Celtics

Blakely: How rare is it for a conference finalist to have four returnees?

Blakely: How rare is it for a conference finalist to have four returnees?

BOSTON – One by one, we have seen the Boston Celtics, just three wins away from a trip to the NBA Finals, dismantled before our very eyes.

Just like the Celtics felt in 2013 that they had gone as far as they could with that core group, a similar sentiment was felt this offseason.

Boston returns just four players from a team that had the best record in the East (I know Cleveland rested players, but, hey, I didn’t see Toronto or Milwaukee or any other team step up and take hold of the top spot, either).

It’s not unusual to see teams try to shake things up after a deep playoff run. But a near-complete overhaul?

Looking back at teams that have advanced to their respective conference final, no team in the last decade has gutted their roster to the extent that we have seen the Celtics do this offseason. 

Now, mind you, most of the changes that the Celtics have made for the most part are seen as upgrades.

You lose Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko but in come Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris, whose defensive rating as a tandem is among the best in the NBA.

Fans will certainly miss Jae Crowder’s do-it-all defense and Isaiah Thomas’ scoring. But Crowder’s departure opens up more minutes for Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum. And the gap left by Thomas’ departure will be filled by Kyrie Irving, a 25-year-old Olympic gold medalist who has already won an NBA title and has been named to the Eastern Conference’s All-Star team four times.

And let’s not forget the Celtics also landed Gordon Hayward, who left Utah -- and about $40 million on the table -- to reunite with his college coach, Brad Stevens, here in Boston. 

Still, it’s a bit startling to see how unusual the Celtics and their overwhelming desire to look and play differently, compares to other teams after coming so close to getting to the Finals. 

Since the 2008 playoffs (Boston won it all that year, remember?), only 32.5 percent of the teams (13 out of 40) that advanced to their respective Conference final returned a single-digit total of players the following season. 

And then there’s the 2014 NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, which knocked off the Miami Heat in five games, at the opposite end of that spectrum. Following their title season, they returned a whopping 14 players.

And from among those teams that have advanced to the Finals in the last decade, the Spurs (5) are the only club to get to their respective Conference final more than Boston (4).

While there have been a decent number of teams to have rosters with single-digit returnees the following season, this Celtics team is very much in a class unto itself.

In fact, the closest team to returning so few players from a team that advanced to the NBA’s equivalent of the Final Four was the Orlando Magic after they advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in 2009.

The following season, they returned just seven players from the previous team.

To endure such a major roster reconstruction raises lots of questions about chemistry. Specifically, how long will it take to develop?

In past years, teams would meander their way through a long and oftentimes drawn out preseason. That won’t be the case this year, not with the league allowing for more practice time for teams, which has sliced Boston’s preseason schedule down to just four games.

Timing and continuity will have to be developed in practice, which could make for some not-so-stellar play early in the season as different combinations are used to figure out which ones work best against competition, without necessarily the benefit of seven or eight preseason games.

But as much as the chemistry at first may be an issue, Boston’s overall upgrade in talent isn’t in question.

They now have a Big Three of Irving, Hayward and Al Horford, who collectively have 11 All-Star appearances to their credit. The team’s depth is green, but Boston has veterans like Marcus Smart coming back along with veteran newcomers Baynes and Morris to add to a young mix of talented up-and-comers like Brown and Tatum.

While Boston dismantling its roster may seem jarring, Celtics Nation has to be mindful that the changes are geared toward doing one thing and one thing only: building a squad that can put the Green Team on a faster track to competing for Banner 18.

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Celtics thought it would be good . . . but this good?

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Celtics thought it would be good . . . but this good?

After arriving in Boston and spending some time with his new teammates, Kyrie Irving felt good about this group doing big things this season. 

But when asked about the experience thus far being what he thought it would be, Irving responded, “It’s probably exceeded that.”

He’s not alone. 

Few would have envisioned the Celtics (15-2) would have the best record in the NBA at this point, let alone be riding a 15-game winning streak which ranks as the fifth-best winning streak in franchise history. 

Irving and his Celtics teammates will try and keep it going tonight when they take on the Dallas Mavericks.

