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Paul Flannery | October 31, 2016

Sunday Shootaround: The Celtics don't want to get ahead of themselves, even if their fans are

The Celtics could be anything

BOSTON -- Ask three different groups of people their expectations for the Celtics this season, and you'll likely get three different variations on a theme. It's not that a consensus is out of reach -- almost everyone agrees this is a 50-or-so win team and a likely top seed in the East. From that starting point, however, opinion breaks down along interconnected lines.

To their fans, they are a good young team that is only getting better. With 11 players back from a 48-win team and the additions of prized free agent Al Horford and top-3 pick Jaylen Brown, their talent level is clearly superior. That, at least, is inarguable to all but the most devoted Evan Turner cultists.

To NBA heads who get off on front office machinations and smart decision making, they are a delight. Danny Ainge has stocked the roster with young talent, hidden gems on favorable contracts, and the aforementioned Horford. It's enough to make any amatuer capologist swoon, and that's before factoring in the horde of future draft picks that includes the much-discussed bounty from the Nets. Not for nothing did the C's rank third in ESPN's future power rankings list behind only the Cavaliers and Warriors.

And to those who care most about the product on the court this very moment, all of those pieces don't quite add up to the lofty projections that accompany their name. Even with Horford and All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas, there still isn't enough shot creation or rebounding to truly merit those kind of expectations. It would also be nice if the could win a playoff series before penciling them in for the conference finals.

All of those things are true. They are the NBA's Rashomon.

As entertaining as it is to consider the Celtics in theoretical terms, none of that matters a whit to Brad Stevens, who enters his fourth season with a new contract extension signed in June that essentially guarantees he'll be here for the long haul. That, incidentally, was never really a question in his mind. "I'll coach here until they don't want me to coach here anymore," Stevens reiterated to me just before the start of the season during a post-practice conversation.

Stevens doesn't care much for theoretical queries. But he's a genial sort, so he agreed to play along with the expectation question as best he could.

"That's great," he said. "We've got to get better. We have a lot of continuity here and so they deserve those expectations. They're the ones that earned it. I think that's a really cool thing. As I've told them many times, if you didn't have them and we were all back, that would suck. So let's go have fun with it."

Having fun with their status among the NBA's nouveau riche teams lasted about 40 minutes, or enough time to build a sizable lead against the Nets and almost give it away. From post-game laments about finishing games to the very next night in Chicago, where they dropped a winnable contest with a handful of careless plays down the stretch, the C's are already being tested.

Add to that the absences of key rotation players Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk and we'll find out a lot about the C's in a relatively short amount of time. Honestly, that's the fun part for Stevens. He's anxious to see what his young players bring to the equation.

Without Smart, second-year guard Terry Rozier is getting meaningful rotation minutes for the first time in his career. In short order, Rozier has gone from rookie curiosity to summer-league sensation. Now he's being asked to serve as the team's primary ball-handler off the bench.

The 20-year-old Brown, meanwhile, is also tasked with filling a significant role as a backup swingman to Jae Crowder. The rookie out of Cal has already turned heads with his absurd athleticism, and he also showed his inexperience with an unfortunate travel in crunch time against the Bulls.

Those experiences, painful as they may be at times, should only strengthen what is already a deep roster. In Stevens' terminology there are four positional groups: ballhandlers, wings, swings (forwards who can play both spots like Crowder and Brown) and bigs. The traditional position numbers are interchangeable, provided the players on the court can handle the defensive responsibilities. Understand that concept, and what looks like a mishmashable roster begins to make more sense.

As Rozier and Brown settle in, there are as many as a dozen rotation-caliber players, and that may mean tough choices down the road. These things have a way of working themselves out, but the lineups today may look quite different come January. As with most coaches, Stevens is a day-to-day grinder at heart, but he's also one with a keen understanding of the larger picture at hand.

His coaching philosophy, indeed his life philosophy, is rooted in the concept of Mindset as laid out by Stanford psychologist, Dr. Carol Dweck. The essence of the approach is that there are two types of mindsets: fixed and open. A fixed mindset assumes certain attributes like talent and ability are cast in stone. An open mindset allows for the possibility of growth and improvement. Stevens is all about facilitating an open mindset where what you are becomes less important than what you can be.

