Celtics preview: After adding Hayward and Irving, what would be successful season?

After years of playing it close to the vest, stockpiling young, talented players alongside the trove of assets he scored in his 2013 robbery of the Brooklyn Nets, Danny Ainge finally put together his splash summer in Boston. First, he drafted Jayson Tatum out of Duke. Then he signed free agent Gordon Hayward. Lastly, in maybe the most stunning move of what has been a truly stunning NBA summer, he traded for Kyrie Irving

That's a high lottery pick, a solid All-Star and a borderline superstar, all added over the course of a few months. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a summer. It didn't come cheap, mind you. Tatum cost Ainge the No. 1 overall draft pick, which became Markelle Fultz. To make room for Hayward, Boston had to send a really good player in Avery Bradley to Detroit -- in exchange for Marcus Morris -- to clear cap space. The Irving deal was particularly expensive, costing the Celtics  Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic (a promising Croatian prospect who's yet to make his NBA debut), a 2020 second-round pick and the Nets' 2018 first-rounder, which could easily be a top-five pick. 

So, to clarify, here's who's in for the Celtics:

  • Kyrie Irving
  • Gordon Hayward
  • Jayson Tatum
  • Marcus Morris
  • Aron Baynes

Here's who's out from last season's team:

  • Isaiah Thomas (traded to Cleveland)
  • Jae Crowder (traded to Cleveland)
  • Avery Bradley (traded to Detroit)
  • Kelly Olynyk (signed with Miami)
  • Amir Johnson (signed with Philadephia)
  • Jonas Jerebko (signed with Utah)

That's a lot of turnover, particularly for a team that finished as the No. 1 seed in the East and advanced the conference finals. In turn, there's a lot of excitement around the Celtics. There are also some questions. Will the defense suffer without Bradley, one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, and Crowder's versatility? Will the chemistry be the same without Thomas, Crowder and Bradley, all popular players in both the locker room and the city? Jaylen Brown already appears concerned about the latter. 

In the immediacy, you could argue, if you were really determined to do so, that the Celtics won't be a ton better this season than they were last. You could convince yourself that Thomas and Irving are a wash. I'd disagree, but it's a fair stance considering how good Thomas was last season. And again, it's tough to imagine the defense won't suffer without Crowder and Bradley. Hayward is a fine defender, perhaps even underrated, but he's not Crowder. Tatum wasn't touted as a particularly strong defender coming out of Duke, though there is this:

Perhaps Tatum can grow into a defensive presence with experience, which is fine for the Celtics, who are not tied to the short term. After pulling the trigger on the trade with Cleveland, Ainge repeatedly said that Irving fits Boston's timeline, which is to say two or three years from now when hopefully age has started to slow Golden State and LeBron, who may have also left Cleveland to go West by then. So let's say the Celtics are eyeing 2019-20 as their season to move into power, what does that mean for this season? What are the expectations? What would constitute a successful season? 

For starters, no matter what they do in the regular season, they can't lose to anyone other than Cleveland in the playoffs. I won't say they have to get back to the conference finals, because there is a somewhat plausible scenario in which they finish with either the second or third seed and have to play the Cavs in the second round. 

That would mean Cleveland is also a No. 2 or No. 3 seed, and either Washington or Toronto has taken the top spot. That's not out of the question. Cleveland doesn't care about the regular season, Boston was probably a little worse than its 53 wins last year indicated, and the Raptors, who retained Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka and added C.J. Miles, were in the race for the No. 1 seed relatively deep into last year. 

No matter their seed, the Celtics have to win at least 50 games and preferably closer to 55. And again, they just can't lose to anyone other than Cleveland in the playoffs. That would be a major red flag if you make all these moves and can't even get past Toronto or Washington when it counts most. Get upset by, say, the Bucks in the second round, and it's a catastrophe. 

But none of those things should happen. Barring injury, Cleveland and Boston should, pretty clearly, be the two best teams in the East. They should meet in the playoffs, probably the conference finals, and when they do, the Celtics simply can't be the doormat to the Finals they were last season when Cleveland took them out in five, and felt even more superior than that. 

Does that mean taking Cleveland to six would be a successful season for Boston? Perhaps. Then again, Toronto took the Cavs to six in the 2016 conference finals and yet never felt like a true threat to actually win the series. Boston has to feel like a real threat to Cleveland for this year to feel like a step forward from last. Maybe that's a five-game loss but every game is nip and tuck, maybe that's a seven-game barn burner. But it has to feel like they've closed the gap. 

And listen, it's not entirely unreasonable to think Boston, as currently constructed, can actually beat Cleveland in a seven-game series. The Cavs stand to be better defensively with the addition of Crowder, but they also could be worse overall if Thomas doesn't fully heal and Wade continues to decline. Personally, I think Boston made a big leap this year. I'm all in on Irving being ready to be the best player on a contending team. I think Hayward fits perfectly. I think Tatum is ready to give them 10-12 points a night right away and get them isolation buckets in big moments. Marcus Morris is a quietly good player. 

Ultimately, you have to score big to win at an elite level, and the Celtics are far better equipped to do that in different ways this year. This was a monster, yet calculated summer for Boston. It sets them up perfectly both now and in the future. Realistically, the Celtics are the only team that can truly threaten Cleveland in the East, and for the sake of some actual drama in this year's playoffs, hopefully they'll do just that. 

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