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What To Watch For From 2015-16 Boston Celtics

By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- The 2015-16 NBA season is upon us, and this year, expectations are back in Boston.

After their surprising run to the postseason in the second half last season, the Celtics are expected to make it back to the playoffs this year. There's good reason to be optimistic about the squad too: Brad Stevens has another year of NBA smarts, Isaiah Thomas has a full training camp in the system under his belt and the C's added some frontcourt help to a very deep roster.

It all begins Wednesday night when the Celtics square off against the Philadelphia 76ers at the TD Garden. The opener may not get you excited, but the C's have a pretty tough slate to start the season, facing off against the likes of the Raptors, Spurs, Hawks (twice) and Rockets in the first four weeks of the campaign.

NBA Season Preview: Eastern Conference | Western Conference

It's a long 82-game slate ahead of us, but here is what we'll be watching for throughout the season.

Minutes Among Bigs

Amir-Johnson
Forward Amir Johnson was one of Boston's big offseason additions. (Photo by Nathaniel Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The dominant theme heading into the new season is the Celtics have a lot of depth, and that is their best attribute.

The Celtics do, in fact, have a lot of depth, and in some cases, maybe even too much. That is the case among the Boston big men, with five guys battling it out for four spots every night.

It looks like Brad Stevens will go with a starting frontcourt of David Lee and Tyler Zeller, with Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk the bigs off the bench. Johnson could be a deadly pick-and-roll partner with Isaiah Thomas on the floor, and his defense will be a welcome addition to that bench unit.

Jared Sullinger played well at times, but was the odd man out during the preseason. He'll have to do all he can to earn minutes in the early goings of the new campaign, with Jonas Jerebko challenging for some playing time as a stretch four as well.

Of course, all of this can (and will) change very quickly. With such depth, a few bad games (or even trips up the floor) could result to a player riding the pine. A better matchup for one player could lead to a spot start for another.

Brad Stevens may not have to play musical chairs with his roster as much as last season, but he'll still some tough decisions to make with his bigs on most nights.

Year 2 Of Marcus Smart

Marcus-Smart
Celtics guard Marcus Smart. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NBAE via Getty Images)

Smart went through the normal growing pains you would expect out of an NBA rookie last season, but also showed off some fierce defense that made you see why the Celtics picked him sixth overall.

With a year under his belt, Smart will look to take his game to the next level in his sophomore campaign (and not just his hair game). He'll certainly have to improve on the offensive side after shooting just 37 percent from the floor, and it'd nice to see him attack the basket more rather than haul up those lollipop three-pointers. He looked comfortable running the offense during the preseason, but will also have the luxury of a solid passing big man down low in David Lee.

Smart is the future for the Celtics, either on the floor or as trade bait to get a superstar to Boston. It will be interesting to see how much he improves from Year 1 to Year 2.

Rough Start?

While Boston fans should be confident their team will be in the playoff mix come April, it may be a bumpy start to the season.

After a gimme against the 76ers on opening night, eight of Boston's next 10 opponents finished last season .500 or better. This includes home games against the Raptors, Spurs, Wizards, Hawks and Mavericks, with road matchups against the Bucks, Thunder and Rockets -- the latter two being a tough back-to-back. Their other two games are against the Indiana Pacers, who should be much improved this season with Paul George back on the floor.

Read: Celtics-76ers Preview

At least 10 of Boston's 18 October/November games come at the TD Garden, a place the Celtics hope is a difficult visit for opposing teams. They can get an early jump on establishing that with a strong start out of the gate.

Can C's Win The Atlantic?

The Celtics are expected to make the playoffs this season after last season's second half run. While that's the expectation, can they stretch that out a little more and claim their division?

The Toronto Raptors are still the team to beat in the extremely lackluster Atlantic -- the "AFC South" of the NBA, if you will. Toronto won a franchise-high 49 games last season and added DeMarre Carroll in the offseason to go with a solid front court pairing of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, who are both playing for a contract. They are still talented enough to finish as a 3-4 seed in the East, but this year they'll have a little more competition from Boston.

