By: Scott Brock-Wilson and Justin Lynch
The next two teams in our series are revealed. The Boston Celtics and Utah Jazz.
Click on the previous sets of rankings to view them:
#30 and #29, #28 and #27, #26 and #25, #24 and #23, #22 and #21, #20 and #19, #18 and #17, #16 and #15
14. Boston Celtics
Last Season: 40-42, First Round Loss
Key Offseason Acquisitions: Amir Johnson, David Lee, Perry Jones, Terry Rozier, RJ Hunter, Jordan Mickey
Key Offseason Losses: Brandon Bass
Projected Starting 5:
PG: Marcus Smart
SG: Avery Bradley
SF: Jae Crowder
PF: David Lee
C: Amir Johnson
Key Role Players:
1. Isaiah Thomas
2. Evan Turner
3. Tyler Zeller
SBW Season Outlook:
The Celtics have two types of players on their team right now: the average player, meaning a role player, and the young prospect that may be something. Johnson, Crowder, Lee, Thomas, Turner, Zeller, Jonas Jerebko all fit into the former. The latter contains Smart, Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, Perry Jones, James Young, Terry Rozier, R.J. Hunter, and Jordan Mickey. The issue is that even in these young prospects, it appears that none of them will be stars (unless Smart finally breaks out).
It appears as if all of the rookies and Young will be playing for the Maine Red Claws (the Celtics D-League affiliate) this season. Overall, I think it is best for rookies to learn from playing in the NBA and not the D-League. Once players get used to the D-League it seems as though they never make a difference in the NBA.
So, moving on to the players that will actually make difference and play this year. The Celtics biggest additions this offseason were Lee and Johnson. This will aid their frontline which was in desperate need of some help. Last season Lee averaged almost eight points and five board, however in the three seasons prior, Lee have never averaged less that 18 and 9. Lee provides scoring upfront that was lacking. Provided Lee can put up even similar numbers to what he did before this past year, he will likely be the second leading scorer on the Celtics.
Johnson is there to provide more of a physical presence. He is a good defender that will sure up the boards defensively. On the negative side though, he is challenged offensively and is only 6’9. The Celtics are still lacking that big center that will protect the rim at all costs, even though Johnson is a good shot blocker for his size.
The tallest players on the team are Olynyk and Zeller, both seven feet tall. However, Olynyk may be the farthest thing from a rim protector, and Zeller is no defensive presence to be scared of either. Offensively, Olynyk, along with Sullinger and Jerebko, will be there to space the floor and hit open threes. Zeller will be the pick and roll man who is expected to make mid-range jump shots as well.
Unlike all of their big men, who seem to have defined roles, the smaller players and guards are a mess position wise. Hence why Rozier, Young, and Hunter will most likely find themselves playing in Maine.
Turner has been playing more of a forward point position when he has been on the floor, which led to him averaging over five assists last season . He will continue to be a creator and less of a scorer. Crowder is the lock down defender for the team, who needs to knock down open threes when available, as he shot only 29% from three last season. Jones would make the team for one reason and one reason only: his defense. The Celtics organization has said that he is guarding three different positions, which is obviously extremely valuable.
That leaves Bradley, Smart and Thomas, arguably the core of the team. Bradley is obviously a great defender, but everyone has been waiting for him to take the next step and this is the year he has to do it. Last year he saw his three point percentage drop four points to 35%. He cannot have another down year. The Celtics locked him up until 2017-18 for 4yr/$32 million and expect him to take strides forward in the coming year.
Thomas is the 6th man and bench scorer averaging 19 PPG since he came to the Celtics. We all know this. However, he will expected to help lead the team more this year. Smart is supposed ‘star’ on this team. What type of star averages seven points, three assists and three rebounds a game? So he is still far from a star, but he is still a solid starter. He is a good defender that will leave everything out on the floor.
The Celtics have a situation where they have too many average players, no stars, and not enough minutes to develop their younger prospects. The combination of all of the good role players and a great coach will allow them reach the playoffs and get a reasonable seed in the East.
