Eastern Conference champions? The NBA’s next dynasty? Ready to challenge the Warriors? Yeah. The Boston Celtics are primed and ready for the spotlight.
After a fabulous playoff run where an undermanned Celtics team pushed LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to 7 games, expectations are at an all-time high with a fully healthy roster. A fabulous playoff run had players like Terry Rozier, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum break out into true stars.
Now with proven All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward returning, the Celtics are back to full strength. With so much talent the sky’s the limit for the Cs, but the question remains, how will so much star power fit together on one team?
The Brad Stevens Era
Doc Rivers ran the Celtics for almost 10 years with immense success. The “Big 3 Era” with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett highlighted the Celtics’ success in the early part of the 2000s.
But as the trio aged, the Celtics faltered. This put one of the greatest franchises in NBA history in a serious limbo. They were not good enough to win, but not bad enough to tank. So in the 2013 offseason, the Celtics made the decision to trade away the future hall of fame coach to the LA Clippers.
This marked the start of a new era in Boston.
After trading away Rivers, the Celtics were in need of a new head coach. They looked into the college ranks and swooped up Brad Stevens, the highly touted head coach out of Butler.
Brad Stevens was a dynamo coach during his tenure at Butler. He regularly made it to the NCAA tournament and even made two national championship appearances in his six years at Butler. But obviously, college success doesn’t always translate to the NBA. So the question remained, how would Stevens make his impact in the NBA?
Boston’s Comeback To The Spotlight
Since arriving in the NBA 5 years ago, Brad Stevens has established himself as one of the best coaches in the NBA. It’s remarkable what he has accomplished, turning the Celtics around so quickly. Stevens is widely viewed as the next best coach in the NBA. Ridiculous considering he is only 41 years old.
After Brad Stevens took over in Boston, the Celtics decided to clean house. They traded away future hall-of-famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. This coupled with an injury-riddled season for star point guard Rajon Rondo caused quite a rough first year for Brad Stevens. The Celtics could only muster 25 wins en route to their worst season since 2007.
The 2014-2015 season was set to be more of the same for the Celtics. A lackluster roster, an unproven coach, expectations were tempered for the Celtics.
But Stevens had other plans. After a late-season trade for super 6 man Isiah Thomas, the Celtics vaulted to the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference standings. Stevens tailored a system and received steady contributions from many unlikely sources including Avery Bradley, Evan Turner, Jae Crowder, and many more.
The Celtics got swept by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers (as expected), but still, it was a promising season that nobody saw coming. It had Boston fans excited about something, not counting the Patriots winning the Superbowl, of course.
And from there, the Celtics only got better. Stevens is fantastic with player development, he has brought the best out of countless players. He turned the Celtics into one of the best defensive teams in the country while implementing a fantastic system on offense to maximize productivity out of his players.
The Celtics continued to get better and better year after year. They increased their win total each year, getting all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals each of the past two years. This is especially impressive considering how undermanned the Cs were in 2017 and how injured they were in 2018.
After injuries to star PG Kyrie Irving and highly touted free agent acquisition Gordon Hayward, the Celtics still managed to get all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals pushing LeBron James and the Cavs to 7 games. Ridiculous.
Now in 2018 with LeBron fleeing to the West and a fully loaded roster, the Celtics look ready to dominate the East, but there are a few more pieces to the puzzle.
The Ainge Effect
Brad Stevens has certainly made his mark on the Celtics, but the effect of GM Danny Ainge should not go unnoticed.
Just so you’re clear, Danny Ainge is the best GM in the NBA. Got it? Good.
Danny Ainge took over as GM of the Boston Celtics in 2003. After taking over, the Cs had a few up-and-down years before plummeting to a 24-58 record in the 2007 season where they ended with the second-worst record in the league.
Ainge knew something needed to change after such a terrible season. And in a snap of a finger, it did. Ainge made two blockbuster trades that offseason. Giving up a plethora of assets, the Celtics acquired Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, two future hall-of-famers.
