54-28 — Toronto will battle the Celtics for second place in the Eastern Conference (with both teams ready to pounce if the Cavaliers get stung by the injury bug), but the Raptors lost a key piece in defensive stopper/rebounder Bismack Biyombo, and the team’s only offseason acquisition, former Celtics big man Jared Sullinger, already is injured.
2. Celtics, 52-30 — Evan Turner has his detractors, but he did come up big in the clutch a number of times for this team last season. This is the biggest concern for this team: Can the C’s close out tight games, especially with their questionable outside shooting and the lack of a proven finisher outside of All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas?
3. Knicks, 42-40 — Jeff Hornacek takes over a team that added former Bulls stars Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah to a roster led by Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. As Tuesday’s season-opening blowout loss to the Cavaliers showed, this team isn’t likely to be a threat, although if the stars are healthy they could make a little noise.
4. 76ers, 19-63 — Ben Simmons is hurt, but Joel Embiid is not. And Dario Saric finally has arrived from Croatia, two years after being picked 12th overall. This team has to finally start improving. It can’t get any worse.
5. Nets, 15-67 — New coach Kenny Atkinson is going to have a rough first year, but the Nets did the best they could this offseason, bringing in the likes of Jeremy Lin and Randy Foye and taking a shot with former No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett in an attempt to be competitive. They’ll need to trade Brook Lopez at some point so they can replace the draft picks they lost to the Celtics.
1. Cavaliers, 57-25 — Barring injuries, the defending NBA champions will be back in the Finals. However, LeBron James turns 32 in December, and with seven NBA Finals appearances the past seven years, he’s got a lot of basketball miles in him. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, who have a history of health issues, will need to take some of the load off LeBron. Look for coach Tyronn Lue to follow Gregg Popovich’s lead and schedule some days off for his stars.
2. Pacers, 47-35 — Larry Bird had a busy offseason, replacing coach Frank Vogel with Nate McMillan, trading guard George Hill and first-round pick Carlos LeVert, acquiring Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young, and signing free agents Al Jefferson, Aaron Brooks and Kevin Seraphin. If this team jells, a deep playoff run is a possibility.
3. Pistons, 46-36 –– Newly acquired guard Ish Smith will have to hold down the fort while Reggie Jackson misses the first 6-8 weeks with knee tendinitis. Stan Van Gundy will have this team competitive, but the Pistons don’t have enough to make a long run in the postseason.
4. Bulls, 41-41 — Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo have teamed up with Jimmy Butler and are saying all the right things about it being Butler’s team. We’ll see how that plays out.
5. Bucks, 32-50 — This team was supposed to be climbing the Eastern Conference ladder, but things have been going the wrong way in Milwaukee. Khris Middleton’s torn hamstring doesn’t help. Giannis Antetokounmpo will again be fun to watch, though.
1. Hawks, 47-35 — Al Horford and Jeff Teague are out, Dwight Howard and Tim Hardaway Jr. are in. As noted above, this is a good team that just doesn’t have what it takes in the postseason, and Atlanta got no better in the offseason.
2. Hornets, 44-38 — The Hornets won 48 games last season but lost Al Jefferson, Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee. They’re hoping for a resurgence from free agent center Roy Hibbert, but that seems unlikely. Charlotte won’t be an easy out, but there’s not enough here to scare anyone.
3. Wizards, 40-42 — John Wall and Bradley Beal are playing nice with each other (so they say), but first-year coach Scott Brooks doesn’t have enough weapons and would do well just to make the playoffs.
4. Heat, 29-53 — When Dwyane Wade left for Chicago the rebuilding officially began in Miami. There’s enough talent to win some games in a Southeast Division that is on the decline, but not enough to earn a playoff berth.
5. Magic, 25-57 — Victor Oladipo was sent to Oklahoma City as Orlando put its faith in Evan Fournier. New coach Frank Vogel has a couple of premier rim-protectors in Serge Ibaka and Bismarck Biyombo, but this team lacks a leader, and free agent Jeff Green is unlikely to be that guy.
1. Spurs, 60-22 — Tim Duncan retired, and 36-year-old Pau Gasol was brought in as a replacement. That should keep San Antonio atop the Southwest, assuming LaMarcus Aldridge (18 ppg, 8.5 rpg) is speaking the truth when he says he’s OK sharing the ball with Kawhi Leonard (21.1 ppg) and company.
