By Sterling Pingree
The 2016-17 Boston Celtics season has come to a close and with all of the potential that this off season could have for the Causeway Street Crew, next year this team could look very different than the one we just spent 6 weeks watching in playoff games. (The NBA playoffs are just too long, the Celtics played game one against Chicago on April 16th and were eliminated in game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals on May 25th. Almost no series have gone more than one or two games over the minimum needed and it’s still been almost 6 weeks and the Finals don’t start until Thursday, June 1 and if the series goes 7 games, the final game would be played on Sunday, June 18th.)
NBA teams have a way of revamping very quickly and the Celtics have a lot of Checkers left on the board in which to move and maneuver. But we have an entire summer to theorize what Ainge and company will do before next season, for now I want to examine the season that was.
The bar for the 2016-17 season seemed to continue to keep rising as the season went along. Before the year, the goal, or at least the hope, was that they would get home court in the first round (top 4 in the east) and win a playoff series under Brad Stevens. There was a lot to prove this year, everybody viewed Brad as an elite coach in the league, but with a steadily improving record each year, also brought with it a prompt playoff exit. As the season wore on there was endless discussion about whether or not the Celtics even beat Toronto or Washington, say anything about Cleveland.
The trade deadline provided zero relief as the team stayed mum while Toronto aggressively added bigs, which in their head to head match ups with Boston was already very much a strength of the Raptors. The masses viewed the team from Mass’s stance of staying in neutral as really going in reverse, because other contenders were moving forward and the Celtics seemed to be taking Danny Ainge’s patented wait and see approach yet again. This is where a curious thing happened, the Celtics began to pull ahead of Toronto and Washington as what to my wondering eyes should appear but Lebron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers. At season’s end, the Celtics sat atop the east with 53 wins, showing steady improvement during the Stevens era, going from 25 wins, to 40 win, to 48 wins and now to 53. With the number one seed came even higher expectations and many still believed that the Celtics were not only not a legitimate number one seed, some believed that they were the 4th or 5th best team in the conference. (These people were wrong.)
While talk of wrangling superstars never subsided this season, we saw the blossoming of an All-Star before our very eyes as Isaiah Thomas had one of the most interesting (and best) scoring seasons in Celtic history. Thomas went on scoring binges, the likes of which we hadn’t seen since the days of Bird or Havlicek. His late game mastery and reckless style captured the imaginations of Celtics fans. However this imagination would take a very different turn in the caldron that is the NBA Playoffs.
One thing I know about the Chicago series is, that we will never truly know if the Celtics would have come back to win games 3 thru 6 if Rajon Rondo hadn’t gotten hurt. Without question the Celtics played horribly and Rondo short circuited most of what Boston tried to do on offense but there will always be a thought in the back of my mind that the Bulls played well over their heads in those first two games and I think continuing that pace was going to be more trying for the Bulls than people think.
The Washington series was the peak of the Celtics season. Going back to January when the Wizards dressed in black and John Wall said that they were going to host a “funeral” for the Celtics, this became a nice mid-card rivalry and in one of the chalkiest playoffs ever was needed more than ever. (The funeral was confusing on a lot of levels but the most obvious was that this was a regular season game before the All-Star break. Did John Wall think that this was WWE and he could just make random stipulations on games? If he did think that, why wouldn’t he just challenge the Cavs to a cage match for the championship?) This was a really fun series to watch, the Celtics took the first two at home and the highlights were Isaiah Thomas getting a tooth knocked out and his 53-point performance in game 2. Boston won a tight game 7 at home thanks to Kelly Olynyk (who of all people got into a skirmish and became DC’s public enemy number one for the series that saw the Celtics reprise the funeral motif on their way to losing game 6 in Washington. Whoops.)
The Olynyk game seven outburst is a fine amalgamation for the series as a complete work. The Celtics didn’t have a prototypical super star, they had several good to very good players and almost unmatched chemistry. What Olynyk did in game seven seems like it could have been almost anybody on the roster if they were in the right place at the right time.
In Philadelphia, former 76ers GM called his team’s annual tank job “The Process”, and at this time I’m going to dub the Celtics under Brad Stevens as “The Progression.” In the 4 years with Brad Stevens as coach, the team has continued to progress, not just in terms of wins and losses but of milestones and bench marks. In the last 4 years, the team has made the playoffs 3 years in a row, they won two series, they finally won a playoff game against the Cavs in a stretch where they’ve gone to 3 straight finals, and they landed a big time free agent and now have finally won the NBA Draft Lottery. (The latter being an all-time Celtics bucket list accomplishment.)
The ultimate goal is to win championships and that one wasn’t reached this year, but the Celtics have continued “The Progression” and are close to maxing out another “P” word, potential. Besides a Finals appearance and an 18th banner, there isn’t a whole lot of undiscovered territory left. We’ve said for the last 3 years that this would be “a big off season for Danny Ainge” and this one, finally loaded with the number one pick, looms larger. That’s what happens though through “The Progression” is that the stakes will constantly be raised, when they aren’t, that’s when you start sliding back down the mountain.
Sterling Pingree (@SterlingPingree on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.