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Celtics on rise ... but are they ready to take next step?

POSTED: Oct 16, 2015 8:03 PM ET

By Lang Whitaker

BY Lang Whitaker

NBA.com

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After the Boston Celtics' Big Three (well, Big Four) aged past the point of contention, president of basketball operation Danny Ainge hit the reset button. The Celtics moved on from Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, and began amassing assets. Now, with a couple of nice young players, a terrific young coach, plenty of cap room and an astounding bundle of future draft picks to use as bartering chips, the Celtics need a superstar to act as an anchor. But despite their best efforts this summer, the Celts struck out looking for that big fish in free agency. They're still in a great place from which to build, they just need to find that cornerstone.

ICYMI

The Celtics went 20-10 last season following the All-Star break. ... With cap space and a veteran void, the Celtics were a logical landing spot for David Lee, who was stuck on the bench with the Warriors. ... Similarly, veteran big man Amir Johnson should provide leadership and depth on the interior for the Celtics. ... After numerous injuries and conditioning issues, Jared Sullinger rededicated himself to fitness this summer and says this is the best he's ever felt. ... After suffering a knee injury in the playoffs, Jae Crowder enters camp at 100 percent. ... The Celtics used 22 different players last season.

THREE POINTS

1. The Celtics love second-year guard Marcus Smart, who is already one of the better on-ball defensive players in the NBA. Smart teams with Avery Bradley to give Boston a terrific defensive backcourt.

2. Following a trade from Phoenix, in 21 games with the Celtics, Isaiah Thomas averaged 19 points coming off the bench. He's their best offensive player, and while he'll likely continue to provide a jolt off the pine, he'll also be on the floor at the end of games to give them their best shot at winning.

3. Last year the Celtics had a chance to shut it down and make the lottery, or go all in and try and make the playoffs. They made the playoffs, and while they got swept in four by the Cavs, the Celtics also gained invaluable experience for their young roster.

MAN ON THE SPOT

There's no denying that Ainge has done a commendable job taking down the Celtics' title teams and getting maximum value for the assets he had under contract. But now arguably the toughest task begins, as Ainge tries to flip that hodgepodge of picks and cap room into some sort of franchise player, the exact kind of player who doesn't come along very often. For all the work he's done, unless Ainge hits a home run when he eventually goes all-in on a franchise player, it could all be for naught.

STARTING FIVE

Avery Bradley | 13.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.8 apg
An elite defender, and one of Boston's best perimeter shooting threats.

Marcus Smart | 7.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.1 apg
The Celts love his defense, and hope his offense catches up.

Tyler Zeller | 10.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.4 apg
25-year-old big man played in all 82 games for Boston last season.

David Lee | 7.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.7 apg
In the final year of his contract, former All-Star has something to prove.

Evan Turner | 9.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 5.5 apg
After a rough start, the former lottery pick seems to have found an NBA home.

KEY RESERVES

Isaiah Thomas | 16.4 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 4.2 apg
Legit 6th Man of the Year contender. Excels at getting to free-throw line.

Jae Crowder | 9.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.4 apg
A bit undersized at 6-7, but provides toughness and grit.

Kelly Olynyk | 10.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.7 apg
After a great summer with the Canadian National Team, comes into the season looking for a bigger role.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Stevens' Celtics will compete and defend all season, perhaps sneaking into the playoffs yet again. But they're still lacking the superstar they will need in order to take the next step.

Lang Whitaker has covered the NBA since 1998. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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