Within the Celtics’ organization, I have been told and told again, there is a certain and overwhelming belief. It is not one they want to lean on forever, but it is one that works in the optimism of the moment as the franchise builds toward its championship goals.
That belief, specifically, is in Brad Stevens. And it goes like this. If our talent is equal to the opponent’s on a given night, we will win. And if our talent is slightly less than an opponent’s on a given night, there is still an excellent chance we will win.
Some of that is due to preparation up and down the organization. Some is due to the effort of the players, which was a joy to behold a season ago when they won 24 of their final 36 games and sneaked into the No. 7 seed.
But the brunt of the confidence comes from this: Stevens has established himself as one of the league’s premier coaches. At 39 years old and in his third NBA season, he has become the Celtics’ most reliable advantage. That organizational belief in him is a modern twist on Bum Phillips’s famous drawled adage about Bear Bryant: “Bryant can take his’n and beat your’n, and then he can turn around and take your’n and beat his’n.’’
Some might think such faith in Stevens is premature. I understand. He’s still young, in age and experience, by NBA coaching standards, and he looks younger than some NBA players. But it’s telling that those who work with him and know how he operates have the utmost confidence in the man. He is one reason the Celtics are a fascinating team in a fascinating place entering the new season, which begins Wednesday night against the Sixers. But he’s not the only reason.
They’ve added David Lee, Amir Johnson and a trio of promising-if-raw rookies to a roster that won 40 games a season ago. That was 15 more than they won the previous season, and while a similarly sizable leap is unlikely this year, the new guys should mesh in style and attitude with Marcus Smart, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and the returnees from last year’s hustling, determined core.
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Consider too, that they have the Nets’ first-round pick in 2016 and the Mavericks’ top-seven protected pick next year if circumstances fall their way, and the concerns that the post-New Big Three Celtics would be trapped in the NBA’s mediocre middle for a half-decade until bottoming out is already being assuaged. They’re headed the right way, and Stevens is leading them with a steady hand. They should win 45-50 games and battle the Raptors for Atlantic Division bragging rights.
Expectations are high, at least by the standards of what we expected them to be in Year 3 of the rebuild. So is optimism. But the task is arguably the most challenging Stevens has faced, though it should be noted that this is a man who convinced Jordan Crawford to play point guard unselfishly.
The Celtics lack superstars, but they have at least 10 players who can justifiably expect playing time. It is on Stevens to sort out the minutes for a group of players with diverse and assorted skills and use the depth to the Celtics’ advantage. He must manage egos while finding, with the help of the savvy analytics department, the most efficient and effective lineups and personnel groupings.
It’s a good kind of challenge – it’s better to have too many players who should play over too many who can’t play, obviously – but it’s a constant one, and it won’t be easy. Someone is going to be frustrated with his minutes almost every night.
It’s going to be fascinating to see how it plays out, who seizes a role and who slides down the bench and stays there. Much of it still being sorted out on the eve of the season, and that will continue into the season. But like you, I do have some theories and hunches on how certain roles may shake out. Let’s take a look at it through the prism of potential superlatives, since those are always fun.
Most likely to not know what he has until it’s gone: Jared Sullinger. Sorry (not really) to drop some Cinderella lyrics on you there out of nowhere, but this is a dire situation that calls for such blunt-force poetry. Sullinger is one of the 3-4 most talented players on the roster. His hands are incredible; if he gets a fingerprint on the basketball, the rebound is his. It’s tempting to suggest his instincts near the hoop can’t be taught – and yet he’s a coach’s kid who clearly put in the hours of gym time required to master the sport’s beautiful geometry. But he also appears to believe in his ability more than anyone else. Such confidence is usually an asset, but in Sullinger’s case, it seems to lead to the metastasization of entitlement. He spent the summer working with John Lucas in Houston, theoretically attempting to gain maturity and lose weight. He came back in less-than-optimal shape. What does that tell you?
Most likely to be an All-Star: Marcus Smart. I’m going to keep making my Joe Dumars comparison and you can’t stop me. In fact, someday, I just know it, you’ll join me. Dumars averaged 9.4 points per game and 4.9 assists as a 22-year-old rookie, shot 31 percent from 3, busted his butt on defense, and also played next to a guy named Is(a)iah Thomas). Smart averaged 7.8 points and 3.1 assists as a 20-year-old rookie with a bum ankle, shot 33.5 percent from 3, busted his butt on defense, and … right, you know the Isiah/Isaiah thing. He is tenacious and ever-improving, and I’ll agree that this is slightly hyperbolic only because Dumars was awesome and Smart for now can only aspire to be. I believe in this kid. It’s going to be fun watching him prove me right. Gonna gloat about it, too.
Most likely among the three rookies to contribute: R.J. Hunter. We knew he was a fall-off-your-chair dead-eye shooter; had he made it past the Celtics at 28, the Warriors were considering taking him at No. 30, because as you, me and David Blatt know, the Warriors have a severe lack of creative perimeter threats. The surprise in preseason, at least to me, is that he’s a much more poised and creative playmaker than you’d think a kid from Georgia State would be. Defense might be an issue early – he has good hands but isn’t the quickest defender – but there will be a meaningful role for him on this team before the All-Star break arrives.
Most likely to be a fan-favorite among casual fans: David Lee. I don’t mean that as an insult, because the diehards also are going to – hell, already do – like what Lee brings to the offense. A dependable rebounder with a deft lefty touch (lefties always get bonus points ) around the hoop who is also a creative and willing passer and he’ll be picking up a championship ring at some point this season? Who wouldn’t like that guy? His game is aesthetically pleasing, and if you time your refrigerator breaks for when he and the Celtics are on defense, you’ll miss his weaknesses. He’ll help immensely on one end of the floor. He’ll need help on the other. But you won’t find many fans among the various levels of rooting interest who won’t be glad he’s here.
Most likely to be a fan-favorite among the diehards: Amir Johnson. While Lee’s plusses as a player are very apparent, Johnson’s are more subtle, often becoming familiar and eventually anticipated only after some time passes. He’s the guy who inevitably gets the possession-extending offensive rebound in traffic, or slides over at the perfect time to stop a driving wing player who got a step on his man. He’s a fearless rim-protector, an admittedly instinctive yet remarkably high-IQ player, an efficient shooter, and often among the league leaders in plus/minus, which measures how a team fares on the scoreboard while a player is on the floor. He has little flash, but so much substance, and I’m not sure which of these truths will become clearer first: He’s really going to help the Celtics. And the Raptors will miss him profoundly. Perhaps, I believe, to the point that it will help the former leap over the latter in the Atlantic Division standings.
The Celtics don’t have a superstar player, not yet. But they are in double-digits when it comes to hoarding talented, selfless, determined and thus-far unsung players. It’s an unusual roster, yet an extremely likable one.
When this season is done, their coach, charged with deploying them to peak productivity, will be confirmed as a superstar after he orchestrates 50 wins or so out of this group.
The Celtics are not in basketball purgatory. They are not near basketball heaven quite yet, either. But the trend in the right direction will continue at a rapid pace.
Better get on the bandwagon now. The driver hasn’t had his license that long. But he knows exactly where he’s going.
Photos: Meet the 2015-16 Boston Celtics