During the final week of our annual Celtics Summer Forecast series, we like to throw open-ended questions at our panel and see how they respond. The queries to this point have typically only had a handful of player-specific responses. But the next four installments leave room for our panel to get a bit more creative.
Now, that doesn't always mean that their answers will vary all that much. In Day 11 of our forecast, we asked our panel What is the biggest reason for optimism for the 2015-16 Boston Celtics? And nearly three-fourths of our of blogger jury honed in on the same answer: coach Brad Stevens.
On a team without an obvious superstar, Stevens is the main attraction with this team. It's incredible that, in two sub-.500 seasons, Stevens has asserted himself as one of the best game managers in the league and generated a league-wide buzz that has veteran players intrigued by the idea of playing for him.
Now comes what should be the hard part for Stevens: Expectations. The bar was pretty low entering the past two seasons and a fluid roster kept it from rising very far. But after last year's playoff surge, the minimum requirement for this team seems to be a trip back to the postseason. Even with a deeper and more flexible roster, that's no easy task on a team without superstar talent.
And yet Stevens clearly inspires confidence, both from his players and a fan base that's curious to see what he can do with more talent and more roster continuity (at least entering the season).
Stevens' immediate impact is simply astounding. He's quickly earned the Gregg Popovich seal of approval and has left his boss, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, doing victory laps for hiring him (and suggesting that Stevens will go down as one of the all-time great coaches).
As one panelist joked earlier in our series, it might be terribly appropriate if, somehow, the Celtics ended up with no All-Stars in February, but Stevens was coaching the East roster. Right now, he is clearly the Celtics' brightest star.
John Karalis, Red's Army (Stevens)
In Brad we trust. Let's be honest here: The Celtics tried to tank last season. Aside from the Isaiah Thomas trade (and even, sorta, including it) the Celtics' tumult was partly designed to throw the team into enough disarray that they'd fall apart down the stretch. But one thing was constant in this turnstile of a season: Stevens. I don't want to lionize the guy too soon, but ... I don't know how to finish that sentence. Stevens has "it." He's got the kavorka. I don't know if he's going to be the Celtics lifer we hope he'll be, but, man, this guy is a Hall of Famer and we all know it. Give him bubble gum, expired ham, and powdered milk and he'd win "Chopped." Give him Evan Turner and he'll turn him into a viable point guard. Brad Stevens is THE reason to watch this team, and it's not even a question.
Jay King, MassLive (Foundation being set)
I know some folks would have preferred a lottery pick, but last season birthed a long list of positives. Stevens is a stud, a young team made the playoffs ahead of schedule, and the Celtics still have a bushel of future picks that look better with every glance at Brooklyn's point guard situation. Sprinkle in two veterans who should help -- Amir Johnson and David Lee -- and expected improvement from the young core, and Boston has more talent than last season's postseason qualifier. That won't necessarily translate to the court, but even if it doesn't, the Celtics could realistically own two lottery picks next summer, their own first-rounder and a heap of cap space. Boston still needs a true star or two, but the future is not bleak -- and what if, say, Marcus Smart develops into a stud? (Is that too much optimism?)
Mike Dynon, Red's Army (Uncertainty replaced by confidence)
When training camp opened last season, the Celtics were a lottery team. Rajon Rondo's hand was broken and trade rumors were relentless. Jeff Green's inconsistency was maddening. Gerald Wallace and his contract remained on the roster. We wondered if we'd seen the last of Vitor Faverani. This year, Boston has an acclaimed, proven coach; solid, veteran leaders in the frontcourt; a potential future All-Star in Marcus Smart; and a dynamic, Sixth Man of the Year runner-up in Thomas. All of last season's most productive players are back and the roster is deep. Ainge has maintained flexibility for trades. The Celtics are relevant again, according to national TV schedulers. All these factors give fans expectations for a big step forward.
Jeff Clark, CelticsBlog (Stevens)
The superstar on this team is the coach. He's the engine that makes the car run and he's already one of the best coaches in the game. He has unquestioned understanding of the game and how to run a team and he has the faith and support of his players. He's going to be a big draw for players in the future as well. This year he's the most important person on the team and the guy that gives me the most hope for the upcoming season.