The C's were able to pry Johnson from up north, improving their front court defense while hurting Toronto's in the process. It'll be interesting to see how much Johnson brings to the Boston D, and how much Toronto loses in that department because of his departure. The two teams split their four games last season, with Toronto taking the two early season matchups and Boston claiming both April matchups -- part of their six-game winning streak to close the season.

The Nets and 76ers won't put up much of a fight and the Knicks are a great unknown (but likely won't put up much of a fight either). The Raptors will likely claim the division in the end, but the Celtics are going to battle for it throughout the season. Don't be shocked if they end Toronto's two-year run atop the Atlantic.

End Of Season Awards?

It's been a while since any Celtic brought home some hardware at the end of the season. This year could be different.

Isaiah Thomas nearly brought home the sixth man award for his 21-game stretch with the Celtics, averaging 19 points per game as Boston sprinted to the postseason. With a full training camp with the team (meaning: A full training camp for Brad Stevens to figure out how best to utilize his miniature offensive machine), Thomas is among the favorites to win the award when it's all said and done.

On the other side of the ball, both Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart will threaten to make an All Defensive Team, likely the second team. Bradley made the second team in 2013, but didn't get any recognition last season. Smart made the All Rookie Second Team, and if he keeps playing defense the way he did he may be in the conversation for the All Defensive Second Team in his sophomore season. If he can elevate his offensive game as well, he may even be in the talks for Most Improved player in the league.

But the most likely of candidates to bring home an individual trophy at the end of the season is Stevens. He could have won it last season for the ridiculous juggling act he did with the roster throughout the year, with 22 players wearing a Boston uniform, but came in fourth behind Atlanta's Mike Budenholzer, Golden State's Steve Kerr and Milwaukee's Jason Kidd. Stevens, Boston's best asset to attract free agents, should get much more love this time around if the Celtics can live up to the expectations they carry into the season.

Brad-Stevens
Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Trader Danny

David Lee and Evan Turner are free agents after the season. Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller are due for new contracts as well. And while Sullinger played well in spurts, he couldn't crack the lineup consistently in the preseason.

Depth is Boston's best asset as they start the season, but turning that depth into more talent or assets to build for the future will be one of Ainge's goals throughout the campaign. If he can get a proven player, a first-rounder or a handful of seconds, he won't think twice about pulling the trigger. If he can get that superstar that has alluded Boston for years, anyone and everyone is available.

Ainge-Thomas
Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

We won't see the 11 trades Ainge pulled off last year, but don't expect Trader Danny to sit tight either.

No Tanking This Year

Those on the "tank" bandwagon will argue that last season's postseason run hurt the Celtics' future, costing them a chance to draft someone like Justice Winslow. Ainge tried hard on draft night to convince Michael Jordan and the Charlotte Hornets to send him the 9th pick for a plethora of future selections, but MJ decided to draft Frank Kaminsky instead. Those middle-of-the-pack selections weren't enough to get who Ainge wanted, and those late-season wins cost him a chance to draft a guy he coveted.

There will be no such "tank" concerns this season. The Celtics own Brooklyn's first round pick (from the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce blockbuster in 2013), which very well may end up being a Top 5 (Top 1?) pick next summer. If that pick isn't enough, Boston could also get Dallas's first round selection if it lands outside the Top 7. After the Mavs struck out on DeAndre Jordan this offseason, there's a good chance that pick will be heading Boston's way when the season if over.

So this year, the Celtics can just focus on succeeding on the court and not worry about it hurting their future. Talk about a win-win.

You can catch the Celtics' upcoming season on 98.5 The Sports Hub -- the flagship station of the Boston Celtics. Click here for a list of games that will air on our sister station, 100.7FM WZLX.

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