BOSTON -- With expectations raised after the signing of free agent Al Horford, the Boston Celtics open the season with a home game against the New Jersey Nets on Wednesday night.
That's the Nets -- the gift that just keeps on giving for the Celtics after the monster trade between the teams in 2013.
"Part of the reason I came here was because -- and I had a good situation in Atlanta like we've established before -- but when I looked at the guys who were here, I was like: 'It would be great to play with those guys,'" Horford said as he and his new team prepped for the opener. "We can build out from there."
Signing a four-year, $113 million contract that surprised the basketball world and made him the biggest free agent signing ever for the tradition-rich Celtics, Horford left his Atlanta home and also left a Hawks team that eliminated the Celtics in the first round of last year's playoffs.
But when he looked at Boston, he saw a team that went from 25 to 40 to 48 wins in the three years under coach Brad Stevens. He saw a team with depth. And he saw a team that even had a bright drafting future -- and that is where the Nets come in.
Back in 2013, the Celtics sent aging stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn in a mega-deal that brought Boston all kinds of draft picks from what turned out to be a bad Nets team.
The haul got them the No. 3 pick in the most recent draft, and the Celtics used that selection to take athlete Jaylen Brown. After this season, which doesn't figure to see the Nets suddenly spring into the playoff picture, the Celtics have the right to swap picks with Brooklyn. That would put Boston back in the lottery regardless of where the Celtics finish -- and the Celtics also have the Nets' top pick in 2018.
Asked about the future selections, Celtics offensive leader Isaiah Thomas shrugged it off, saying, "I worry about scoring the ball, getting my teammates involved and winning games. I don't know nothing about those first-round picks. And I wasn't a first-round pick, so I don't care about first-rounders."
Even without what awaits down the line as the building continues, the Celtics, still looking for their first playoff-series win under Stevens, are in the discussion regarding the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. They should at least improve on last year's 48 wins.
Kenny Atkinson is the new Nets coach, and he has his team firing 3-pointers, something that won't help low-post center Brook Lopez a whole lot. But that is the current plan.
"I think we can (make the playoffs)," swingman Bojan Bogdanovic told the New York Post. "They can write what they want. ... But we're going to work hard to give it our best. When we get in a game, we have a chance to beat anybody. It's going to be tough, but if we play like we practice, we have a chance."
Atkinson was instrumental in bringing Lin-sanity back to New York, where Jeremy Lin became a phenomenon for the Knicks and now runs the show in Brooklyn.
The Celtics come into the opener without Kelly Olynyk (recovering from shoulder surgery) and Marcus Smart (sprained ankle). They cut R.J. Hunter and draft pick Ben Bentil, keeping James Young, and they also signed 6-foot-11 Ryan Kelly, who starts the season with the Maine Red Claws of the NBA Development League.
Veteran shooting guard Randy Foye will miss the opener for the Nets due to a mild hamstring pull, but Brooklyn comes in with a positive attitude.
"If you've got a lot of guys working hard every day, it's contagious," veteran forward Luis Scola said.