The Boston Celtics are officially back in the national spotlight.

Not only are they featured in more nationally televised games this year, up to 24 after only appearing in a single game last year on ESPN, but their entire starting five has cracked the Sports Illustrated Top 100 Players list for 2017.

Last year's list featured two Celtics: Isaiah Thomas, jumping from 90th in 2015 to the 88th spot in 2016 and Amir Johnson who dropped from 71st to 89th in the same time frame.

But after a surprisingly successful 2016 season, regardless of the second consecutive first-round playoff exit, Boston's starting lineup is garnering more respect in national circles.

In this year's Top 100, Amir Johnson gets bumped up two spots to 86th:
"Johnson exercises his influence in relative quiet, shuffling through his assignments with balance and awareness. The way that Johnson moves conveys a clear understanding of space and how to navigate it; he always seems to be in the mix, shading this way or that to challenge an offense’s development. Want rim protection? Johnson will lurk behind plays and dart over to alter a layup attempt. Need pressure on the perimeter? Johnson is perfectly comfortable showing on the pick-and-roll and hanging with quicker guards until the defense resets."

After a stellar defensive campaign that saw him land a spot in the NBA All-Defensive 1st team, Avery Bradley cracked the list at 72. Quite an accomplishment for his first time on the list:
The world simply needs more combo guards like Bradley. Offensively, Boston’s 6'2" shooting guard has developed into a solid floor-spacing spot-up shooter and has honed an opportunistic and crafty off-ball cutting game that keeps defenders honest. Defensively, Bradley is a tone-setter who can flip seamlessly between guard positions: his aggressive on-ball style, quick hands and tireless approach helped drive the Celtics to a top-five defensive efficiency rating. Even better, Bradley (15.2 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 2.1 APG) avoids most of the bad habits usually associated with combo guards: he doesn’t pound the air out of the ball, he doesn’t force plays that aren’t there and he is rarely exposed to defensive mismatches.

Jae Crowder, tenacious defender and gem of the Rajon Rondo trade to Dallas, swoops in at 53 after not being ranked at all.
Although it’s hard to envision him effectively stepping into a higher-usage role on offense, the 2012 second-round pick has made progress as a shooter and seems to fully embrace his complementary role on offense and lead role on defense. Crowder was a key reason why the Celtics ranked No. 5 in defense and No. 2 in forced turnovers; his return on the wing coupled with Avery Bradley’s ball-hawking up top and the arrival of Al Horford on the backline gives Boston defensive impact-makers at all of the most important positions. Even if Crowder’s trade value was nonexistent two years ago and even though his national name recognition is still pretty low, he’s the type of indispensable all-around contributor who can help a good team “overachieve” its way to the conference finals.

The biggest jump comes for Isaish Thomas who lands at 45th from 88th last season. The jump shows that despite knocks against his size, play style and career ceiling, people are finally starting to regard him as one of the better players in the league:
A first-time All-Star in 2016, the 27-year-old Thomas (22.2 PPG, 6.2 APG, 3 RPG) answered a host of questions. Yes, he was capable of being the lead guard on a playoff team. Yes, he could step comfortably into a closer’s role, ranking fifth league-wide with 144 points in clutch situations. Yes, he was able to get buckets and get to the free-throw line like an alpha scorer while also making the right reads when defenses collapsed on his drives. Yes, he could log big minutes for an excellent defense despite his undersized stature. And, yes, he could hold up for 82 games while playing starter’s minutes and bearing a heavy usage burden. Now the bar has been raised, both for Thomas and his Celtics. With Al Horford in the mix, a third straight early exit in the postseason will no longer cut it.

Isaiah's jump to the top 50 won't come without protest, however. Thomas went to Twitter last year to express his dissatisfaction with his ranking:

And he may still be upset to see names ahead of him such as Andre Igoudala and fellow point guard, Kemba Walker.

Granted, these are all very different types of players with varying roles on their teams. But after jumping into the upper echelon of point guards following his first All-Star appearance last year, Thomas may have reason to complain, if he chooses to.

IT has been very vocal about his belief that he's one of the better point guards in the league. Him getting outranked by a point guard who didn't make the All-Star game and who he beat in points per game, shooting percentage and assists per game is questionable and a legitimate reason for more angry Isaiah tweets.

Finally, free-agent acquisition Al Horford is guaranteed to fall within the top 30 (which hasn't been revealed yet) on the list after landing at 21st in 2016 and having yet another productive season.

Regardless of whether or not these rankings are fair or accurate, all five starting rotation players landing on the list is something to be happy with. If this squad can make the strides they're expected to this year, maybe the 2018 rankings will see each player creeping higher and higher.

Photo credit: Jesse D. Garrabrant (top photo), Maddie Meyer (bottom photo)

Follow Luis Gonzalez @Luisdgnyc

Luis Gonzalez 9/14/2016 09:24:00 AM Edit
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