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Celtics expect Lee, Johnson to provide necessary leadership

Boston enters 2015-16 with high expectations amid question marks

POSTED: Sep 26, 2015 12:36 PM ET

By Ian Thomsen

BY Ian Thomsen

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Two-time All-Star David Lee will play a vital role for Boston this season.

— The morning softball game was exclusive among the Boston Celtics and their coaches. It was a voluntary event on the eve of training camp, and yet close to a dozen players accepted the invitation. Perhaps it helped that the hour-long game was played against the backdrop of the Green Monster at Fenway Park.

"I hit a line drive to shortstop and Brad Stevens took away a hit from me,'' said David Lee, the newest (and potentially most valuable) Celtic. "I didn't appreciate that. But other than that we had a great time, it was a close game, and more than anything it was a beautiful day out. It was a way for me to get a little bit more of an introduction to Boston.''

Stevens was grateful to the Red Sox for the access to America's oldest ballpark. He asked the veteran players if they wanted to play, and at their request he made it happen. "How much something like a softball game helps team-building,'' said Stevens, "I don't know.''

But it surely couldn't hurt. The roster is crowded, young and lacking in hierarchy. The better the Celtics know and like one another, the less they may express envy or jealousy when Stevens works out his lineup for the upcoming season.

"We're going to have good players on our team that aren't going to play,'' Stevens was saying Friday at Celtics' media day. "That's the reality. We should probably have media day two weeks in, because I don't know (the rotation) yet. We'll find out.''

The equal-opportunity Celtics were young and deep last season when they overcame a 16-30 start amid the trades of Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green. In the absence of their two best players, they went 24-12 over the closing two months to reach the playoffs as a No. 7 seed. That run also cost the Celtics a place in the lottery and a chance at acquiring Mario Hezonja, Stanley Johnson or Justise Winslow -- three favorites of team president Danny Ainge.

In 2007, after three years of building up his assets, Ainge made the big trades for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett that led to the Celtics' 17th championship. He is now embarking on the third season of the current rebuilding era with one crucial difference -- he lacks anyone like Paul Pierce, who served as a magnet for Allen and Garnett. The goal by next summer will be to have at least one star on the roster, whether he is developed in-house or acquired by draft or trade. "You need transcendent players,'' said Ainge. "That is what everybody would like to have in the NBA.''

Unable to make a blockbuster deal last summer, Ainge settled for deepening the roster by bringing back nine contributors, adding three rookies among the top 33 in the draft, and acquiring Lee and Amir Johnson (in addition to Perry Jones, the Oklahoma City project who will be fighting for the final roster spot).

GameTime: David Lee Trade

Stu Jackson and Jared Greenberg discuss the Warriors trading David Lee to the Celtics.

Lee, the 32 year old power forward, should fit in beautifully. The Warriors were able to win the championship last season in no small part because Lee (along with Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut) was willing to accept a reduced role for the good of the team. As Lee pursues a new contract next summer, his view of the bigger picture promises to affirm his identity: He will help the Celtics intangibly by keeping the focus on team goals.

He fills many needs for the Celtics. Lee, a two-time All-Star, is a strong rebounder, a smart passer and a versatile scorer. After sitting for most of the season, he was able to identify his team's needs and make an impact instantly when the Warriors went small midway through the NBA Finals, helping to launch their comeback from a 2-1 deficit against the Cavaliers. Because the Celtics lack a singular playmaker in this era of leading point guards, Lee's ability to make quick decisions with the ball should be crucial.

Neither Lee nor free-agent Johnson (whose two-year contract is non-guaranteed for 2016-17) has a reputation for selfishness. Both will be expected to provide leadership by example for the young Celtics. Johnson, at 6-9 and 240 pounds, will be asked to play minutes at center, along with Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynyk.

The surplus at every position should create a competitive environment. While other rebuilding teams appear to be at the mercy of young players, there should be no such sense of entitlement in Boston. Second-year swingman James Young and rookie shooter R.J. Hunter must compete for playing time on the wing against the likes of Avery Bradley, Evan Turner, Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko.

If rookie point guard Terry Rozier wants minutes, then he is going to have to beat out Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart, a bullying defender with the potential to emerge as the franchise point guard -- pending his ability to create for others. "It's a competition not only for minutes but for responsibility,'' said Ainge. "We have a lot of vocal guys, and it's going to be interesting to see who steps up as the leader.''

This is a big year for power forward Jared Sullinger, who spent much of the summer in Houston losing weight and developing his low-post game with private coach John Lucas. The competition for minutes up front begins with Lee and Johnson and has been augmented by rookie Jordan Mickey, the second-rounder in whom the Celtics have made an unusual four-year commitment -- a sign of their belief in his longterm future.

"Competing for minutes - that is a great problem to have,'' said Lee. "It gets everybody motivated, coming to camp when they aren't saying, `I know I'm the superstar or the starter no matter what.' Competition at every position is a healthy thing.''

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The goal for the Celtics is two-fold: Build on last season's 40 wins while developing their assets. If the young Celtics are more valuable at the end of this season, then Ainge will be able to package some of them in a blockbuster deal for the star he needs to climb back into contention.

The Celtics will have their own picks in the draft in addition to the first-rounders of Minnesota (protected 1-12), Dallas (protected 1-7) and Brooklyn (unprotected). They could have two or three picks in the lottery, based on the roster of the Mavericks and Nets.

Stevens, entering his third year, is the Celtics' most valuable asset. But his aim is to change that dynamic: To develop a star -- or the means to acquire one -- who will provide the Celtics with a contending identity on the court. And so they approach what they hope will be the final season of their transition with a sense of urgency.

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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