Ben Mark, Red's Army (Nets and Mavericks)
I think the Celtics will be fun and competitive and in year three of the post-Ubuntu C's that's more than enough. But the real fun is going to come from scoreboard watching on the Celtics' behalf. The treasure trove of picks acquired really begins to bear fruit in 2016 and the Nets (and maybe the Mavericks, to a lesser degree) could be really, really bad.
Paul Colahan, CelticsLife (Stevens)
Following the trades of Captain Rondo and leading scorer Green last season, the Celtics were 12-23 and primed for a nosedive into the lottery. But Stevens stepped up and somehow turned a revolving roster of 22 different players into the seventh seed in the East. What's next for Stevens? Can he help develop a young Celtic into a bonafide star? Can he lead the C's on a deeper postseason run? Last year's performance landed him fourth on NBA Coach of the Year ballots. He'll be on the medal stand this year if the Celtics take another step forward.
Jon Duke, Celtics Stuff Live (Stevens)
The NBA has a reputation as a players' league; coaching is minimized and the ability for any team to overachieve beyond their level of collective talent is nil. Yet Stevens quieted the doubters that he could lead a team of untalented overachievers to the postseason like he did at Butler. Stevens not only did it in Boston in his second pro season, but performed so well that he actually has become a reason for players to come to Boston through free agency.
Eddie Santiago, CLNS Radio (Amir Johnson's Defense)
Celtics fans should feel optimistic this season because of how the team finished last year. Going 24-12 in the final 36 games is not a small sample size, so you can't say that the run was a fluke. The Celtics added rim protection and a full year of Thomas will be fun. Defensively, they will improve with Johnson fortifying the interior defense, a glaring weakness that the Celtics didn't have last season. Johnson is going to be a huge help in improving them from middle of the pack to closer to the top 10 defensively.
Cory Prescott, CLNS Radio (Stevens and Ainge)
Celtics fans should be optimistic that Ainge, who has already rebuilt the Celtics into champions once before, is in charge of producing banner No. 18. Ainge has left his team with an assortment of well-documented paths (draft picks, young talent, movable salaries, etc.) to becoming contenders yet again. Stevens has been at the forefront of this rebuilding process, and despite looking younger than some of his own players, Stevens has demonstrated a clear ability to communicate and get the uttermost effort out of his team. Let's revel in the fact that Boston has one of the brightest and youngest minds in the league manning the sidelines for the foreseeable future.
Brian Robb, CelticsHub (Stevens and roster continuity)
The Celtics may have failed to land a top-tier player via trade or free agency, but Ainge brought back key parts of the roster that went 24-12 down the stretch of the regular season last year. Throw in a couple frontcourt upgrades in David Lee and Johnson and it's hard not to be excited about the fact Stevens likely will get a real chance to build upon the surprising success of last year's team. Unlike the prior two seasons, when new players were brought into the fold seemingly every few weeks, Stevens can mold this group from training camp and prove the playoff appearance in 2015 was not a fluke.
Mark Vandeusen, CelticsLife (Last year's final 36 games)
I can't stress this enough: Beginning with a victory over the Knicks on Feb. 3, the Celtics finished last season 24-12. Boston had the sixth-best record in the entire NBA in that time, second only to Cleveland in the East. For nearly half of last season, the Celtics weren't just good, they were borderline elite. Is it possible for the 2015-16 C's to maintain that level of success? Consider this: What if they even build on it?
Bill Sy, CelticsBlog (Stevens and a young roster)
In Stevens' first two seasons in Boston, he coached a team in constant flux. Whether it was finding value in trade casualties like Kris Humphries and Tayshaun Prince or developing possible busts Evan Turner and Tyler Zeller, he has succeeded in the short-term with the temporary tag on many of his players. In the third year of his six-year contract, he finally has a roster of young players that he can mold to his vision. Eleven Celtics were either signed or drafted by Ainge in the Stevens Era and it's finally time to see what Stevens can do with his guys.