When Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge nearly overhauled the entire Celtics roster from last season, many pundits around the league predicted the Celtics would be back in the Eastern Conference Finals against Cleveland. But not many people around the league ever dreamt that the Celtics could be the favorite in the late Spring series.
Without question, Ainge’s moves this past off-season were brilliant. He gets high marks for the Kyrie Irving trade. The early returns show he drafted well (Jayson Tatum) and made an effective free agent signing in bringing aboard Shane Larkin to provide backcourt depth. And of course Ainge’s work in developing an impressive core of young talented players started long before this summer. Summer 2013 to be exact.
With that being said, head coach Brad Stevens deserves the majority of the credit for the Celtics racing out to a 27-10 start this year. On paper, they are probably not a 27-10 team but here they are with a 1.5 game lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers (who are of course missing Isaiah Thomas). They are not a better team than the Golden State Warriors, not even in the same discussion really, but they were back on November 16th at the TD Garden — a game that ended in a 92-88 victory for the Green.
And the point that can’t be stressed enough is that Boston is missing arguably their second best player — Gordon Hayward — who is still likely out for the balance of the season after suffering a gruesome opening night injury at Cleveland. And for nearly half the young season, they have been without Marcus Morris, the asset acquired in exchange for arguably their second best player from last year (Avery Bradley).
The Celtics aren’t playing with a full deck, yet every night, Stevens has his team outrebounding, outrunning, and outhustling the opponent. A Brad Stevens team does not take a night off. And that is why they are consistently beating teams that, at least on paper, have superior rosters.
It looks like Stevens has also brought out the best in Kyrie Irving, which as it turns out, could be MVP-caliber play. He has kept Irving happy and engaged (no small task for a coach in handling a superstar player). Irving is in anyone’s MVP discussion and surely looks headed to the All-Star Game in a couple months.
Oh, and the other thing is no one else in the league has played more games than the Celtics have. Due to the London trip later this winter and other scheduling quirks, the Celtics have had a very congested schedule. Grueling might be a stretch, but no matter how you perceive it, Stevens has managed his guys’ minutes brilliantly.
Will the Celtics’ blistering start continue? Maybe, maybe not. But they have put themselves in position to solidify themselves as one of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference standings (along with Cleveland and Toronto). It’s hard to see the Celtics not getting home court advantage in at least the first round of the playoffs. Truth be told, the top-heavy Western Conference is once again more stacked, but if Boston is going to return to the Eastern Conference Finals a Game 7 at home vs Washington, Toronto, or Milwaukee means everything.
Certainly, Ainge deserves all the credit for buying the right groceries, but Stevens is the master chef deserving of greater praise.