The Boston Celtics convene for media day on Friday at the team's practice facility in Waltham, Massachusetts. Third-year coach Brad Stevens and his charges will then launch into two-a-day practice sessions on Saturday with the start of training camp (Boston gets an earlier jump than much of the league as a participant in the NBA's Global Games). Here's everything you need to know as the Celtics formally launch into the 2015-16 season:
The big storyline
The Celtics closed out the 2014-15 campaign by winning 24 of their final 36 games and surged to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. Boston was unceremoniously dispatched from the playoffs with a four-game sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers. But -- in bringing back much of the core from last season's team -- many observers are intrigued to see if Boston's second-half success was a fluke or a sign of a team clawing its way back toward being a contender in a conference where those Cavaliers remain the only sure thing.
Those Celtics fans who see their glass of green Kool-Aid as half full believe the Celtics are in position to move toward the top half of the East bracket, but even Stevens cautioned earlier this week that, "The East is better. Teams that didn't make [the playoffs last season] really improved. We were as close to 12th as we were to fourth. So time will tell if we make the right strides. But if we take shortcuts or if we're not connected, we won't. So that's our job early on."
What did I miss this summer?
The Celtics kept much of their young core intact, including re-signing in-season additions Jae Crowder (five years, $35 million) and Jonas Jerebko (two years, $10 million). They'll have nine rotation players back overall from last year's playoff squad and, maybe most notably, Boston will get a full season with another midseason pickup in Isaiah Thomas.
The Celtics made Amir Johnson (two years, $24 million) their big free-agent splash, then managed to flip Gerald Wallace's eyesore contract to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for David Lee (whose expiring contract is heftier, but the former All-Star has more potential to help the team on the court). Sprinkle in three rookies in Terry Rozier, R.J. Hunter, and Jordan Mickey and the Celtics are left with a team heavy on depth and versatility, but thin on separation.
The coaching staff remains largely intact with former Penn coach Jerome Allen replacing assistant Darren Erman, who joined Alvin Gentry's staff in New Orleans.
Five questions to answer at camp
• How -- and when -- do you play all these guys?: Stevens has stressed that he won't predetermine anything entering camp and plans to mix and match often while trying to identify the lineups that play best together. That will go a long way toward determining exactly how the team's starting lineup will look (and Stevens cautions not to read too much into starters vs. bench). Could Isaiah Thomas shuffle to a starting role? Which of the big-men combinations starts up front? There are a lot of tough decisions ahead and players must put their best foot forward early in camp to help Stevens make those choices.
• How does Sullinger look? Challenged by his bosses to return in the best shape of his career, Jared Sullinger filled his social media timelines this offseason with photos of himself hard at work. Those snapshots suggest a leaner, meaner Sullinger, but Boston brass still want to see it on the court. Danny Ainge said earlier this week that he expects Sullinger to have a "terrific year." Injuries have nagged Sullinger and he has to find a way to stay on the court, especially in what amounts to a contract year.
• Is Smart ready to run the offense? The Celtics tossed second-year guard Marcus Smart the keys to the car in summer league -- before he jammed two fingers diving on the floor; he's healthy again now -- and he looked like a much more confident playmaker. If he's ready to embrace being an NBA floor general, it's going to give Stevens even more flexibility to put talent around him on the court. Smart is maybe Boston's best hope to develop a homegrown superstar.
• Can Perry Jones make a push for a final roster spot? The Celtics were essentially at the 15-man roster limit when they took on Perry Jones III from tax-shedding Oklahoma City. Jones is an intriguing young talent, but at a sheddable salary, he's also the player who has to fight the hardest to secure his spot. Jones has been in Boston this summer working out with the team's younger players and has earned positive reviews from Ainge and Stevens. Now he has to show he deserves a shot to stick on this roster when the full squad convenes.
• After success going small, will C's go big again? Stevens acknowledged that Boston's frontcourt depth could encourage him to play more traditional lineups. The challenge there is that Boston played some of its best basketball last season while leaning on smaller lineups that often featured the likes of Crowder or Jerebko at the power forward spot. Can the Celtics maintain their preferred up-tempo pace with bigger lineups? Stevens must find a balance that allows Boston to build off the success it had late last season.
The bottom line
The Celtics remain in a curious spot. They don't have the necessary superstar talent to be an elite contender, but they've got enough talent -- and a superstar of a head coach -- that should allow them to take a step forward again this year. And after watching 41 players grace his roster last season, Stevens might finally get to develop some of that continuity he believes is key to helping his team advance forward.
Boston has set modest goals: get back to the playoffs and see if it can win a game (or a series?). It's baby steps and not exactly what some fans want to hear for a team that plays beneath 17 banners. Alas, the Celtics have preached patience in this process and have rewarded their fans with progress in the first two years of this rebuild.
The lingering question is not if, but when will Ainge finally land the superstar player(s) that he clearly covets? While the Celtics like the young talent on their roster, it's obvious that some of these players will eventually be combined with the team's ridiculous pile of draft picks to eventually land a star. Ainge has referenced "staying in the game" and having the necessary assets to attack when a player like James Harden sneaks onto the market. But there's no guarantee that player will emerge this season. The Celtics are content to maintain their draft and development strategy -- all while ready to unleash that third "D" -- deal -- when the opportunity (finally) presents itself.