JL Best-case scenario:
President Brad Stevens proves why he’s the best coach in the NBA without superstar talent. The myriad of lineups team’s have to prepare for become overwhelming and the depth of the Celtics allows them to play at the fastest pace in the league. Marcus Smart makes a huge leap in year two and the Celtics look to have their point guard of the future. Furthermore, the Smart-Bradley-Crowder trio is the best in the league defensively. The Celtics smother teams with roster combinations and get nightly contributions from everyone who dresses. The Celtics win 50 games, the Atlantic division, and earn a 4-seed in the East. The Celtics win two playoff series against the Bucks and Bulls before getting a rematch vs. Cleveland. The Cavs edge the Celts in six, but the season is considered a massive success. The Nets then win the lottery and convey the first overall pick to the Celtics, who also grab the Mavericks first round pick (which falls outside the top-7) and the Timberwolves first rounder (which falls outside the top-12). The Celtics continue asset collection with their four first rounders and start their quest for a third cog to complement Smart and Ben Simmons.
JL Worst-case scenario:
Smart plateaus and his long-term potential is in question. Teams figure out the Celtics, who struggle to score without Thomas on the floor. However, the Celtics can’t stop a nosebleed when Lee and Thomas are on the floor together. Crowder disappoints and Bradley again fails to take the next step. James Young, R. J. Hunter, and Terry Rozier spend the majority of the season in Maine (playing for the D-league’s Red Claws). The C’s frontcourt proves to be overcrowded, and all five of the team’s bigs (Lee, Johnson, Zeller, Sullinger, Olynyk) become upset over playing time. The Celtics finish in ninth in the conference, one game behind the Nets. The Nets pick turns out to be 15th, the Celtics pick 14, and neither the Timberwolves pick nor the Mavericks pick get conveyed. The Celtics remain in NBA purgatory.
Projected Record: 46-36
13. Utah Jazz
Last Season: 38-44, Missed Playoffs (11th in West)
Key Offseason Acquisitions: Trey Lyles
Key Offseason Losses: N/A
Projected Starting 5:
PG: Trey Burke
SG: Alec Burks
SF: Gordon Hayward
PF: Derrick Favors
C: Rudy Gobert
Key Role Players:
1. Rodney Hood
2. Elijah Millsap
3. Trevor Booker
JL Season Outlook:
The Jazz enter 2014-15 as a hot pick to vault into the playoffs. They were casually the sixth best team post-all star break (19-10) and stymied nearly every opponent, averaging just 95 points allowed/game, the best mark in the entire NBA. The offseason saw a devastating injury to point guard Dante Exum, who will miss the entire season, thrusting inconsistent Trey Burke to the forefront of a team with postseason aspirations. They will, however, get Alec Burks back from a shoulder injury that ended his 2014-15 campaign after just 27 games. In the draft, they picked up Trey Lyles, the versatile Kentucky product, to provide some depth in the frontcourt.
As mentioned above, this team starts and ends on the defensive end, and there is no bigger cog in this defense that Rudy Gobert. The affectionately nicknamed Stifle Tower was the best rim protector of last season, only allowing opponents to shoot 40% at the rim. Gobert is 23 years old and entering his third season in the NBA. He still has work to do offensively, and likely will never be a go-to post player, but his diving ability off pick-n-rolls is certainly better than it was. He’s also a big-time rebounder, averaging 9.5/game last season in just 26 minutes/game.
But team’s do need more than just defense and rebounding to win, and Gordon Hayward, 25, brings the offense. He put up 19/game on 45% shooting last season, and saw his three point shooting come back to 36% after a down 2013-14 season. Hayward had a fairly high usage rate (25.4%), but it’s lower than usually seen out of a team’s number one option. He shot 59% in the restricted area last season, and a blazing 50% from the left corner three. However, the overwhelming majority of his shots from deep came above the break, where his 36% is solid, but I would like to see more sets where he can spot up in the corner instead. Maybe the biggest question with Hayward’s offense is his love of the midrange game. He took more shots from midrange than he did anywhere else last season (298 FGA), hitting 45% of his looks. Now, 45% is not bad at all, but for a player as dynamic as Hayward, he should not be settling for so many shots in that area. The offensive scheme needs to help him so that if he cannot make it all the way to the rim, he has options to dish for three or enter the post.
