NBA Season Preview: Boston Celtics

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Last season: They went 39-27 and won the Atlantic Division, which was nice but in Boston division titles are not how a team is measured. They handled the Hawks as expected in the first round of the playoffs, then in the second round ran into a plucky but inexperienced Sixers team and Boston won in 7 games.

But what really happened through the course of the season and the first two rounds is Boston found its identity — Avery Bradley starting at the two, going small with Kevin Garnett at the five, Brandon Bass at the four and playing great defense. That identity was enough to give the Celtics a 3-2 series lead over the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. They had a real chance. Then Chris Bosh returned from injury, Miami won the final two and Boston’s season ended with a feeling this core wasn’t done.

Key Departures: Ray Allen, frustrated with being the sixth man behind Bradley and not thinking Rajon Rondo was looking out for him, signed for less money in Miami. Boston is also going to miss the size and solid play off the bench that Greg Stiemsma provided. The other guys that left — Marquis Daniels, Ryan Hollins, E’Twaun Moore, Mickael Pietrus and others — can be replaced.

Key Additions: They brought in one of the better sixth men in the league in Jason Terry, who will provide both points and shot creation off the bench. They signed Courtney Lee, who will start at the two for Boston until Bradley returns from shoulder surgery, and Lee will bring good defense and three-point shooting that goes well with their style.

While technically he was around Boston last year, it’s like they add Jeff Green after he missed a season due to heart surgery. Good to see him back. I think Boston overpaid for Green, but he is a solid player off the bench. They also drafted a guy who should be solid as a rookie in Jared Sullinger (but some Boston fans seem to overvalue what he did at Summer League — he is not near the quality of Brandon Bass right now). Chris Wilcox is there and that’s a nice pickup. Jason Collin is there and… well, he’s there.

Three keys to the Celtics season:

1) The old guys all stay healthy and don’t regress too much. Yes, it’s cliché to say Boston is old and, really, they are not as old as they seem. With Allen gone and the return of guys like Green and Lee, Boston is younger overall than they were last year. They certainly are a deeper squad.

But in the end, they need Kevin Garnett (age 36) and Paul Pierce (35 when the season starts) to still be elite players. And to stay healthy. While neither are really injury prone, as players get older injuries (and the length of time they need to recover from them) become more prevalent. Pierce played through a knee injury last playoffs and it slowed him (even if he refused to admit it). Doc Rivers gets it as a coach and he is willing to lose games and sit guys to have his team ready, rested and healthy when the playoffs start. But it is still a concern.

2) They have got to improve on offense. We know Boston is going to defend like beasts — Rajon Rondo is one of the best defensive point guards in the game, Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley give them good wing defenders, and even a step slower Kevin Garnett’s defense in the paint is still quality. Boston will be a top three defensive team. But they were 24th in points per possession on offense last season (98.9 points per 100 possessions, when the league average was 101.8). One way to do that is to improve on their league-worst offensive rebound rate (they grabbed just 19.7 percent of their missed shots, the league average is 26.9 percent). Offensive rebounds are often easy buckets on put backs. Even if Boston is going small next season, they need to get more of these easy buckets.

3) Get to the free throw line more. This ties into No. 2 above. Doc Rivers has talked about this during the summer — last season Boston was 22nd in percentage of trips to the free throw line per possession. That number needs to come up for a couple reasons. It’s not Rajon Rondo’s game, but he needs to be part of the change. First, it’s easy points, just hit your free throws (and Boston is a solid free throw shooting team). Second, it lets them set their defense. Miami had success in the playoffs running off missed shots or turnovers, converting those into some easy buckets. Boston doesn’t score enough to make up for a lot of easy buckets. They need to eliminate them, and getting to the line more — meaning more guys attacking the rim and not settling just for jump shots.

What one thing should scare Celtics fans? Boston fans have let me have it on twitter when I suggested this before, but that may be because it strikes a little too close to home — even if everything goes right Boston still doesn’t beat Miami if the Heat are healthy. Boston fans point to getting to Game 7 with a host of injuries last year and a deeper team this year. Both true. But Miami had their second and third best players injured, they still won the series. Then they got better this summer. There’s a reason Rivers wants his team to hate the Heat. In the end, all the smart moves by Danny Ainge may not be enough.

How it likely works out: Boston is going to be one of the league’s better teams. They are going to defend. Jason Terry is going to have a big year (I think). The newfound depth will allow Doc Rivers to wear opponents down without wearing his own roster down. They are going to finish the season as one of the top three teams in the East… but the regular season is not how teams in Boston are judged. And in the playoffs the Celtics will be the kind of veteran threat that should scare opponents. They are going to make a run.

But in the end, their season probably ends pretty much like it did last year.

Prediction: 51-31, which I’m betting is the two or three seed in the East (the Heat will be on top and I think the Pacers will finish close to Boston in record). Come the playoffs, if they are healthy, another run to the conference finals is within their grasp. And if the Heat stumble at all, the Celtics could be right there. But don’t bet on a new banner in Boston, this team still remains a step below the league’s elite.

Report: As expected, Jamal Crawford declines $4.5 million player option with Minnesota

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Jamal Crawford wants a bigger payday, and after a solid season scoring 10.3 points per game for Minnesota last season, he might get it despite a tight market. That’s why what happened on Monday was expected.

