Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.
Ringer Preseason Ranking: 2
Last Season: 55-27
Notable Additions: Robert Williams (draft), Brad Wanamaker (free agency)
Notable Subtractions: Shane Larkin (free agency), Greg Monroe (free agency)
Vegas Over/Under: 57.5
Team MVP: Kyrie Irving
Best Case: All of Boston’s players sacrifice individual recognition to form a dominant team that wins the NBA championship. Bill Simmons gives everyone at The Ringer a raise.
Everything Celtics GM Danny Ainge has touched over the last few years has turned to gold (or green in this case). Even losing Gordon Hayward to a gruesome leg injury on opening night became a positive, as his season-long absence accelerated the development of recent top-three picks Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. It was the same story in the backcourt, where Kyrie Irving’s season-ending knee injury gave Terry Rozier room to blossom. Now that everyone is healthy, Boston has the deepest roster in the league.
The Celtics will start an East Coast version of the Lineup of Death. There’s nowhere to hide a bad defender: their starting five boasts three All-Stars in their prime (Kyrie, Hayward, and Al Horford) and two young guys who should become All-Stars in time (Tatum and Brown). They have no real weaknesses on either side of the ball. Kyrie is their worst defender, and his defense improved dramatically in his first season under Celtics head coach Brad Stevens.
It doesn’t get any easier for opposing teams when they go to their bench. Rozier and Marcus Smart, whom they re-signed to a four-year, $52 million contract in the offseason, are stifling perimeter defenders, while Marcus Morris, Daniel Theis, and Aron Baynes are proven veterans who give Stevens the versatility to match up with any frontcourt in the league. Even the end of their bench is stacked: Brad Wanamaker was one of the best players in Europe, Semi Ojeleye flashed 3-and-D potential as a rookie, and Robert Williams has as much physical talent as any of the big men in this year’s rookie class.
Not even injuries can slow them down. Boston went to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals last season without Kyrie and Hayward, and there’s no reason to think they couldn’t survive a similar wave of injuries. Ainge has built a team perfectly suited for the current era of the NBA, and Stevens has gotten the most out of every roster that Ainge has given him over the last five seasons. Getting the most out of this one means winning it all.
Worst Case: The Celtics have too many really good players and not enough great ones. None of their All-Stars get a chance to dominate the ball, and they lose in the playoffs to a team with an All-NBA player who does.
Boston wouldn’t have had the best player in last season’s Eastern Conference finals even if Kyrie and Hayward were healthy. They are in championship-or-bust mode, and it’s hard to win a championship without a superstar. LeBron James is in Los Angeles, but the road to the Finals won’t be any easier. Kawhi Leonard is in Toronto, while Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons, and Joel Embiid should all be better with another season under their belts.
The Celtics could have the best defense in the NBA in the regular season, but that doesn’t mean they will be able to stop Kawhi and Giannis in the playoffs. Giannis nearly beat them by himself in the first round last season.
If the Raptors and Bucks copy the Cavs’ formula—slow the tempo of the game and force-feed the ball to their superstar down the stretch—it may not matter how many All-Stars the Celtics have. Get past those teams, as well as a 76ers team that should be tougher in year 2 of the Simmons and Embiid era, and they still have to beat Steph Curry and Kevin Durant (or James Harden and Chris Paul) in the Finals.
The pecking order isn’t as clear in Boston as it is among the other elite teams in the NBA. Kyrie can be unstoppable at the end of games, but he won’t have as big a role in the offense as he did before his injury last season. And while Celtics fans think Tatum could become a superstar, it’s hard to see him as anything more than a third option on this team. Kyrie and Hayward probably won’t be willing to take a back seat to a 20-year-old.
This team will be a new type of challenge for Stevens, who made his name by overachieving with less talented rosters. Instead of getting players to do more, he needs them to do less. Kyrie won’t be the MVP on a team that shares the ball, while Tatum and Brown won’t be All-Stars in complementary roles, and Rozier will lose money on his next contract now that he’s back on the second unit. Everyone in Boston has to sacrifice, which is easier for older players who have already established themselves in the NBA and made a lot of money. The Celtics are loaded with players will a lot left to prove, and not enough time or opportunity to do so.
TL;DR: This season is a fascinating chemistry experiment in Boston. It might work, or it might blow up in their faces.