And just like that, everything changed. The very next year the Celtics won a jaw-dropping 66 games. The Celtics’ obscene 42 game improvement from the year before is the largest in NBA history. The Celtics went on to win the NBA Finals that year and Ainge won the NBA Executive of The Year Award.
But that was only the beginning.
Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garden formed the deadly “Big Three,” which terrorized the league for years. But as anything does, players decline with age. And as the “Big Three” declined, so did the Celtics.
But Danny Ainge is always three steps ahead of everyone else.
After Ray Allen fled to Miami in 2012 to join LeBron James and friends, the Celtics had a disappointing season losing in the first round of the playoffs to the New York Knicks. After the season, Ainge knew it was time for a change.
In the 2013 offseason, Ainge made one of the most historic trades in NBA history. Ainge traded away Garnett and Pierce, along with Jason Terry and D.J. White to the over-anxious Brooklyn Nets for five (average) players plus the Nets’ first-round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018. Boston also received the right to swap picks with the Nets in 2017. Which the Celtics, in fact, did, turning it into the 3rd overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.
Garnett and Pierce struggled mightily in Brooklyn. They did not come anywhere close to the productivity that was expected of them when the trade occurred. The Nets had championship aspirations but barely made it to the playoffs in 2014 and 2015 before winning a total of 69 games in the last three years. To this day, the Nets-Celtics trades is considered one of the most lopsided in NBA history.
After that Ainge only continued to impress. He made a plethora of moves that just screamed genius.
After the Celtics decided to go into full rebuild, Ainge found a diamond in the rough with the undesired Isiah Thomas. The Suns were running 3 point guards and were looking to unload the one who looked like had no future. So Ainge gave up very little for such a productive talent. Thomas got better year after year, going from averaging 19.0 PPG, to 22.2 PPG, to an elite 28.9 PPG where Thomas was a legitimate MVP candidate.
And after Thomas had such a game-breaking season, Ainge made the stunning decision to trade away Thomas, 3 and D specialist Jae Crowder, depth piece Ante Zizic, and the no. 8 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft to the Cleveland Cavaliers for disgruntled point guard Kyrie Irving.
This was a move that had NBA fans animated. Isiah Thomas was deemed “just as good as Kyrie Irving,” and the Celtics gave up so many integral parts of their team for one player just as good as Kyrie. The move seemed mindless and idiotic. It had NBA fans screaming, “the Cavs won the trade by a mile.”
And now, one year later, the Celtics ended up as the no. 1 seed while Crowder and Thomas crashed & burned. They struggled mightily before the Cavs traded them away mid-season for very little. It seems Ainge just can’t go wrong with trades.
Ainge has hit when he has put money in free agency. Albeit rare big dollars are put into FA, the Celtics hit big with Al Horford, who has been a picture perfect fit in Boston, despite the drop in stats. Gordon Hayward was the big free agent acquisition last year, a perfect fit reunited with Brad Stevens, his head coach at Butler. Hayward has not got the chance to play after a freak injury in the first game, but he will be back this year.
To free up space for Hayward, Ainge had to make an important trade by getting rid of starting SG Avery Bradley. Bradley was one of the best 3 and D players in the league and was only getting better year after year. The Celtics gave up Bradley and a 2nd round pick to the Detroit Pistons for a solid, but unspectacular player in forward Marcus Morris. Again viewed a terrible move as Bradley’s defense made the Celtics what they are
Now looking back a year later, Bradley struggled mightily in Detroit. He was traded to the LA Clippers mid-season while Morris became an integral depth piece for the Celtics. Ainge really knows everything.
Danny Ainge’s biggest asset may be his ability to draft. He drafts players that nobody expects like Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier. Ainge doesn’t care what you think. He drafts the players that no one expects and they explode into stars
Danny Ainge is absurd.