"You can control what you can control with your mindset," Stevens said. "What can we control? It's not every bounce or whether the shot goes in. What we can control is how we respond to a situation and how we move forward."

As the Celtics evolve, they've developed a firm on-court identity. They are not as big as some teams, but they are fast and versatile with ballhawking guards and shape-shifting forwards. What they lack in one-on-one creators, they make up for with waves of 3-point shooting. Their style that was once non-traditional has become something of an NBA norm, but Stevens wants to look beyond the trappings of playing small versus big.

"You don't want to play small," Stevens said. "You want to play big and fast. You want to maintain your size with length and be fast. Maybe speed is more appropriate than small."

That havoc-inducing style causes opposing coaches nightly headaches, but can it win in the playoffs? To that end, the Celtics added one of the summer's biggest prizes in Horford, an underappreciated savant who lacks traditional star-caliber numbers, but makes up for it with savvy and skill.

Ask where Horford will fit and the answer is basically everywhere. He'll anchor the backline of the defense, of course, but he'll also defend the perimeter. The C's can run actions for him in the post, or let him space the floor from the top of the key. He's the best passing big man they've had since Kevin Garnett and might be the best passer on the team, period.

"He's not only a four-time All Star and a really accomplished guy on both ends, but he can glue everything together," Stevens said. "That's a different dynamic when you think about it. He can play off others, he can cover for others, he can hold down the fort for a second and then go out and guard the 3-point line. He just has a great feel for the game. He's ahead at thinking the game."

What Horford also provides is validity for a rebuild that concentrated on collecting assets first and cashing in on stars second. Horford is a certified star and this can no longer be considered an overachieving team. If that was even the case last season; for every attention-grabbing win, there were just as many head-scratching losses.

No matter how you consider the Celtics at this point in the season, they are banking on their belief to be better at the end than they are now. That will require development, continuity, and familiarity. Those are the things they can control. It's the essence of Stevens' approach, and only then will we be able to judge if they have made sufficient progress.

Unless Ainge reaches into his magic bag of assets and pulls out a superstar, but that's a whole other conversation.

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

We're not even a week into the season, but already several major storylines have revealed themselves and will be worth watching all season long:

The limits of limiting speech: The NBA unveiled a togetherness campaign on the eve of the opener that hit all the requisite, albeit safe, notes who could be against unity? But in trying to separate protest from action, the league ceded an important point: Protest is action and for many, protest is the most meaningful form of direct action. That feeling of harmony was disrupted on opening night when the Philadelphia 76ers refused to let recording artist Sevyn Streeter perform the national anthem in a "We Matter" jersey. The team said in a statement that they "encourage meaningful actions to drive social change." The hypocrisy here is astounding and the team has apologized, but it's still worth considering the larger point. Was the shirt political? Yes, in the same way that any individual action affirming the right to exist is political and in the exact same way that denying the right of self-expression is political. We hold the NBA to a higher standard because no other sports league is as out in front on social issues, but with that comes a responsibility to promote discussion, not prohibit speech. This was one team, not the league writ large, but we expect more.

The Warriors defense will be under a microscope: In signing Kevin Durant, the Dubs were forced to cut ties with Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut, two mainstays from their championship success. Losing Barnes for KD was a no-brainer and everyone in the league would have sacrificed Bogut's rim protection if it meant adding Durant's brilliance. Still, Bogut will be missed. When healthy and engaged, Bogut remains a mean and smart center who did a lot of little things that added up to one of the top defenses in the league. With all that offensive firepower, Zaza Pachulia should be a capable enough replacement, but he's no Bogut, defensively. The Warriors are smart and they'll figure things out, but if their defense slips too much it would open the door just a little bit.

James Harden's double-double: The Rocket guard recorded 34 points and 17 assists in the team's opener against the Lakers, and you can count on more astronomical lines like that as the season progresses. Coach/mad scientist Mike D'Antoni has put the ball in Harden's hands as the point guard in his system, and rare will be the Rocket possession when the Beard doesn't have a literal hand in the outcome. D'Antoni suggested that Harden could get 15 assists a night, and that, in addition to his expected point production, would make Harden a contender to lead the league in both categories for the first time since the great Tiny Archibald turned the trick more than 40 years ago for the Kansas City Kings. We're in favor of this pursuit if for no other reason than we need more Tiny references in our lives. This would also help rehab Harden's image from a ball-dominant point hog into the all-around force so many of his defenders claim as his true measure. Go forth and gather thy numbers, James. It's there for you.

