51Q: Will Brad Stevens keep a middling Celtics roster on upward track?

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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Will Brad Stevens keep a middling Celtics roster on upward track?

Who is the Celtics’ best player?

Isaiah Thomas? Marcus Smart? Avery Bradley? Jae Crowder? David Lee? Amir Johnson? Tyler Zeller?

Who’s their worst player among the 16 with guaranteed salaries?

Perry Jones III? James Young? Jordan Mickey? R.J. Hunter? Terry Rozier? Jonas Jerebko?

That the reasonable candidates for both lists comprise nearly the entire opening-night roster says a lot about Boston.

The Celtics are arguably the NBA’s least top-heavy team and one of the deepest. Their best players aren’t that good. Their worst players aren’t that bad (and have the advantage of youth).

That obviously can be a positive, but it puts tremendous pressure on Boston coach Brad Stevens.

Stevens did a masterful job last season with a similarly even roster. The Celtics went 20-11 after the All-Star break – second-best record in the East – and returned to the playoffs after a year away. They spread the floor offensively, and everyone knew their defensive assignments.

Boston could feel good about its season, one that began with designs on a high draft pick.

So, expectations have risen. But the talent base hasn’t necessarily kept up.

Rozier, Hunter and Mickey have promising futures, but the odds are against them contributing much as rookies. Johnson and Lee are nice players, but they’re not significantly better than he pool of returners. Stevens will have to integrate those two without disrupting a working chemistry – at least in the limited amount we’ve seen it.

The Celtics spent less than 13% of their minutes last season with five players on the floor who are on this year’s team, but those units were awesome. Per nbawowy!:

  • Offensive rating: 114.0
  • Defensive rating: 103.7
  • Net rating: +10.3

That net rating would have matched the Warriors for the NBA’s best.

At times, Stevens seemed magical – and maybe he’s a great coach. But he also wouldn’t be the first young coach whose early success was overly celebrated while the biggest factor was a small sample.

Boston needs Stevens to deliver again, to boost the stock of several players who would be mild contributors on other teams. That’s the best way to arm Danny Ainge with the pieces he needs to make the big trade he’s always hunting.

And the best way to make the Celtics players look appealing? Win. Everyone loves winners.

That’ll mean sorting through at least 11 similar players to build a rotation, finding which combinations work and which don’t with a nearly blank canvass. And you have to do it while winning enough games to stay in the playoff race. Even if Boston is playing like a postseason team by the end of the year, an early learning period could keep them in the lottery.

Without a star, the Celtics rely more on their coach far more than a typical team.

Is Stevens up to the challenge?