The Stevens System
Danny Ainge gets the players, Brad Stevens coaches the players. But what really drives these Celtics to seemingly overachieve every year? Look no further than the highly coveted “Brad Stevens System.”
So what is the system? What has Brad Stevens employed that elevates the productivity of his players so much?
Well, first of all, Stevens is one of the best at drawing up plays, especially out of timeouts. Basketball is a game of momentum when teams call timeouts it’s often to swing momentum back in their favor when they’re on the wrong side of a run. Stevens does an awesome job of drawing up plays out of the timeout and getting the Celtics back on track.
If there’s one thing you know about Stevens and the Celtics it’s their off-ball movement. In this play, the Celtics start out in a 4-1 set with Al Horford set in the high post, an area he often finds himself. Irving brings the ball up the court before handing it off to Marcus Morris.
Horford sets a back screen on Kyrie’s defender, Steph Curry. Kyrie slowly moves toward to the basket and Curry sticks on him. Morris then proceeds to hit Horford in the high post before edging toward Jaylen Brown to set a screen on Brown’s defender, Kevin Durant.
Kevin Durant is staring at Morris ready to steer clear of his screen, but little does Durant know Kyrie is right behind him to set another back screen. Brown takes one step toward Morris faking the pindown then makes a nasty back cut to the basket for a wide open dunk. And with Irving setting the back screen, Durant doesn’t have a prayer in the world.
Something interesting to note is after Irving sets the back screen, he runs off of Morris’ down screen to the three-point line. It’s important because if Brown didn’t get open, Horford would have another option to hit.
Now we see the impact Brad Stevens has on established stars. After Kyrie hands the ball to Horford at the top of the key, Aron Baynes sets a strong back screen for Kyrie. Similar to last play where Irving had set a back screen for Brown, he does the same for Marcus Smart. This time the Pacers are ready for it and defend it well, but the play goes on.
What we saw last play after Brown got the dunk was a wide open Kyrie at the three-point line. So in this play after Kyrie can’t make the back screen he circles back to the top of the key aided by a Horford back screen.
Baynes passes the ball to Irving at the top of the key, and while Kyrie is not wide open, that was never the objective. Kyrie has debatably the best handles in the NBA and is one of the best finishers in the NBA. Getting Kyrie the ball coming off the screen, with an advantage, allows him to slice and dice through the defense and get to the hole for the basket.
Kyrie Irving is one of the premier offensive threats in the NBA, but in Stevens’ system, he enjoyed his most efficient season with 49.1 FG%, 61.0 TS%, and 56.8 eFG%. Kyrie will excel whatever situation he is in, but he’s the best version of himself in Stevens’ system, getting the ball in handoffs or off screens, he gets the opportunity to attack with an advantage.
Brad Stevens’ system includes a plethora of ball screens, motion, and fantastic floor spacing. While players need to be talented, there’s no doubting that, the impact of a great coach can get players better looks, better shots, and can maximize the productivity of players.
The 2018 Season
So back to the point, will the Boston Celtics be able to come together and play well?
Having too much talent may not seem like a problem, but the logistics and chemistry of a team are just as important as the players on it.
The Celtics have a star-studded cast lined up for the 2018-2019 season. A starting lineup of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford is only further bolstered by the prominent depth of Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, and Aron Baynes.
After Kyrie went down with a season-ending injury Tatum, Brown, and Rozier all broke out in a big way during the playoffs. They looked like they could carry the Celtics without the help of stars Irving and Hayward. Now with the duo coming back from injury, will the Celtics be able to bring their roster together and succeed?
Here’s the reality of the situation. If you have Brad Stevens, you have no worries. Every player on this team has already proven they can play in the system with the exception of Gordon Hayward who has done it for Stevens at Butler.
With Brad Stevens at the helm, he will get this team to play together and well. In an Eastern Conference without LeBron James for the first time since 2003, the Celtics are primed and ready to make a splash in the NBA. So will the Celtics come together in 2018? Hell yeah, they will.