Here's another entry in our series of key questions facing the Celtics this season. We'll ask one per day heading into camp, which kicks off with Media Day Sept. 24.
BOSTON – There’s little doubt that the Celtics will begin this season as the odds-on favorite to emerge atop the East in the NBA.
And as far as who will challenge them, most agree that Philadelphia and Toronto pose the greatest threat.
Still, here’s the thing about the East. While it may once again appear to be relatively top-heavy, there are a handful of teams that could potentially play their way into a top-tier finish and emerge as a legit contender.
Here’s a look at five teams that could be this year’s surprise and play their way into a high playoff seeding, which would make them an unexpected threat to Boston’s efforts to take over the East this season:
The Pacers finished with the fifth-best record in the NBA last season, one in which many thought they would be a lottery team. Credit the emergence of Victor Oladipo who seems to have finally found a basketball after stops in Orlando and Oklahoma City, to emerge as an All-Star. Myles Turner continues to improve as a stretch big; ditto for Domantis Sabonis. Indiana added some toughness with the addition of Kyle O’Quinn and former rookie of the year Tyreke Evans. They still seem at least one or two superstar-esque players away from being a title contender, but this team will not be an easy out for anyone – the Celtics included – in the postseason.
Many forget that the Bucks took the Celtics to the brink of playoff elimination last season, with the home team emerging victorious in all seven games. They return one of the game’s most dynamic players in Giannis Antetokounmpo, in addition to one of the game’s more underrated scorers in Khris Middleton. Lots of players with length and versatility will once again be a staple of the Bucks. Milwaukee added Brook Lopez, which will provide them a legit low-post scorer in those stretches when the game slows down, but the most important new guy to the mix is head coach Mike Budenholzer. The former Atlanta Hawks coach has shown the ability to transform average talent into an above-average team in large part by utilizing the 3-point shoot. In his five seasons with the Hawks, Atlanta ranked among the top 10 in three-point attempts four times. In that span, Milwaukee never finished any better than 24th (out of 30 teams) in 3-point attempts.
The Heat have been among the better teams defensively for years under coach Erik Spoelstra. And that trend won’t change this season. But their chances of cracking the top-tier of teams in the East hinges heavily on their ability to improve their 3-point shooting. The Heat showed a greater willingness to launch 3’s last season, when they ranked ninth in the league with 30.6 three-pointers taken per game. However, Miami shot just 36 percent, 16th in the league. Look for the Heat to develop more offensive schemes to open up shot attempts for their better 3-point shooters, such as ex-Celtic Kelly Olynyk, who connected on 37.9 percent of his 3’s while averaging a career-high 11.5 points per game. His continued growth from long range as well as that of the rest of the team could be just what it takes to catapult them into the upper-tier in the East.
One of the more mystifying teams in recent years, the Wizards have consistently come up short in the playoffs. Despite having a couple of All-Stars in John Wall and Bradley Beal, Washington hasn’t been able to get past the second round of the playoffs since 1979. And the addition of Dwight Howard, while talent-wise an upgrade over Marcin Gortat, raises even more questions about chemistry, which has often been at the heart of their struggles. But beyond Wall and Beal, Washington has more quality depth with the improved play of Kelly Oubre Jr. and Otto Porter Jr., along with newcomers Austin Rivers and Jeff Green. But in the end, fans can expect the Wizards to be the same old Wizards: a good team, but one that will once again fall short of reaching its potential.
Similar to Milwaukee, the Pistons are hopeful that a new coach will come in and get them back to respectability. Dwayne Casey, the NBA’s Coach of the Year, was fired by Toronto after the Raptors were swept in the second round of the playoffs by the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond are the two focal points of the Pistons, in that order. Griffin’s career has been one in which his athleticism has often carried the day. But like most frontcourt players, he has expanded his game beyond the 3-point line. After having taken 268 three-pointers in his first seven seasons, Griffin launched 322 last season.