The Anthony Davis referendum has begun: Last year was a difficult one for AD, who went from a chic MVP pick to an injury-prone disappointment. Davis reminded all of us on opening night just how dominant he can be when he posted a ridiculous 50-16-5-7-4 line that has never been duplicated since the league started counting steals back in 1973-74. And the Pels still lost. This is an important season for AD to not only reclaim his rightful place among the league's next generation of stars, but also for the Pelicans to reestablish themselves as a playoff contender. GM Dell Demps turned over more than half the roster, but there still does not appear to be a second star among the supporting cast. New Orleans fans don't want to hear this (and who can blame them?), but this is the first year of AD's rookie contract extension and the clock is now officially ticking.

Don't forget about LeBron: If LeBron James taught us anything last season, it's that we have been guilty of taking his greatness for granted. LeBron has been an MVP afterthought the last few years  as much as someone who routinely finishes in the top five can be considered an afterthought  but his NBA Finals performance reminded all of us that he is still the dominant force in the game. His regular season numbers may not have been as transcendent as in years past, and he may take a few weeks here and there for regularly scheduled maintenance, but when it comes down to the final account, there's LeBron and then there's everyone else. Only LeBron can record a casual triple-double in 32 tidy minutes as he did in the opener and make it seem routine. A fifth MVP would tie him with Michael Jordan and Bill Russell behind only Kareem Abdul Jabbar's all-time record six Podoloffs. Don't bet against it.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"Anybody got any good jokes?" -- Golden State coach Steve Kerr after the Warriors were annihilated on opening night by the Spurs.

Reaction: For a team that's already won one championship and come within a game of a second (you may have heard they blew a 3-1 lead in the finals), the Warriors haven't truly faced schadenfreude like this over a full season. The LeBron James-era Heat know all too well what it's like when the public revels in every loss and misstep. That's what the Warriors will deal with this year. They'll probably be alright, but this will be a different experience.

"Can't worry about what other people think, because they don't know what's going on. They're only watching. You don't know our relationship. You don't know how we interact. You don't know how we interact with our teammates. It's just the outside looking in. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. But we can't let it control us, or control our game." -- Wizards guard Bradley Beal to the Vertical's Michael Lee on his relationship with John Wall.

Reaction: Beal's right. We don't know what's really going on, and unless you are deep inside a team's structure, you can't possibly understand all the dynamics that run through an NBA squad. And yet, their differences have been in the public for a while now. It's on them to make it work because we are watching intently for any signs of struggle or disharmony. After all, there's no reason Wall and Beal shouldn't click as a duo: their games complement each other perfectly. Now we'll find out if they do, as well.

"We're not the team that everyone is analytically putting together. But we're a team of guys who can compete. We're a team of guys who have pride. We're a team of guys with talent. Once you make it all work together, it doesn't matter about analytics or the game. It's about players." -- Chicago guard Dwyane Wade.

Reaction: It's safe to say that the Bulls' offseason raised a few eyebrows. Call it a restructuring or a retooling or pick whatever adjective you like, but adding Wade and Rajon Rondo seemed like a curious pairing for holdover star Jimmy Butler. There's the question of whether the three can coexist, and also the matter of suspect shooting in a league where offenses thrive on the ability make long shots. Wade hit four threes in his debut against the Celtics, and while no one should expect that level of marksmanship throughout the season, his game offered a reminder that it's never a good idea to doubt D-Wade.

"We know we're not one of the most well-liked teams in the league. And we talked about embracing it. Seriously." -- Clipper guard Chris Paul to TNT's David Aldridge.

Reaction: Whatever works, Chris. Seriously. Embrace it, roll with it, let it define you. It's all good. The only thing anyone cares about with the Clippers is whether they can finally get out of their own way this spring and make a meaningful postseason run.

"You know how I learned to shoot? I watched white people. Just regular white people. They really put their elbow in and finish up top. You can find videos of them online." -- Sixers center Joel Embiid to Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins.

Reaction: We already have an early candidate for quote of the year. Thank you, JoJo. Please stay delightful on your meteoric rise to the top.

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Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Tom Ziller | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.