By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- The Boston Celtics enter the 2015-16 campaign with something they've never had with Brad Stevens on the bench.
It's not a superstar player, which we'll have to cross our fingers for next Summer. But as Boston enters Year 3 of the Stevens era there are some actual expectations surrounding the team, and those expectations include winning.
There will be no more "tank" talk this season. Instead, it's expected that Stevens will take this group back to the postseason. They're even expected to win a game this time around.
Will they live up to these expectations? There's a very good chance they will, as long as fans don't get a little too amped up regarding the team's potential.
Last year's surprise finish to the regular season and brief playoff appearance has Boston fans thirsty for another run to the playoffs, an expectation these Celtics should be able to easily fulfill. The Celtics finished last season 40-42, a record they should improve on with a much better -- and much more consistent -- roster for Stevens to work with. While they didn't add that superstar over the summer, the additions of both David Lee and Amir Johnson to the front court will help improve the C's on the glass and on defense, respectively, and the team's jam-packed depth chart gives them more flexibility than anyone in the league.
Before looking ahead, let's take one last chance to look back to how Boston turned things around in a short window. At the start of last season they were a rebuilding team without much of a direction stuck in basketball purgatory: Not good enough to compete for a title but not terrible enough to land a top draft pick. Their one true star, Rajon Rondo, was their leader, but that was a title bestowed on him based on talent alone. "Captain" Rondo broke his hand just a few days before the regular season began on a "fall in the shower," and he would only stick around until mid-December when Danny Ainge finally dealt him away to Dallas for Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson, Brandon Wright, a pair of future draft picks and a $13 million trade exception.
That was the biggest of the 11 trades Trader Danny pulled throughout the season, with 22 different players suiting up for Boston. Name tags had to be handed out on the regular, and Stevens drew up plays with uniform numbers instead of names.
While the Rondo trade was the biggest of the season for Ainge and company, it wasn't the most important. On deadline day, Ainge brought in Isaiah Thomas, who completely turned the team around upon his arrival. While small in stature Thomas can light up the scoreboard with the best of them, averaging 19 points off the bench for his new team. The arrival of the 5-foot-9 offensive machine sparked the Celtics to a 20-11 post-All-Star game record, including a six-game win streak to end the season, clinching the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference for Boston. With that one acquisition, the Celtics rebuild finally had some direction. They were back in the postseason thanks to that tremendous run in the second half and the horrid Eastern Conference. But as much as you can thank the lack of competition in the East, you can also point to Stevens' ability to get the most out of his roster on a given night.
The playoff run didn't last long, as the Celtics were swept in the first round by the Cleveland Cavaliers. But the success at the end of the season and a 25-win increase from the season prior provided a glimpse of what could be coming in 2015-16. At the very least, it framed some expectations for the upcoming campaign.
The fact that getting back to the postseason is now the expectation is a good sign for the Celtics, and there will be some actual pressure on Stevens and his squad to deliver. We saw what he can do (and get his team to do) once he got some continuity on the roster (and a guy who could actually, you know, score), and this year, the playoffs won't be viewed as a humble surprise.
To deliver, the Celtics brought in veteran leaders in Lee and Johnson over the summer to add to their youthful mix. Marcus Smart looks poised to bring his game to the next level. Boston's depth will give them the opportunity to mix and match throughout the year based on matchups. While they aren't close to being a title contender and there will no doubt be frustrating times, it will be just as frustrating for opposing teams to play against the Celtics in the upcoming campaign.
Stevens said last week that a championship is always the goal when it comes to the Boston Celtics, and that's certainly the right attitude. He's trying to get that winning atmosphere back to the organization, and while a playoff berth helps, a sub-500 season doesn't and won't. With the East wide open again, it would be a major disappointment if the Celtics don't win more games than they lose this season and just squeak into the playoffs . FiveThirtyEight.com's prediction of 48 wins may be a little high, but Boston should be right around the 44-46 win mark. And while the Toronto Raptors remain the favorites in the Atlantic, a division crown isn't too far out of reality either.
Though he still looks like a substitute teacher fresh out of grad school, the 39-year-old Stevens has handled everything he's encountered in his two-plus seasons in Boston with the same calm demeanor. He shouldn't have much trouble doing the same this upcoming season, with expectations finally placed upon his shoulders.
The expectations are pretty high for the Celtics, but while a title may be out of their reach, a winning season and more postseason basketball should be in Boston's future for 2016.
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