Back in late August, Avery Bradley suggested that the Boston Celtics had potential to be a top-10 defense in the upcoming season. The notion was met with expected skepticism -- or laughed off completely -- by pundits who were quick to note the team's defensive regression to close out the 2013-14 campaign.
Boston did little to address its need for a rim protector this offseason and, still in rebuilding mode, it seemed unlikely that these Celtics would be among the defensive elite.
But two games into the exhibition season, it's worth revisiting Bradley's proclamation. Yes, it's dangerous to read too much into a couple preseason tilts -- particularly against a couple Atlantic Division opponents -- but Boston's increased aggression on the defensive end does make you wonder if the Celtics have a better shot than most gave them at shimmying up into the top third of the league.
It's easy to forget, but before the All-Star break last season, the Celtics ranked 14th in defensive rating while allowing 103.2 points per 100 possessions through the first 54 games. Celtics first-year coach Brad Stevens huddled his team in Phoenix coming out of the February break and challenged them to make ascending to the top 10 a primary goal, only to watch the wheels come off a bit as Boston stumbled to the finish line while ranking 24th in the league with a defensive rating of 109 over the final 28 games.
The Celtics completed the 2013-14 campaign ranked 20th overall with a defensive rating of 105.2. Even still, getting into the top 10 isn't all that daunting of a prospect. Boston was essentially one defended 3-pointer away from the top 10, sitting 2.8 points shy of the Raptors and Wizards (who tied for ninth overall at 102.4 points per 100 possessions).
Since the day the 2013-14 season ended, Stevens has stressed to his team a desire to make defense a top priority, not a surprise when you consider that last season the top 12 teams in defensive rating all made the postseason (while only two teams, Dallas and Brooklyn, made the playoffs while ranking in the bottom half of the league).
As part of two 20-point wins to open the preseason, Boston has fueled itself on defense. According to Synergy Sports' defensive data, the Celtics have allowed a measly 0.729 points per play defended, which is 0.222 points per play better than their final mark from last season.
Make no mistake, that number is certain to climb. But there are positives to pluck from that small sample. Boston's renewed aggression, whether it's putting more pressure on the ball or attacking pick-and-rolls, has manifested itself in opponents' averaging 28 turnovers per game. Those same opponents are shooting just 40.4 percent and have scored on only 34.2 percent of total possessions thus far (that number was 45.1 percent over the course of last year's regular season).
"That's what kind of team we are and that's what kind of team we have to be in order to be in every single game," Bradley said after Wednesday's win over the New York Knicks in Hartford. "Every single night, we have to come out and compete on the defensive end, and I feel like that's what we did Wednesday. Me, Marcus [Smart], and when [Rajon] Rondo comes back, we have to put ball pressure on our opponents, every single night to give us a chance."
Pressure on the ball and in pick-and-rolls has helped diminish the amount of dribble penetration, something that plagued Boston last season. That has taken some stress off a young and undersized back line that hasn't had to help as much early in the preseason.
The Celtics are too young and inexperienced to sustain themselves among the league's defensive elite, but there's certainly potential here to make strides and achieve Bradley's goal. Bradley himself has the desire to make the All-Defense first team, and rookie Marcus Smart has been showered with praise for his NBA-ready defense.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has noted the Celtics are trying to "build a defensive culture." Stevens has referenced a desire to establish a "defensive DNA."
Back on the final day of the 2013-14 season, Stevens said, "We've got to have a defensive DNA to start next season at a little bit different level than I thought we did at the end of this season. I thought we tried to compete defensively early on in the year; I didn't think we made the strides that I would've liked to have made."
Defense was stressed to players throughout the offseason. When veteran assistant Ron Adams departed for Golden State, the Celtics moved quickly to add former assistant Darren Erman, whom Stevens lauded recently for his defensive acumen.
A top-10 defense? It's still much too early to tell. The Toronto Raptors ought to provide a stiffer test for Boston on Friday night.
But there are certainly reasons to be encouraged. And reason to wonder if Bradley wasn't just being overly optimistic about the team's defensive potential.