Celtics

Five reasons that the Celtics should feel good about their future

Five reasons that the Celtics should feel good about their future

BOSTON -- Kyrie Irving is all but a goner with Al Horford reportedly not too far behind. Aron Baynes was traded to the Phoenix Suns on draft night, leaving major holes in the roster.

Most teams are overly optimistic this time of year, and the Celtics are indeed no exception.

But their feel-good vibes fly in the face of an uncertain reality in both the short and long-term.

Being hopeful, that's one thing.

But the optimism by the Celtics now?

What's up with that?

Here are five factors that are contributing to Boston’s sunnier-than-expected outlook heading into this season filled with way more questions than answers.

FREE AGENTS WARMING UP TO BOSTON

For years, the Celtics, among free agents, were about as popular as a vacation to Siberia.

But the narrative that Boston was not the place to go as a free agent, began to shift in the summer of 2016 when the Celtics landed a meeting with then-free agent Kevin Durant and were able to nail down a four-year deal with Al Horford.

And they followed that up the following summer by landing Gordon Hayward who was coming off his first all-star selection, with the Utah Jazz.

Boston will be hard-pressed to land a similar high-impact player like they did in 2016 or 2017, but they are at least at a point where it won’t be a total shock for a high-profile, difference-making player to at least grant the Celtics an audience to make their pitch.

By no means does that guarantee they will land one of the top-tier free agents, but the success in recent years has paved the way so that Boston is no longer seen as a basketball Siberia to free agents.

YOUTH MOVEMENT

With the expected departures and the trading away of Aron Baynes, 29-year-old Gordon Hayward is now the old man of the roster. But the Celtics charging ahead with youth leading the way, is a little different than most youth movements.

When teams typically go young, they do so with players still trying to figure out how to win as a collective unit while still maintaining their own growth curve.

Boston seems to be somewhere in the middle with a number of players having three years or less experience, but part of that experience was advancing to the Eastern Conference finals without arguably their two best players - Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.

This team that Boston will trot out this season will likely resemble that 2018 squad with a number of players still growing as individual players with a greater opportunity now to expand upon their past success because there’s no clear-cut, No. 1 player now.

Success now has to be more about the team than any individual, something that seemingly worked well for this team in 2018.

Can they do it again?

SALARY CAP SPACE

There’s the potential for Boston to clear more than $30 million in salary cap space which would allow them to pursue a top-tier player.

Adding a player of that caliber to join a roster full of young veterans, could potentially be the quickest path for Boston to return back to being an elite team in the NBA.

Among the many names you’ll hear in the coming days is Charlotte’s Kemba Walker.

The former UConn star is eligible for a super max contract worth more than $200 million, but it’s doubtful that Hornets owner Michael Jordan will invest that kind of money in Walker. That could open the door for one of the more below-the-radar superstar free agents to be scooped up by another team; a team like the Celtics who have a void at the point with Irving likely to sign elsewhere.

Boston also has a huge hole to fill in the frontcourt, with a number of potential replacements available either through free agency or via trade.

On the free agency front, Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic is a player on the Celtics’ radar. Boston also has some interest in Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams who is reportedly available to be traded for.

While the Celtics loved what Baynes stood for prior to trading him, moving him along increased the amount of cap flexibility the Celtics have and because of that, they now have at least one more option at their disposal as they begin the process of rebuilding the team into a title contender.

If Boston wants to swing a trade, don't be surprised to hear names like Oklahoma City's Steven Adams or Los Angeles Clippers forward Danilo Gallinari.

UNDERDOG ROLE

Because of the anticipated roster defections, the Celtics won’t be favored to come out of the East by anyone.

In fact, they will be hard-pressed to be perceived by anything other than a playoff contender which is a significant drop-off from where we were a year ago when Boston seemed poised to be a title contender for many years to come.

But as we’ve seen with head coach Brad Stevens and his teams in Boston, the Celtics have seemingly been at their best when others were deemed better teams, teams closer to winning a championship.

There’s little doubt this team will play with an edge; the kind of edge we did not see often enough from them.

And it is that edge that will propel them to winning more games than most will anticipate.

This past season was Brad Stevens’ first as head coach in which the team took a clear and undeniable step backward.

But with the bar set a little bit lower for the 2019-2020 season, it makes achieving success relative to expectations, much easier to come by as Boston will relish in the role of underdog.

GORDON HAYWARD

Arguably the biggest X-factor to what happens this season with the Celtics, lies in how well or woeful Gordon Hayward plays.

