NBA Season Preview: The Boston Celtics

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Thumbnail image for Pierce_celebrate.jpgLast season: 50-32 during the regular season, but 17-17 down the stretch as key players got rest and healthy for the playoffs. Then they played like the 2008 Celtics in the postseason and advanced all the way to Game 7 of the NBA Finals before falling.

Head Coach: Doc Rivers, back for what may well be his final season. That may come up in motivational speeches by team members.

Key Departures: Tony Allen will be missed; Rasheed Wallace will only be missed by sports talk radio hosts on a slow day looking to piss off Celtics faithful by bringing him up.

Key Additions: Jermaine O’Neal and Shaquille O’Neal, who will bring some scoring to the Celtics front line that Kendrick Perkins could not. They will not bring his defense, however. Also added were DeLonte West and Von Wafer, the former of which will make good contributions.

We also need to note under additions that they kept the core of this team together. Boston could have let Paul Pierce and Ray Allen go and started to rebuild this team around Rajon Rondo, but they brought everybody back for a couple years and a couple more runs at it. Then the rebuilding will start.

Best case scenario: An NBA Championship. They were within one game of it last year and may have pulled it off if Kendrick Perkins had been healthy for Game 7 in Los Angeles. (But the Lakers dealt with injuries, too, so it’s a slippery slope.) This team is poised to make two more runs at a title, then the rebuilding will start in Boston.

For that to happen: Two key things will have to take place. First, this team has to stay healthy. That is true of the contenders in Miami and Los Angeles and everywhere else, too, but it is particularly key for a Celtics squad just slightly younger than Dick Bavetta.

The health thing starts with Kevin Garnett coming back healthy enough to be 90 percent of his 2008 self. He is still the heart and soul of this team, he is the guy who makes the defense work, who can get some easy buckets in the halfcourt. Along with that, Kendrick Perkins needs to come back and by the playoffs be close to the defensive force that he was before Game 6 of the finals last season. And, of course, no other key players can go down with big injuries.

The other key thing is that the Celtics defense has to remain as good as any in the league. It is going to have to do that with Lawrence Frank in charge of it, not Tom Thibodeau. It is going to have to be that way with Shaquille O’Neal and his defensive freelancing, his terrible pick-and-roll defense, getting key minutes. It’s going to have to be that good with Jermaine O’Neal as the starting center. It’s going to need that healthy Garnett we talked about before.

If the defense slips, so does Boston. It’s that simple.

More likely the Celtics will: Be right in there for an NBA title run. Just like in the paragraphs above. This team is one of your handful that is a legitimate title contender. There are questions to be answered, things that need to go their way, but they are in the mix. That is all you can ask to start the season.

I expect Rajon Rondo to continue is upward climb, to become more of the key cog of this team on offense.

Boston is going to need to work on integrating those additions. Particularly the two O’Neals along the front line — those two will bring more offense out of the five spot than the Celtics have seen in the Big 3 era. But neither of them are defensively focused. DeLonte West again is a good fit but will need to blend in. When Perkins comes back the front line rotations will need to be figured out and stabilized.

Still this is the core of a team that went to Game 7 of the NBA finals last season and won a title a couple years ago. This team knows how to answer the questions that are out there. If they can hold up physically, they will be able to answer them. They will be contenders.

There will come a time this season when the Celtics play .500 ball or below for 20 games or so. And we will all put our short memories on display. We will say they don’t look like contenders and this is different than last season, different than 2008. And Rivers will ignore everyone and work on getting guys rested and healthy for the playoffs. He knows if they are, they will be right there, knocking on the door of another banner for the crowded rafters.

Prediction: 50 wins. Same as last year. Certainly, the Celtics could easily win more, but like last season the focus by the Celtics will be less on the regular season and more on being healthy and rested come the playoffs. The depth up front could give them more wins, but the East is deeper too so there will be fewer nights when they win by just walking on the court. I think it all balances itself out.

Basically the same team as last year. One capable of winning a title if things go right.

John Stockton working with Bucks point guards at training camp

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 30:  John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz dribbles in Game five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Sacramento Kings during the 2003 NBA Playoffs at Arco Arena on April 30, 2003 in Sacramento, California.  The Kings won 111-91.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
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The Bucks are coached by one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Jason Kidd. But Kidd invited another legend of the position to camp to work with his point guards. John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals, was at Bucks practice on Thursday working with Michael Carter-Williams, Matthew Dellavedova and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Not a bad person to learn from, especially since the Bucks have one of the weakest point-guard positions in the league.

Blake Griffin says he’s working on improving his three-point shot

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots a jumper over Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a 100-99 loss to the Thunder at Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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2016-17 is going to be a big year for Blake Griffin. He missed much of last season with a quad injury and a broken hand stemming from a punching incident, and he has the ability to opt out of his contract next summer. When Griffin was healthy, he was his usual All-Star self for the Clippers, but he played just 35 games. He’s healthy now, at the start of training camp, and he says he wants to improve his three-point shot.

From Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:

“I want to be someone who shoots from there confidently, for sure,” Griffin said after Thursday’s practice at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center. “A lot of us power forwards, our strength is inside or our versatility. You look at the best power forwards, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus (Aldridge), Draymond (Green) … they can all shoot but they can all put the ball on the floor and they can all score inside. I don’t necessarily think falling in love with the 3-point shot is a good idea, but shooting it confidently from there is great.”

Not only has Griffin not hit his threes in his career (his overall mark from beyond the arc is an awful 27.1 percent) but he doesn’t take very many of them. The most threes he’s ever shot in a season is 44 in 2013-14, and he hit 12 of them. Griffin is only 27, so he’s theoretically not done improving as a player, but it’s hard to imagine a dramatic jump this far along when that hasn’t been a part of his game at all to this point.

 

Steve Kerr endorses shorter preseason to limit back-to-backs

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors speaks to members of the media after being defeated by the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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There are too many preseason games. The NBA has its reasons for playing them — namely, to allow for games in non-NBA markets — and sometimes they can be valuable for teams to experiment with rotations. But most teams play seven or eight preseason games, which is unnecessary. Warriors coach Steve Kerr agrees, according to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Connor Letourneau:

“I kind of like the idea that’s been tossed around the last couple summers to start the regular season a little earlier, maybe a week early,” Kerr said Thursday afternoon after Warriors practice. “Play five exhibition games instead of eight. I kind of like that, just so you have fewer back-to-backs in the regular season.”

The NBA has floated the idea in the past of cutting the number of preseason games in order to stretch out the regular season, thereby lessening the burden of travel and back-to-backs. The NBA has made an effort this season to cut down on back-to-backs, and this would be a logical way to do that.

Hornets’ Batum won’t let big contract affect how he plays

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 20: Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets drives on Joe Johnson #2 of the Miami Heat  during game two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on April 20, 2016 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Nicolas Batum said he isn’t planning to alter how he plays the game after signing a five-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.

And that’s just fine with coach Steve Clifford.

Clifford said Batum doesn’t need to put additional pressure on himself to score just because he’s now the highest-paid player in Hornets history. He told him to play how he plays.

“You don’t change the nature of how you play. I think guys get messed up with that,” Clifford said. “… I don’t think you try to reinvent yourself because the money changed. We gave him the money because he played so well. In my opinion he was an All-Star-caliber player last season when healthy.”

Batum was acquired in a trade with Portland before last season and turned out to be a gem for Charlotte, which won 48 games and tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Batum averaged a career-high 14.9 points and 5.6 assists while becoming one of the team’s top three go-to options.

Batum said he’s learned from experience that it’s not worth putting pressure on himself just because he signed a big contract.

He did in that 2012 after inking a four-year, $46 million deal to remain with the Portland Trail Blazers. While he still played well, he said it was pointless.

“I was a young guy at the time and I didn’t know what to expect,” Batum said. “Now I know. I know what I have to go through right now. I know what the views of the media and the public will be. I know that, and I’m good with it.”

For Batum, pressure no longer enters the equation because the Hornets trust him and believe in him.

“It’s more relief than pressure,” Batum said.

The Hornets made re-signing him their No. 1 priority, offering the Frenchman a huge deal about an hour into the free-agency signing period. Batum also received several offers from other teams shortly after the deadline, which he called flattering.

The 6-foot-8, 200-pound Batum enters the season as Charlotte’s best all-around player and a favorite among teammates.

“Guys are so much more comfortable when he’s out there on the floor because he makes it so much easier at both ends,” forward Marvin Williams said.

Williams said there’s a naturalness to Batum’s game, and he’s incredibly unselfish – he’s always looking for the better shot option.

“He likes to make the assist, and he likes to get everyone involved,” Williams said. “I think that is why so many people like playing with him. It’s why I love playing with him.”

And why Clifford views him as irreplaceable.

When Batum went down in the second half of last season with an ankle injury, the Hornets struggled to find their rhythm.

“He’s not a numbers guy to me,” Clifford said. “People can say, `Well, he’s making this or he’s making that (much money),’ but if he plays at the level he played at last year when he was healthy, we have a chance to be a really good team.”

The Hornets continue to work on 5-on-5 scrimmages extensively during practice as Clifford gets a feel for his team.

But there were several key players missing on Thursday.

Point guard Kemba Walker (knee) and center Cody Zeller (knee) remained out of practice while rehabbing from injuries. Guard Jeremy Lamb did not practice after stepping on a basketball and twisting his ankle, while Brian Roberts was held out after injuring his hamstring when he slipped on some water on the court. Clifford said he hopes to have Lamb and Roberts back in a few days.