Irving’s ability to mesh with his teammates and still find success was among the many questions out there when the Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers pulled off the blockbuster trade this offseason. 

Blending in has not been an issue for Irving, bolstered by the reality that his game stands out. 

We saw that in Boston’s 110-99 win over the Atlanta Hawks, which was a game in which Irving had 30 points on an insanely efficient 10-for-12 shooting night. 

There were many factors that went into Irving’s strong night against the Hawks, but he said it really came down to one thing above all else.

“I just made some damn shots for once,” Irving quipped. “That right there kind of made it seem better than I actually been shooting over the start of the season.  It would also contribute to being able to be in the right spots and guys being selfless in their approach driving to the basket or getting into the paint. It’s tell-tale sign of all of us getting more comfortable.”

Here are five below-the-radar story lines to keep an eye on as the Boston Celtics face the Dallas Mavericks, with Boston gunning for its 16th straight win. 

BROWN’S POSITIVE PLAY

Jaylen Brown has been on a bit of an offensive tear of late, the last being a career-high 27-point performance in Boston’s win over Atlanta. But even more telling is how well things seem to flow with him on the floor. Brown’s plus/minus this season is +146 which is tops among all players in the Eastern Conference. His closest competition in the East? That would teammate Al Horford whose plus/minus this season is +143. In addition, Horford has had a positive plus/minus in every game this season. 

YOGI FERRELL

You can count Yogi Ferrell among the ones that got away from Brad Stevens when he was coaching at Butler. Ferrell, who played at Indiana, was a player on Stevens’ radar when he was coaching at Butler. “I recruited Yogi, unsuccessfully,” Stevens told reporters in Dallas. While Ferrell came on strong as an undrafted free agent with the Mavericks last season, Stevens said there’s nothing about Ferrell’s game now that he didn’t see when he tried to woo him to Butler. “He would have been awfully good at Butler,” Stevens said.

HOMECOMING

While Marcus Smart grew up in Flower Mound, Texas (less than an hour from Dallas), tonight’s game is a homecoming of sorts for another Celtics player – Semi Ojeleye. The 6-foot-7 forward played at SMU which is located in Dallas. A second-round pick by Boston in last June’s NBA draft, Ojeleye has been among the many surprise performers for the Celtics this season. “We knew he could be a versatile defender,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “Probably has exceeded our expectations in that regard with his ability to guard one (point guard) through five (center) at certain times. And he’s been pretty consistent shooting the ball. Right now, embracing that kind of 3-and-D role is what he has to do and he’s done it well.”

DEEP DRAFT CLASS

The Boston Celtics struck gold by drafting Jayson Tatum with the third overall pick. But as you look at the teams that had lottery picks in last June’s NBA draft, few come away feeling disappointed or discouraged by the player selected. The Dallas Mavericks are among the teams pleased with their first-round pick, Dennis Smith Jr. who was selected with the ninth overall pick. He has emerged as one of the top rookies this year, averaging 14.5 points, 4.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game. And yes, he was a player that was on the Celtics’ radar leading up to last June’s draft. “We had Dennis in and he was really impressive,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “He’s a guy that’s going to have a great career and he’s got good veteran players around him to help kick it off.”

DIRK NOWITZKI

The numbers aren’t anywhere close to what we’ve seen for the bulk of Dirk Nowitzki’s illustrious career that’s now in Year 20. But there is a demeanor about him that seems to be at peace with where he’s at basketball-wise, even if the wins aren’t nearly as plentiful as he’s accustomed to. “I appreciate his game a ton,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “Just watching him talk on the court, cheer on the bench, sit at the scorer’s table with a smile on his face. You can’t play this long and be this good this long if you don’t’ love it. Everybody says they love it, but he’s got a different level of passion. You can feel it, you can see it. You root for guys like him to have success.”

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WATCH: Celtics vs. Mavericks

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WATCH: Celtics vs. Mavericks

Tune into NBC Sports Boston to watch the Celtics play the Mavericks in Dallas. You can also click here to watch the Celtics livestream presented by Nissan on the NBC Sports App. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live Presented by ACE Ticket.

- Game preview: C's need to play Smart in Dallas

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[SHOP: Gear up, Celtics fans!]

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