He was a human escalator last season, having stretches where he just kept raising and raising his game to great heights, only to hit a downward spiral that seemingly had no end in sight and came at the worst time (second round of the playoffs versus Milwaukee, for example).

But that was his first year back after a gruesome left ankle injury, an injury that the Celtics did all they could to ensure would not be an issue last season and by and large, it wasn't.

For the most part, Hayward’s ankle held up well to the pounding he put on it this past season, and he has attacked his offseason conditioning with renewed vigor.

“Gordon has been in every day working out and putting a lot of time in,” Ainge said. “And he looks good.”

But will we say the same about the Celtics this season.

Stay tuned ...

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Danny Ainge reacts to Al Horford joining rival 76ers: 'It's a different era'

Danny Ainge reacts to Al Horford joining rival 76ers: 'It's a different era'

Many Boston Celtics fans were surprised, and perhaps a bit upset, too, when they learned Al Horford had taken his talents to the Philadelphia 76ers in NBA free agency.

Not only did Horford leave the Celtics, he went to one of their top rivals and competitors in the Eastern Conference. Horford also had been Boston's most effective player against Philly over the last two seasons, especially in the Celtics' second-round playoff win against the 76ers in 2018.

Throughout most of the league's history, a player of Horford's caliber leaving one team to join one of its hated rivals would be a huge deal. But with today's players changing teams so often, it's not really surprising that there hasn't been much of an uproar around Boston over Horford's decision.

“It’s a different era,” Ainge said Thursday on 98.5 The Sports Hub's "Toucher and Rich" radio show. “I can’t imagine that would have ever happened in my time of playing, but it’s a different world that we live in. It doesn’t seem to be those kinds of same rivalries. There’s rivalries with the fans, but sometimes not as much with the players.” 

Horford's potential departure was not talked about much during the season. Many people assumed he would stay, either by exercising his player option or by declining it and signing a new long-term contract with Boston.

Ainge also was asked if Horford's choice to go to the 76ers was a shock. Clearly, he wasn't too surprised.

"No," Ainge said. "I think that Al -- he really likes to play the four (power forward) more than the five (center). He liked playing with Aron Baynes. He didn't mind playing some five, but he prefers playing the four and I think that going to Philadelphia will allow him to be exclusively at the four."

Horford should see a ton of time at power forward in Philly as long as superstar center Joel Embiid is healthy. However, Embiid has battled injuries his entire career and durability is not one of his best talents. He's never played more than 64 games in any of his three pro seasons. So, Horford might actually end up playing a decent amount of center with the Sixers.

The main thing for Horford in Philly is being able to win a championship. He's 33 years old and has never won a title. The 76ers, with Horford in the fold, arguably are the favorites to win the Eastern Conference next season.

Click for the latest Eastern Conference title odds>>>

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NBA odds: Here's where Celtics rank among Eastern Conference contenders

NBA odds: Here's where Celtics rank among Eastern Conference contenders

The 2019-20 NBA season doesn't begin until October, but the craziness of the recent free agency and trade transactions already have fans fired up for the new campaign.

The flurry of surprising offseason moves that have seen many superstar players change teams has resulted in an evening of the playing field. There's no longer a Golden State Warriors-like super team. There are seven to 10 teams with a legit chance to win the NBA Finals next season, which should create one of the most unpredictable and exciting years of basketball in recent memory.

The Eastern Conference will be competitive, but it also could be top-heavy.

The Milwaukee Bucks, who finished with the league's best record in the regular season a year ago, are the favorites to win the conference at -120. They are followed by the Philadelphia 76ers (+175), who signed former All-Star Al Horford and re-signed Tobias Harris amid a wild summer for the franchise. The next team on oddsmakers' list in the East is the Boston Celtics at +700. The Celtics lost Kyrie Irving, Aron Baynes, Marcus Morris and Horford this summer, but they signed Kemba Walker, Enes Kanter, Vincent Poirier and added two first-round picks (Romeo Langford and Grant Williams) to the mix.

Here's where the C's stand in the latest Eastern Conference odds from Caesars Palace.

After the Celtics and Brooklyn Nets, there's a huge gap in the odds. Las Vegas isn't optimistic about any other teams realistically competing for the conference title, and it's hard to blame the oddsmakers. Many of the third- and fourth-tier teams in the East should provide plenty of exciting action, most notably the Atlanta Hawks, but these clubs are still a few steps away from being legit contenders in the conference.

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