After suffering season ending injuries to Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger, the Boston Celtics aren't expected to win the title. But that doesn't mean they aren't a competitive basketball team. Cries for the team's general manager, Danny Ainge, to "blow it up" are misguided and rash. The fact is, Kevin Garnett (no-trade clause and all) and Paul Pierce simply aren't big commodities on the trade market anymore.
They're old and expensive, with off-court significance that makes dealing them more difficult than it would any other player. The call to blow things up is predicated on the notion that moving Pierce, Garnett or both, will either bring back a young, talented player still on the first couple years of his rookie deal, or a lottery pick. The chances of landing either (despite a recent report that linked Garnett to the Los Angeles Clippers for an Eric Bledsoe headlined package—the type of deal Boston might jump at) is slim to nil.
People are all for dropping a bomb on the Garnett Era because it's believed to be the smartest strategy behind a quick rebuild. In fact, the smartest thing Boston could do would be to stand pat, do nothing and let this current team ride until the gas tank starts to sputter.
The Celtics are 4-1 in their last five games, and undefeated (with wins over the Miami Heat and Clippers) since Rondo went down. Their defense in those five games has allowed just 97 points per 100 possessions, a number that rivals the Indiana Pacers best defense in the league. It's defense that's been their strength through these last five years. Not Rondo.
It's obviously a small sample size, but since he tore his ACL, the Celtics have adopted a completely different offensive style, too. One featuring ball movement, quick outlet passes off defensive rebounds to whoever's open and a convenient disregard for setting up their half-court offense whenever they don't have to. They're moving quicker, with guys like Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Jeff Green enjoying the ball in their hands more often than before. They're also finally beginning to embrace the three-point line, a shot that a smart coach like Doc Rivers couldn't afford to ignore much longer.
No top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs will be eager to draw Boston in the first or second round, and for a team like Indiana that struggles to score, Boston's stout defense could still create serious problems. Against a team like the Brooklyn Nets (the slowest in the league) the Celtics newfound offensive attack could create tempo problems.
There's talk of the Celtics not making the playoffs, but that's silly. Their bench is still one of the best in basketball, and they still boast two of the 25 best players in the league in their starting lineup. As good as the defense has been, it should only get better with the increased playing time Lee, Avery Bradley and Green will assume.
Here are the teams behind them right now in the Eastern Conference: the Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Bobcats, Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers. The Pistons, Sixers and Raptors are three that could possibly find the eight seed, but each is inconsistent, young and without any experience dealing with the grind of a playoff push.
While those teams are chasing Boston, the Celtics have their sights set on the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks, two teams that could easily slide after the All-Star break (especially if Josh Smith is dealt). (Right now the Celtics are only four games behind both the Nets and Pacers, let alone the Hawks and Bucks.)
Looking at this team from a long-term perspective, the thought of "blowing it up" only makes sense if they can turbo charge the rebuilding process. Since it's probable no teams are willing to offer up a lottery pick or a hopeful prospect early in his rookie contract for anybody currently on the roster, there's no reason for Ainge not to sit tight, see how the players he has under contract for the next few years perform after the All-Star break (and into the playoffs), then assess from there.
The luxury tax is an issue, but Boston ownership has never had a problem paying it before, and it's doubtful they side with getting under it to save money this season over keeping a player like Pierce. Terry is rumored to be someone general mangers around the league are suddenly coveting, but by himself there's very little anyone can offer that would make Ainge sell for the sake of selling. The timing simply isn't right, especially when you factor in how important he is to Boston's backcourt with Rondo gone.
Recent comments by Ainge that Boston would be adding two players to fill their two open roster spots imply that the luxury tax isn't weighing heavy on his mind, and they'd still have a three-year, $3 million per year mid-level exception to offer free agents over the summer, according to ESPN.com's Larry Coon. So that's not going anywhere.
Can the Celtics win the title this season? Probably not. But anything can happen in the months leading up to the playoffs, let alone a seven-game series. (How would Boston feel if they "blew it up" last season only to see Derrick Rose go down with a torn ACL?)
The league is unpredictable, and fielding a team that competes night in and night out is a positive thing for both the ownership's bottom line, and the organization's long-term shot at competing for a championship. They should keep it together, and see what happens.
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