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It’s not often you see a 53-win, top-seeded Eastern Conference finalist tear down and build up its roster in one tumultuous offseason. Even more rare is for the changes to actually work.
This is the early season story of the Boston Celtics, who are riding a 13-game winning streak despite the most unusual circumstances.
To review, team president Danny Ainge used the 4-1 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals as a springboard to do the following this past summer:
- Send the No. 1 overall pick in the draft to Philadelphia in exchange for the No. 3 pick, which he used to select Jayson Tatum, who has been a revelation so far.
- Send defensive stopper Avery Bradley to Detroit in exchange for Marcus Morris, clearing room to sign free agent Gordon Hayward (Celtics coach Brad Stevens’ first recruit at Butler nearly a decade earlier).
- Parlay the last of the lottery picks fleeced from the Brooklyn Nets in the seismic Kevin Garnett–Paul Pierce trade into All-Star Kyrie Irving. Also Cleveland-bound was the Celtics’ best player, Isaiah Thomas, along with Jae Crowder and Ante Zizic.
For those who had long criticized Ainge for being too stubborn, patient and picky in cashing in on the assets yielded by the final breakup of the Big Three, it was a dizzying display of opportunism. In a matter of weeks, Ainge completely revamped his roster, then handed a new set of keys to Stevens with a clear mandate: Set the navigation for another trip to the conference finals…and maybe beyond.
We all know what happened next: Hayward went down with a horrific injury only minutes into the season opener against those same Cavaliers. And the timetable for a new-look roster to “jell,” “figure it out” and “build chemistry”—all the buzzy phrases that apply to NBA roster turnover these days—would have to be extended before the clock even started ticking.
Or so it seemed.
“The job this team has done in coming together so quickly is, quite frankly, remarkable,” an Eastern Conference scout told Bleacher Report.
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After losing the first game in Cleveland and the home opener the next night against Milwaukee, the Celtics (13-2) haven’t lost again. Their 109-102 victory Tuesday night over erstwhile trade partner Brooklyn—with Irving returning from a two-game absence wearing a mask to protect his fractured face—was their 13th in a row. It’s the longest winning streak of the Stevens era, and of course, the longest in this young NBA season.
So all of this begs the question: How?
“Brad deserves all the credit in the world,” the scout said. “The job he’s done pulling it all together and having the guys buy in and mesh with all this change, it’s incredible.”
Stevens, at shootaround in New York earlier Tuesday, wanted nothing to do with credit. Rather than focus on the Celtics being the top-rated defensive team in the league by a healthy margin, Stevens preferred to fret over the three games they won during the streak when they shot 40 percent or worse from the field.
“We’ve got to score the ball way better than we are,” Stevens said. “We have to space way better, we have to play together way better. We’ve found ways to win, and sometimes that masks other issues that you’ve got to really work on to become the best that you can be.”
Down the hallway, while New York soccer moms did kettlebell swings in the gym at Asphalt Green in Battery Park City, Al Horford credited Stevens with simplifying the defensive scheme to account for the young minds and bodies who’ve been thrust into more prominent roles.
“I think it’s Coach Stevens’ ability to be able to adjust through adversity,” Horford told B/R. “As coaches, sometimes it’s difficult when you have a certain level of expectation. And for him to simplify what he wants us to do makes it easier for us to go out there and do what he asks. As players, we’ve just had to rally around each other. We’re trying to do things as a group, and we understand that we can’t replace what Gordon brings to our team.”
No they can’t, but that hasn’t stopped Stevens from trying. And in the broader roles and responsibilities thus assigned to Tatum and Jaylen Brown—the No. 3 pick in 2016, also from that Nets trade—the Eastern Conference scout sees a silver lining.
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“I almost feel like the Hayward injury is going to be a blessing in disguise,” the scout said. “I don’t think they’re going to be better without him; clearly, they’re not. What it is going to do, especially for the long term, is force Brown and Tatum into more prominent roles immediately.
“They were both going to be seeing minutes in the 20s no matter what, maybe more. … But now, in a vacuum, other guys have to step up and not just play, but score, rebound and do things they need, not just play your little role. The forced maturation, long term, is probably going to be a good thing. And in the short term, it has not hindered them in any way.”
Two other key factors have propelled the Celtics to their surprising start. First, Irving has committed himself to the defensive end of the floor, where he caught an inadvertent elbow from teammate Aron Baynes while tracking Kemba Walker on a drive Friday night against Charlotte. Irving was sometimes disengaged and disinterested defensively in Cleveland.
“That’s made everyone eye-roll a little bit,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “Like, ‘Where was this before?'”
The statistical proof is stunning. Shots that Irving is guarding are going in 0.5 percent less than average so far this season (as opposed to 5.2 percent more than average last season), according to NBA.com. According to Basketball Reference, he has the lowest defensive rating of his career (97.0) by a substantial margin; his previous low was 106. Irving also has a positive defensive box plus-minus for the first time in his career, already has two-thirds of the defensive win shares that he accumulated all of last season and his steals per 36 minutes have doubled from a year ago.
Second, Horford—whose four-year, $ 113 million max deal in 2016 also raised some eyebrows—is playing some of the best basketball of his career right now, according to another scout who has evaluated him extensively over the years.
“We’ve been able to learn while winning,” Horford said. “Sometimes, it doesn’t work that way. Sometimes, you have to do it the hard way. … Even though we are winning, Coach is teaching us every day and we’re trying to get better. We’re trying to do things the right way. And I think what’s set us apart is our defense.”
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Those factors, along with Stevens’ knack for making the players feel invested in preparation and game-planning decisions, form a recipe for the kind of early success rarely seen from teams with so much roster turnover.
“One of the things that really caused a lot of buy-in for him was that Brad didn’t pretend to know it all,” one of his former players told B/R.
Ainge’s role in Boston’s early success is worth noting, too.
“I have not seen many missteps on his part, from draft picks to trades and what have you,” one of the scouts said. “He fleeced [former GM] Billy King and the Nets, just absolutely fleeced them. It’s looking like he may have done the same thing with the Sixers. If I’m a GM, I’d be very wary of trading with Danny.”
And the fact that the Celtics’ fast start has come at the expense of the rival Cavs makes it all the more intriguing. LeBron James & Co. are hovering at 7-7 as they wait for Thomas—their key piece of the Irving trade—to return from a hip injury.
“It may not look all that pretty and guys may not shoot well in some games,” Irving said. “But when we execute down the stretch, do things the right way, give great energy to one another and the confidence exudes all the way from the coaching staff to the players, it makes it easier to go out and play.”
Not just play, but win, too.
Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KBergNBA.