With Al Horford to join the Celtics on a four year $113 million deal the team was able to land its second biggest target in free agency. Horford should push the Celtics into the mid-50s in wins and establish them as the second or third best team in the Eastern Conference, depending on Toronto’s ability to put together another above-expectations season. Now, the focus turns to Kevin Durant who is scheduled to make his decision on where to take his talents either Sunday night or Monday morning, with a return to Oklahoma City as the heavy favorite. He stands to make tens of millions more dollars returning to the only franchise he’s ever known and OKC, along with Golden State, offer the best chances to compete for a title this year. Down the road though, that may be a different story, especially for OKC.
Now that Serge Ibaka is gone, traded for Victor Oladipo and others during the draft, we can now see his true impact on the court. Ibaka was widely criticized for his sometimes apathetic play and defensive drop off this season after being widely regarded as a top-25 player the previous couple years. How crucial was he to OKC’s success? We stand to find out in 2016. Russell Westbrook’s contract expires at the end of the 2016-17 season and uncertainty lies there; will he leave OKC to go to LA or a different situation where he is the clear-cut best player? Is Victor Oladipo actually good?
Golden State can offer at least two of the leagues 15 best players to be locked up for the next three years and probably three with Steph Curry largely assumed to be resigning with GSW at the end of next season. That core, maybe the most impressive in league history, would cost almost the entire salary cap making it increasingly difficult to build a supporting cast around them.
The Celtics offer one top 25 guy and maybe two other top 40 guys as the core for KD to join, not exactly the upper-echelon talents of Russell Westbrook, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Curry, but still pretty impressive. Boston does offer the best coach, and one of the best front offices, in the league, both inked up for five more years thanks to extensions earlier this off-season to Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge. And, thanks to former Brooklyn GM Billy King, Boston probably still has two more chances to land top five draft picks in each of the next two years. If KD wanted to make a new city home for the rest of his career, Boston may offer the best chance at a legit 8-10 years of success. As those Brooklyn picks develop they can offer support for KD to take a lesser role as he ages, thus reducing the wear and tear on his body. Or, they could be used as trade bait to land another star down the road.
KD or not, the near future of the Celtics still rests in the hands of Marcus Smart. Every year the NBA Finals teach us that one fatal flaw will be exploited ad nauseam to break the back of a team or player. In 2015 Timofey Mozgov (Keep getting those checks!) was exploited for his lack of foot speed, he was unable to keep up with the Death Lineup and was run off the floor, leading to Cleveland’s downfall. In 2016 Curry (who I still think must’ve been somewhat injured) was brutalized by Lebron James on every switch making it difficult for GSW to run their switch-happy defense.
If Smart is able to develop into a passable offensive player (league average 3pt % and playmaking chops) he can be the cog that eliminates Boston’s fatal flaw of Isaiah Thomas’ crunch time defense. The Celtic’s biggest threats in the playoffs will be Cleveland and whatever Western Conference powerhouse is able to make it out of the Red Wedding-esque playoff bloodbath. All of those teams have the players necessary to exploit Thomas on the defensive end far worse than anything done to Curry (the league MVP, despite the Finals, is a slightly above average defender who is miles better than Thomas). Smart being capable enough offensively to close games changes this dynamic; Smart is strong enough to battle with most players one through four and would allow for a switch happy defensive unit that could stifle opposing offenses. A Smart-Avery Bradley-Jae Crowder-Durant-Horford lineup would be a near perfect combination to deal with either Cleveland or Golden State. Thomas in that lineup offers a little more offensive punch, but the defensive loss is too great, especially during the final minutes of a playoff game.
To truly be a contender, a team that has a chance to get to the Finals without injury luck, the Celtics need Kevin Durant to choose them, but to remove their fatal flaw, they need Smart to develop. We’ll know about Durant’s decision tomorrow night by the latest, we may not find out about Smart until June.