Rumors of the demise of the Celtics as we have come to know them turned out to be greatly exaggerated. Boston stumbled out of the gate last season looking old, slow and generally unfocused. By the end of January, there were plenty of so-called experts calling for Danny Ainge to push the reset button. Kevin Garnett? Trade him.Ray Allen? Gone. With a deep playoff run out of the question and key players operating on lame-duck contracts, it was time to rebuild. (At least that's what most of us, myself included, thought.)
The struggles persisted through February. At the All-Star break, Boston was 15-17, had dropped five straight and was just 1 1-2 games ahead of Cleveland for the eighth spot in the East. But you just can't count out the likes of Garnett, Allen, Paul Pierce and perhaps most of all, master psychologist and coach Doc Rivers. The Celtics caught fire just in time, winning five in a row after the break and eight of 10 heading into deadline day. Instead of breaking the team up, Ainge stood pat.
The Celtics continued their strong play through the end of the season, ultimately winning 24 of their last 34. Allen suffered through ankle problems and sat out down the stretch, but Avery Bradley played so well that he wound up usurping Allen's place in the starting lineup. Boston ended up with a 4-seed that was really a 5 because the Celtics didn't have home-court advantage in the first round against Atlanta.
In the postseason, Boston survived the Hawks and the 76ers even without a full-strength Allen and Bradley, who went down with a shoulder problem. To a certain extent, the Celtics benefited from key injuries elsewhere. Atlanta lost Al Horford for half of the series, and Josh Smith missed a game. More significantly, the Celtics avoided a second-round showdown with Chicago after Derrick Rose went down and the Bulls succumbed to Philadelphia.
Any questions about the Celtics' postseason run were answered in the East finals, however, when Boston lost to Miami in seven games after going up 3-2 in the series. The last two games weren't particularly close and as the season ended, you couldn't help but feel a fresh chasm had opened between the teams. The Celtics were beaten soundly on the glass and managed barely a point per possession in the series, less than that at home. Entering the offseason, the questions about the Celtics starting over began anew.
Ainge didn't start over. Perhaps buoyed by the deep springtime run and less-than-thrilled with the options on the market, he re-signed Garnett, who is 36, to a three-year, $37.2 million deal. When Ainge formed the Garnett-Allen-Pierce core, the trio already had a lot of mileage and from the outset, the team was dogged by questions about windows of opportunity. Allen is gone, and the new big three is Garnett, Pierce and Rajon Rondo, but by the time Garnett's new deal is done, the window will have been open for eight years. Any team would take that.
Allen's role as designated sharpshooter will be filled by Jason Terry, who isn't as old as Allen (37), but it's close: He's about a month older than Pierce, who turns 35 in October. Still, on the short list of big shot-makers, Terry has as good a reputation as anyone. By actual percentages, he's not quite in Allen's class, but nevertheless may have more overall value at this point in their respective careers. (Our preseason projections give the slight nod to Terry.) This isn't just one of those stathead, navel-gazing topics either -- with Allen having signed on with the rival Heat, the difference between him and his Celtics replacement may well have real-world consequences.
Ainge used his newfound financial flexibility to solidify the starting lineup and address the Celtics' lack of depth, a problem that plagued Rivers all season. Brandon Bass was retained to start next to Garnett in the frontcourt, a configuration that worked well last season. Courtney Lee was added off the free-agent market and likely will start alongside Rondo in the Boston backcourt, with Bradley and Terry teaming on the second unit in a suddenly deep rotation.
Jeff Green, who was supposed to be a key part of the Boston bench last season before he underwent heart surgery, is back and again will be looked upon to provide instant offense. Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo were drafted in the first round, though as rookies they'll have to work hard to earn Rivers' favor. To top it off, Jason Collins was brought in as a defensive specialist to deploy against top post players, not that that will a huge factor against Miami.
So the Celtics look like a much deeper team this season, and they're younger, too. They project to have an average age (weighted by projected minutes) under 30 for the first time since the 2008-09 season. They should be a bit more athletic and are expected to be the top defensive team in the league.
The key to closing the gap with Miami in a possible head-to-head meeting will be for Boston to keep the scoreboard turning on a consistent basis. While the Celtics might project a little better on offense, they still won't be an elite team on that end of the floor, or even average. Boston does not emphasize offensive rebounding in the least, which is one of the categories holding back its offensive efficiency.
Will the Celtics remain a jump-shooting team that doesn't retrieve its own misses? A key to that could be Sullinger, who might be the Celtics' top percentage rebounder right out of the gate. If Rivers can trust him to not only play significant minutes but also to crash the offensive glass, Sullinger might be a secret weapon to deploy against the undersized Heat.
The addition of Lee gives Boston another solid wing defender -- not a bad thing to have against Miami.
Lee played the past two seasons in the West, but in the two campaigns prior to that, he toiled for the Magic and Nets, respectively. During that time, Dwyane Wade was 9.3 points per 100 possessions better when Lee was on the floor for the opposing team. So how helpful he'll really be as a defender against the Heat remains to be seen.
What needs to go right?
If you're expecting me to write off the Celtics, you had better just move on. I've been down that road and it's a rocky one. The Heat have a sizable buffer against Boston, perhaps as many as 12 or 13 games in the standings. If Miami were to falter because of a key injury or a clash of egos or because Pat Riley decides to suit up and play point guard, the Celtics have as good a chance as anyone in the East of stepping into the breach.
The key will be for the offense to return to the above-average levels it displayed the first three years of the Big Three experiment. We're not forecasting that to happen, but when you're trying to supplant a team as explosive as the Heat, you've got to be able to light up the scoreboard from time to time.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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