ZILLER: The Celtics made a huge leap last season, getting to 48 wins and tying for the third-best record in the conference. Those are not the accomplishments of a rebuilding team: Boston has, in some sense, arrived. That the Celtics did that without what is properly defined as a superstar adds to their allure, especially considering that the team added something like a star in Al Horford.
FLANNERY: One of the things that I thought was interesting about the Celtics was this notion that they overachieved. That's not how I viewed them at all. Various projection models had them in the 45-48 win range, so their regular season shouldn't have been a huge shock. Losing to the Hawks confirmed their lack of top-end talent, but a different matchup may have produced a different result.
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What threw off the rhythm was that they beat Golden State and Cleveland (and OKC), but the C's also lost to the Nets and Magic twice, the Lakers (at home) and Minnesota. That's a lot of bad losses to balance out the good. Thus, there’s an equilibrium that made sense: The Celtics simply achieved.
Horford makes them better. More importantly, he signals a change in how current NBA players view Boston. It's a destination again. Maybe not THE destination, but it's on their map. That's a big deal because the Celtics are still a star or two away from really contending. So they're good, but not there yet.
ZILLER: I honestly wonder if Horford means anything about Boston, really. Remember when Greg Monroe's decision meant Milwaukee was a free agent destination? Or consider that Dwyane Wade chose Chicago, a mess of a franchise right now. Horford is better than Monroe and Wade comes with special circumstances (age and hometown, particularly). But I wonder if we read too much into specific, discrete decisions.
Horford picked Boston over Washington (a traditionally futile franchise) and Atlanta (who reportedly low-balled him). He also dismissed other suitors. But I don't know that Horford's faith in Boston should influence that of anyone else in the end.
We anticipate an elite, brutal defense in Boston. Do you think there's enough offense here to get the Celtics into the next tier of competition? Or are they still one player away?
FLANNERY: I hear you, but I do think Horford going to Boston is a significant move. Let me offer some more context. Monroe's move didn't signal that Milwaukee was a destination as much as it drove home the point that the NBA landscape is flat. Wade essentially jumped out the door before he was pushed, and the market for Horford was way more robust. OKC, for one, wanted to pair him with Kevin Durant and Golden State likely would have made a run if its KD pursuit had come up empty.
At the least, this ends the era of over-achievement in Boston and signals a new world of expectations. Their defense should be stout, but I am worried about that offense. I'd like to see Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk make big jumps in terms of shooting consistency before I'm ready to peg them as a serious title threat. Even with that, I think they're still a player, if not two, away. (Perhaps the Jimmy Butler talks can be rekindled if the Bulls fizzle.)
I know it's semantics, but are you ready to call them the second-best team in the East yet?
ZILLER: No. And that's not disrespecting what Boston has, which is a good-to-very-good team. The Celtics had a better offseason than the Raptors, it's true. But Toronto was thoroughly better than Boston last season, both in the regular season (actually challenging for the No. 1 seed, eight games ahead of Boston and three other teams) and in the playoffs (where the Raptors, you know, won a couple of series).
Horford makes up a lot of that gap, but until the Celtics prove it, I'm not convinced they have overcome the Raptors. (It's important to remember that outside of Kyle Lowry, the Raptors are quite young, too.)
Now what the Celtics have done is break away from the Hawks, Hornets, and Heat, and extend further beyond Detroit, Indiana, and Chicago. Boston has broken into the upper echelon of the East on paper and could compete with Toronto and Cleveland for the No. 1 seed, but it's not at all evident to me that the Celtics are better than either of those teams. Am I being too negative on their chances?
FLANNERY: No, I think that's extremely fair. There's a strange dynamic at play here where their underrated-ness was overrated and now that pendulum is swinging mighty far in the other direction. I think they'll be good, better than last season and capable of winning a playoff round or two. I put them up with Toronto as a step ahead of the pack and a step or two behind the Cavs.
What separates the Celtics further is that even with Horford and the gifted No. 3 overall pick from the Nets in tow, they still have the ability to add more star power, either through trade or the draft. Horford has shown us that the free agent door is open, as well. That's something the Raptors can't really do.
Honestly, few teams can. Having a top-10 team during this process is just the cherry on top of Danny Ainge's banana split.