Had they not shot 7-for-39 from 3-point range in Game 7 on their home floor, the Boston Celtics would have been the first Eastern Conference team in eight years to eliminate LeBron James from the postseason. They were the better team in the conference finals and just couldn't get the job done. But now, James is in the Western Conference and the Celtics are adding Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving to that team that almost reached The Finals, with 21-year-old Jaylen Brown and 20-year-old Jayson Tatum only getting better.
One year after a summer that brought only four players back, the Celtics were relatively stable ... Big man Robert Williams III was selected with the No. 27 pick in the Draft ... Brad Wanamaker, a 29-year-old rookie guard who has played in Europe for the last seven seasons, was signed ... Aron Baynes was re-signed to a two-year deal and Marcus Smart (restricted) was brought back on a four-year deal.
1. Most valuable Celtic. The bulk of the Celtics' talent is on the perimeter, and as we saw last season, they can survive without one of their stars in the backcourt or on the wings. Al Horford, though, remains their most important player, a fulcrum on both ends of the floor, and the guy who outplayed both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid in the playoffs.
2. Size matters. The Celtics were the league's most improved defensive team last season, in part because they got bigger at all three perimeter positions, allowing them to switch screens more often and more successfully. The return of the 6-foot-8 Hayward, who was on the league's third-ranked defense in his last season in Utah, makes them no smaller on the perimeter.
3. Only so many minutes to go around. The biggest challenge for coach Brad Stevens may be keeping everybody happy. With the returns of Hayward and Irving, Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier will see a reduction in playing time and touches.
MAN ON THE SPOT
It's the point guard's job to make sure that everybody gets the touches they need on a team as talented as this. In his first season in Boston, Kyrie Irving registered career highs in both usage rate and true shooting percentage, playing efficiently with a heavier load than he had in Cleveland. But he ranked just 22nd in assist rate among the top 50 players in usage rate, and the Celtics ranked below the league average in both ball and player movement, seeing the league's second biggest drop in the percentage of their field goals that were assisted. The offense held up pretty well without its starting point guard through the first 14 games of the playoffs (scoring more efficiently than it did in the regular season), and now Irving must reintegrate himself and make sure the Celtics make the most of all the talent they have on offense.
Kyrie Irving | 24.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 5.1 apg
Has missed 94 games (including postseason) over the last four years, but is still just 26 years old.
Jaylen Brown | 14.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.0 spg
Versatile talent had the Celtics' only two games of 30 or more points in the playoffs.
Gordon Hayward | 21.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.5 apg ('16-17)
Registered career highs in usage rate and true shooting percentage in 2016-17, then broke his leg in Game 1 last year.
Jayson Tatum | 13.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.6 apg
The 20 year old led the league in clutch shooting percentage and showed in the postseason that he's ready to be a go-to guy late in games.
Al Horford | 12.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 4.7 apg
The league's most versatile big man quieted some critics by leading the Celtics to within a game of The Finals.
Aron Baynes | 6.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.1 apg
The defense is at its best with Baynes on the floor, though one particular matchup (Joel Embiid) was reason enough to bring him back.
Terry Rozier | 11.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.9 apg
A new contract for Smart puts Rozier's future with the Celtics in doubt ... but for now, the Celtics have both coming off the bench.
Marcus Smart | 10.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 4.8 apg
Where bad shooting and bad shots are negated by tough defense and shear hustle. Probably doesn't have the same value on a different team.
The Celtics have talent, depth, defense and pretty good coach to put it all together. They're the only team that has seen a win increase in each of the last four seasons, improving from 25-57 in Brad Stevens' first year to 55-27 last season. They'll likely make it five straight (with a record in the range of 61-21), will be the favorite to win the Eastern Conference, and are arguably the biggest threat to the Golden State Warriors' quest for a third straight championship.