2. Grizzlies, 51-31 — New coach David Fizdale takes over a team that was hit big by injuries last season. Marc Gasol (foot) is back, and Chandler Parsons (13.7 ppg) has joined Zach Randolph (15.3 ppg, 7.8 rig) and Mike Conley (15.3 ppg) to get this team back among the conference’s elite.
3. Mavericks, 43-39 — Harrison Barnes (11.7 ppg) comes over from Golden State, but it remains to be seen if he’ll come close to justifying the $94 million Mark Cuban threw at him. Dirk Nowitzki (18.3 ppg) is 38, and he does not have enough help on this team to play deep in the postseason.
4. Rockets, 40-42 — James Harden (29.0 ppg) is saying the right things after being criticized for his lack of defense and leadership last season. New coach Mike D’Antoni will have this team’s offense in high gear, but he’ll be hard-pressed to stop Houston’s decline.
5. Pelicans, 26-56 — Anthony Davis (24.3 ppg) remains the standout — when he’s healthy — on an underwhelming team. Celtics fans will keep an eye on rookie Buddy Hield, after some draft prognosticators expected the former Oklahoma star to end up in Boston.
1. Thunder, 53-29 — Kevin Durant’s departure puts the weight squarely on the shoulders of Russell Westbrook (23.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 10.4 apg), but the front office helped him out with the acquisition of Victor Oladipo (16.0 ppg). Despite the loss of Serge Ibaka, the Thunder have some talent down low in Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and rookie Domantas Sabonis.
2. Trail Blazers, 46-36 — This is a fun team to watch, with Damian Lillard (25.1 ppg, 6.8 apg) and C.J. McCollum (20.8 ppg) leading the way, but Portland is no match for the conference’s elite. Evan Turner was a good — albeit expensive — acquisition.
3. Timberwolves, 44-38 — Kris Dunn is the early favorite for Rookie of the Year, which would give Minnesota three such awards in three years. It’s time for some of that talent to start paying dividends. Karl-Anthony Towns (18.3 ppg, 10.5 rpg) and Andrew Wiggins (20.7 ppg) are ready to lead this team to the playoffs.
4. Jazz, 41-41 — Newcomers George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw should have the Jazz contending for a playoff berth, but Gordon Hayward (broken finger) will miss the season’s first few weeks and this team’s young talent is not yet ready for prime time.
5. Nuggets, 36-46 — Danilo Gallinari averaged a career-high 19.5 points before missing the final couple of months of the season with an ankle injury. The Nuggets cannot afford any such injuries this season if they are to contend for a playoff berth.
1. Warriors, 64-18 — OK, we know from Tuesday’s season-opening loss to the Spurs that the Warriors are not unbeatable. Their drop-off in depth from last season could be an issue, especially if Steph Curry or Kevin Durant get hurt. But clearly this is the team to beat, and don’t be surprised if the Warriors take the regular season less seriously to make sure they have enough in the tank for the playoffs.
2. Clippers, 59-23 — Doc Rivers’ crew should move past OKC but would need an injury in the Bay Area to ascend to the Western Conference title. Blake Griffin (21.4 ppg, 8.4 rpg) has seen his shooting percentage decline four years in a row, and he needs to refocus to make up for last year’s off-court issues.
3. Kings, 32-50 — New coach Dave Joerger inherits a dysfunctional team led by DeMarcus Cousins (26.9 ppg, 11.5 rpg). Second-leading scorer Rudy Gay (17.2 ppg) reportedly wants out, and who can blame him?
4. Suns, 28-54 — All eyes are on No. 4 overall pick Dragan Bender. It will help if Eric Bledsoe (20.4 ppg) can stay healthy.
5. Lakers, 17-65 — Kobe Bryant finally is gone, and the Lakers can fully focus on rebuilding the roster. Second overall pick Brandon Ingram joins D’Angelo Russell (13.2 ppg) and Julius Randle (11.3 ppg, 10.2 rpg) to provide hope for the future.
Cavaliers over Knicks
Raptors over Hornets
Celtics over Pistons
Pacers over Hawks
Cavaliers over Pacers
Celtics over Raptors
Cavaliers over Celtics
Warriors over Mavericks
Spurs over Timberwolves
Clippers over Trail Blazers
Thunder over Grizzlies
Warriors over Thunder
Spurs over Clippers
Warriors over Spurs
Warriors over Cavaliers