Consider Avery Bradley  the first to declare the Celtics  a playoff team this season, and he won’t be the last. In all honesty, would you want a player who entered the season already resigned to the lottery? Of course you wouldn’t.
“I feel like we have a chance to make the playoffs and make a lot of noise this year if we listen to [Celtics  coach] Brad [Stevens],” Bradley told reporters  from his youth basketball camp in Dartmouth. The former second-team All-Defensive selection added, “I feel like we have a chance to be a top-10 defensive team in the NBA this year.”
While any NBA player worth his salt — and Bradley’s new four-year, $32 million deal can buy an awful lot of sodium chloride — should believe both statements to be true, the question is whether either is believable. The Celtics  finished with the league’s fourth-worst record (25-57) and ranked 19th in points allowed per 100 possessions (108.6 ). Have they done enough to climb 14 games in the standings and allow .025 fewer points per possession?
Barring a trade, the Celtics  will feature at least 10 of the 15 players who finished last season. They’ve replaced Kris Humphries and Jerryd Bayless with Tyler Zeller and Marcus Thornton while adding Evan Turner  and a pair of rookies. Marcus Smart is the only one of the bunch who comes with a solid reputation defensively, and he’s expected to play behind Rajon Rondo  to start the year. That’s not much of a sales pitch.
Rondo is the wild card, of course, and Bradley suggested his backcourt mate has returned to form as the player who earned Third Team All-NBA and Second Team All-Defensive honors during his last healthy season. While a three-headed monster of Rondo, Bradley and Smart could theoretically form one of the league’s grittiest guard groups defensively, the Celtics  still lack the rim-protecting big Danny Ainge sought this summer. Are you confident Tyler Zeller, Kelly Olynyk and Jeff Green  can hold down the frontcourt? Me neither.
Meanwhile, the Eastern Conference’s other sub-.500 squads all took steps forward. The Hawks return a healthy Al Horford. The Knicks surrounded Carmelo Anthony with a few more serviceable players, including Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert. The Cavaliers  did something, although I can’t quite remember what it was. The Pistons hired a coach with a history of winning two-thirds of his regular-season games. And the Magic, 76ers and Bucks respectively added young talent, a healthy impact center and a combination of the two.
So maybe it’s a stretch to imagine the Celtics  a playoff team with staunch defense. Or maybe Stevens can extract career years from Rondo, Bradley and Jeff Green ; help Olynyk, Zeller and Jared Sullinger make the leap; expedite Smart and James Young‘s contributions; and invent a time machine for Gerald Wallace . Either way, the only way the C’s come close to proving Bradley right is to match his confidence entering training camp.