The ESPN Summer Forecast predicts 51 wins next season for both the three-time in a row Atlantic Division winning Toronto Raptors and last year’s second place team in the Division, the Boston Celtics. Boston made the biggest new addition of the two teams in July when they added All-Star Al Horford to a young up-and-coming roster and as is often the case, the biggest splash creates the most optimism, but with all that has gone on this summer, is the addition of Horford enough for the 48 win Celtics to catch up to the 56 win Raptors?
A Celtics Summer
Boston’s summer started with a bang, but it seems to be going out on a whimper. After adding third overall pick Jaylen Brown in the draft and Horford in free agency, the next big thing was the recent addition of 30-year-old journeyman Gerald Green.
As Jeff Clark of Celtics Blog wrote mid way thru July,
Everyone seems to agree on just one important point: The Celtics are aggressively looking to get something done.
By now we all know the names by heart. Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Jimmy Butler, Jahlil Okafor, and even a little Kevin Love and DeMarcus Cousins tossed in for good measure. Will any of them be coming to Boston this summer?
The short answer Jeff is “No,” no one else is coming. The Celtics are who they are pending future trades – maybe towards the trade deadline?
To make room for what happened and possibly for what they hoped would happen, the Celtics also lost two big pieces of last season’s rotation.
Veteran swingman Evan Turner averaged 28 minutes a game in Boston last season and put up a reliable 10.5 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists. The 27-year-old has become a solid two-way player and the Trail Blazers gave him $70 million this summer.
Turner’s price tag was way too high and Green will provide a really solid backstop for the rookie Brown. It was time to move on, but there is no way to say the Celtics are better next season with Green and Brown taking Turner’s minutes.
Jared Sullinger was far and away Boston’s best rebounder and it’s not even close, but his qualifying offer was pulled late in free agency and the big intriguing power forward/center signed a one year Mid Level Exception deal with the team the Celtics are chasing in the Atlantic.
Sullinger’s loss could be bigger than advertised. He started 73 games in Boston last year and averaged 10.3 points and 8.3 rebounds in just 23.6 minutes. From the moment the Celtics landed Horford, Sullinger’s days were numbered, but shouldn’t something have been done to shore up this team’s abysmal rebounding after his departure.
Last season Sullinger pulled in 27 percent of the available defensive boards while he was on the court and the Celtics needed every one of them. The 26th worst defensive rebounding team in the NBA just took a step back and Horford is not the solution. With Horford replacing Sullinger in the starting lineup, the Celtics could be as much as 2.9 rebounds a game below last year’s pace. Sure the Hawks were able to win games as a terrible rebounding team and Horford’s basketball I.Q., scoring and superior (compared to Sullinger) rim protection will help, but it gets hard to beat winning teams if you can’t get the ball back.
Last year the Celtics added 8 wins to their previous year’s total and it’s a lot harder to add the next 8 wins that get you into Conference Finals contention. More than the addition of Horford, improving on last year’s win total will come down to the progress of players in their mid-twenties – Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, and even Kelly Olynyk. These players are the ones that have to take their game up a notch if the Celtics are to have any hope of catching the Raptors.
If should be noted that while the Celtics have a solid rotation, they get real young and inexperienced real fast if someone gets hurt.
There are at least three more moves in Boston. The team has 18 players under contract with John Holland and Ben Bentil on non-guaranteed/partially guaranteed deals.
A Quiet Raptors Summer
LIke in Boston, the Raptors hoped having extra first round draft picks would lead to a little more activity at the draft and during the free agent period, but, like in Boston, there was nothing doing.
However, the Raptors are not trying to become Eastern Conference Finals contenders, they were in the Eastern Conference Finals last season and they are bringing substantially the same roster back this year to defend their position.
It looked like something was up at the draft when Toronto took 7′ center Jabob Poeltl 9th overall and then took the rim protecting power forward/center Pascal Siakim at 27. As much as Toronto wanted backup center Bismack Biyombo to return and Biyombo was willing to give a hometown discount, there was no way (under the CBA) to come close to matching the $70 million offer from the Magic when Toronto didn’t hold Biyombo’s bird rights.
The Raptors focus in free agency was to re-sign All-Star DeMar DeRozan and it only took a matter of minutes to come to an agreement on a new near max five year deal. That done and the Raptors salary cap space was gone.
For a seemingly long time the Raptors appeared to be sitting out the rest of free agency until the Celtics pulled Sullinger’s qualifying offer. Within hours, Sullinger was being sold on the benefits of bringing his skills to Toronto for about half of what he was being offered by other teams. It wasn’t a hard sell. Biyombo bet on himself last season by taking a bargain contract with the Raptors and it paid off bigger than anyone could have predicted. If you believe in yourself, and Sullinger does, it looks like a good bet.
In addition to losing Biyombo to free agency, Toronto also lost starting power forward Luis Scola and third string forward James Johnson.