The guy Hayward would be entering the ball to on the post is Derrick Favors. Favors, 24, has three years at about $11 million/year left on his extension, and with the cap rise, he could be on one of the best contracts in the league. The Georgia Tech product quietly put up 16 and eight last season on 53% shooting. He added nearly two blocks/game to his stat line as well. Favors doesn’t get enough credit defensively. Going up against the likes of Z-Bo, Blake Griffin, and LaMarcus Aldridge every night in the West, Favors was the 12th best in terms of DRPM among power forwards. Offensively, Favors shot an uber-effective 70% in the restricted area last season, and he did it while still attempting six shots/game from the area. His midrange game is still a work-in-progress, but I see that taking another step this year. If he can up his 15-19 footer from the 35% he shot last year to the low-mid 40’s, that’s going to open up a lot of space for Hayward drives and Gobert dives.
Another guy who could relish in some more open lanes is Alec Burks. Burks, 24, also recently signed an extension, and he returns from a tough shoulder injury, ready to prove he’s worth eight figures. Burks 14 points/game was good to see, but the most promising of all his stats was his increase in three point shooting to 38%. Burks ability to shoot will be huge in terms of spacing the offense, especially considering who’s playing point guard.
So, I’ve avoided the subject long enough. Trey Burke is going to be starting at point guard for a team with playoff hopes in a brutal West. Burke has been awful up to this point in his career, and his ineffectiveness could be the downfall of an otherwise loaded, young roster. Burke averaged 13 points/game last year, but managed to shoot just 37% from the floor and 32% from three. Even his assists dropped in his sophomore campaign. His eFG% of 43% is also a reflection of his inability to improve from year one to year two. Burke likes to hoist up above-the-break threes, a real issue when he’s only hitting 29% of them. In terms of getting to the basket, Burke has his issues, and even when he gets there he only made 48%. But defensively is where he really is bad. Burke ranked 73 out of 84 point guards in the NBA in DRPM (-2.52), and couldn’t even muster up one steal/game. In fairness, Alec Burks is no lockdown defender either (in fact, he was worse in DRPM last season) and this backcourt duo will not only struggle to guard on the perimeter but they will also cause Gobert to be in serious foul trouble in many games.
The Jazz have some decent bench options including Rodney Hood and whatever they get out of Trey Lyles, but this team was at their best at the end of last season when Exum was playing big minutes and Burks was out with an injury. Throwing Burks and Burke back into the fire might kill their defense, especially with Hayward just being an average defender. The offense will step forward and the defense will step back. The question is how much will they move in either direction. This team could be good, but don’t discount the possibility of their being huge disappointment in Utah, followed by yet another trip to the lottery.
SBW Best-case scenario:
Gobert improves even more cementing himself as one of the best defensive centers in the league while also developing a jump shot. . Hayward develops into an actual star by continuing to increase his PPG as he has done in his first five years as a pro. Burke improves his shooting and defense as he becomes a respectable starting point guard. Burks takes some of the pressure off of Burke by handling the ball more, as becomes more proficient offensively, but more importantly defensively. Favors takes his big leap this year in his 6th year in the league. He averages 20 and 10 (not too far off from his 18 and 9 last season) and carries the load offensively with Hayward. Meanwhile, Lyles shows flashes of greatness while contributing off the bench. The Jazz still manage to make it into the playoffs as the 8th seed in the West without Exum.
SBW Worst-case scenario:
Burke is awful in place of Exum, with lots of turnovers and bad shot selection. Favors and Hayward pretty much do the same but fail to improve or take a step in the right direction. The Stifle Tower is exposed offensively because he has no range. Lyles wastes away on the bench, and Burks fails to improve his shot selection. Hood gives little to no contribution off the bench as the Jazz falter and miss the playoffs but are at the bottom of the lottery.
Projected Record: 45-37