Crawford opted out of the final year of his contract with the Timberwolves, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jamal Crawford has declined his $4.5 million player option for next season and will become a free agent, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Crawford, a three-time Sixth Man of the Year, will become one of the top reserve scorers on the open market after facing Monday’s deadline to decide on his option.

The concern for teams is that Crawford is 38 and already showing some decline in his skills and game. Crawford can still be productive, but teams will be leery of offering more than two years guaranteed on his contract. And for a guy who comes off the bench — even a three-time Sixth Man of the Year — teams are not going to spend big.

Crawford may also just be looking for a new team chemistry and role, something at this stage in his career he should be able to get.

Enes Kanter’s father sentenced to 15 years in jail in ongoing political dispute

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The dictatorial Turkish government has issued an arrest warrant for Knicks big man Enes Kanter because he is an outspoken opponent of Turkey’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Kanter is not foolish enough to go home to be arrested (and likely tortured), he may never see his homeland again.

Kanter’s family had to disavow their son and his beliefs. That apparently was not enough. Kanter’s father, Mehmet Kanter, has been sentenced to 15 years in prison in Turkey for “membership in a terror group,” the country’s official news agency reported Monday.

Enes Kanter believes to be a politically motivated attempt to go at him. Kanter released this statement.

The Turkish government’s shots at Kanter are not new. Last summer the Turkish government revoked Kanter’s passport while he was abroad, forcing American diplomats (with some help from the NBA) to step in and prevent him from being sent back to his native country and arrested.

All of this is because Kanter is a follower of the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Turkish president Erdogan — who is essentially a dictator now, and runs a country where human rights abuses are rampant — blames Gulen for masterminding a failed 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, and used that as an excuse for a crackdown and consolidation of power.

Using or dividing family members to try to gain political advantage or make a political statement is abhorrent, anywhere it happens. Unfortunately, Kanter is caught in the middle of it and there is little he can do.

PUMA signs likely No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton, hires Jay-Z

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When it was announced that likely top-three pick Marvin Bagley III signed a shoe endorsement deal with PUMA, we noted that they were going all in and spending big (Bagley’s contract is about three times the average high draft pick first shoe deal).

We didn’t know the half of it.

On Monday word came the German-based shoe manufacturer had also inked a deal with likely No. 1 pick DeAndre Ayton, had signed their original endorser Walt “Clyde” Frazier to a lifetime deal, and hired Jay-Z to help with the branding and on the business side.

That’s a heck of a day. And a massive commitment to the market.

Winning over people to buy PUMA basketball shoes is going to take a few things (including making great shoes), but getting high-profile endorsers is part of it. Ayton can potentially be that for them, a global brand ambassador.

Nick DePaula of ESPN broke the Ayton news and had details from the player himself.

For Ayton, there was plenty of interest in pursuing a shoe deal with Puma, although the brand has been out of the basketball landscape for 20 years since signing Vince Carter in 1998. Ayton shares a connection to two of its biggest ambassadors, Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt of Jamaica and pop star Rihanna of Barbados, after growing up in the Caribbean.

“Puma is pretty popular in the Bahamas,” Ayton said. “I’ve always seen the brand growing up. [Bolt] is one of the first people I saw with the brand. It’s important to me that someone I identify with and admire as an athlete is with the same brand.”

PUMA also reached an endorsement deal with NBA rookie to be Zhaire Smith.

Going old-school with Frazier was a classy touch.

But the surprise news was the partnership with Jay-Z and his Roc Nation organization. Complex had the story.

On top of that, JAY-Z has joined as the company’s president of basketball operations. “We’ve been working with Roc Nation for quite some time. They’ve been great partners to us for several years. We’ve done many different deals with many different ambassadors,” Adam Petrick, Puma’s global director of brand and marketing, told Complex. When Puma approached him about this opportunity, JAY-Z felt it “was something he wanted to be a part of,” according to Petrick.

Hov will have a hand in the players selected to join Puma’s basketball division, as well as assist in the art design and overall concept and direction of the brand.

Will this work?

Maybe, despite Nike’s stranglehold on the basketball shoe market (through the Jordan brand as well as endorsers such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant), there is room to get a foothold in the space. However, this needs to be a long-term commitment from PUMA where they not only design quality products but keep doing it for years and years. It’s one thing to maybe buy a pair of retro low-top Clydes to wear around, it’s another to get people to change the shoes the play in. People trust Nike and their products (and, to a lesser extent, Adidas and UnderArmor). PUMA has a lot of work to do to earn that level of respect.

But you can’t fault them for coming back with a big splash.

PBT Podcast: Risers. Sleepers. Who should go No. 2? Final full draft breakdown.

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Luka Doncic? Marvin Bagley III? Jaren Jackson Jr.?

If you were in the shoes of Vlade Divac and the Sacramento Kings, who would you draft No. 2?

In this latest PBT Podcast, Kurt Helin and Rob Dauster (who has been writing the in-depth prospect profiles such as Trae Young, Michael Porter Jr., Deandre Ayton, and others — of NBC Sports try on those shoes — and go an unexpected direction with it — as well as breaking down the rest of the draft such as the risers, the sleepers, and is Michael Porter Jr. worth the risk?

Also, in the bigger picture, are we focused too much on the bigs at the top of this draft — the majority of guys who will go in the top six — when we just saw in the last two rounds of the NBA playoffs that a lot of bigs can’t stay on the court in those situations? Which of these draftees can?

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.