Biyombo is active player, superior rim protector and outstanding rebounder, but beyond setting very good screens, he provides little offense and in half court sets, teams can play off him. He averaged 5.5 points, 8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 22 minutes per game and had several 20+ rebound efforts. He’ll be missed.
The obvious replacement for Biyombo is last year’s third string center Lucas Nogueira. A true 7-footer with a wingspan that doesn’t end, raw speed, quickness, court vision and a developing three-point shot. If Nogueira could have played up to his obvious potential, he would have taken minutes away from Biyombo last year. On a percentage basis, Nogueira is an excellent shot blocker, ball theft and offensive threat, if the proverbial light comes on. If he continues to only show flashes of consistency, Casey will be forced to give the rookie Poeltl a look and that might be the right move anyway.
At 35-years-old, Scola developed a never before seen reliable three-point shot last season and he can still rebound, but a year later and a year older, this Argentine superstar is well on the downside of his career. He only averaged 21.5 minutes per game as Patrick Patterson was the guy head coach Dwane Casey looked to to close games and pick up the slack.
Sullinger will take the starting power forward job and is expected to play a lot more minutes per game than Scola, but those minutes will not come at the expense of Patterson. Sullinger is also the Raptors real replacement for Biyombo. Like Biyombo last season, Sullinger will be given the opportunity to expand his game and take on a bigger role and he brings an offensive aspect to the center spot that vanished when Jonas Valanciunas was subbed out.
In a Celtics Blog Roundtable, they described the big man that was about to leave Boston,
Kevin O’Connor: Jared Sullinger is better than he gets credit for. But he should also be better than he actually is … I think Sullinger has All-Star-level talent that will ultimately go unrealized unless he makes strides soon.
Wes Howard: I do want to point out that he brings a skill that no one else on our roster has been able to duplicate consistently over the past couple of years. Sully has repeatedly demonstrated that he is able to handle large, strong, bruising centers down low.
The Raptors best rebounder and second best rim protector, Valanciunas will be expected to play more than 26 minutes per game next season just like Sullinger will be expected to play more than 24 minutes and more minutes will be expected from Patterson. Unless someone gets hurt, there probably isn’t going to be many minutes for Nogueira and Poeltl to fight for.
Basically James Johnson only got to play because DeMarre Carroll missed 56 games last year. He did a great job filling in, pedestrian numbers, but the Raptors kept on winning. Then the rookie Norman Powell took his job. As much as Johnson was a solid dressing room guy and well liked by the fan base, he isn’t going to be missed on the court (unless someone gets hurt).
Carroll had knee surgery early in the year to remove loose debris and Toronto only barely got a look at him during the regular season and only a shadow of what he could do in the playoffs. The knee is expected to be 100% next season and his return could be looked at like adding the free agent the team thought they were getting last year to this year’s rotation. Carroll was one of the best “3-and-D” forwards available last summer.
Out of nowhere, the second round pick Powell became a 45 percent three-point shooter and gritty defender on the wing after the All-Star break averaging 9.6 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.6 assists in 25 games including 20 starts. The rookie had an impressive playoff run as well. The now 23-year-old didn’t look out of place in the starting lineup and should be a big boost off the bench.
Unlike the Celtics, the Raptors don’t have to improve on last year’s regular season results to be taken seriously. Winning 56 games will do that, but they do have seven players in their rotation who are in their mid-twenties and just like the Celtics young core, these guys are supposed to be better than last year as well.
The concern in Toronto revolves around depth after the nine guys who will be the key players in Casey’s rotation. Poeltl and Siakam are rookies and enough said. Bruno Caboclo will be in his third NBA season, but for all intents and purposes he is the same as a rookie too. Third string point guard Delon Wright did improve over last season, but he isn’t proven at an NBA level and neither is last year’s third string center Nogueira.
Toronto does have an open roster spot with two players on non-guaranteed contracts vying for it, so, like last year, there could be more late additions. They may not be done yet.
Raptors vs Celtics
Toronto took the season series from Boston last year 3-1 with an average score of 103 – 98.5 and the biggest difference other than scoring came on the glass. The Raptors were +6.5 boards per game and that’s one stat that doesn’t have a reason to move with the changes that happened over the summer.
The Celtics lost their best rebounder to free agency in starting power forward Sullinger and the Raptors lost their second best rebounder in backup center Biyombo and picked up Sullinger to replace him. If Toronto kills Boston on the glass again this year, that’s got to hurt.
The ESPN Summer Forecast could still prove out. A lot can happen between now and the start of the season, even if it isn’t likely anymore. Boston should be better. Horford should make a difference and the young veterans are expected to improve, but that’s against a back drop of having to make up 8 wins on the team they are chasing, a team that isn’t likely to be any worse than last year and has probably improved in lock step.
Jae Crowder was quoted as saying he isn’t worried about Toronto and he shouldn’t be in July. It’s not even a fair question, but it does indicate a potential rivalry in the making. This season both teams will be striving to be better and the odds of Boston catching Toronto in the standings really aren’t that good – yet.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.