Buying or Selling Boston Celtics as Eastern Conference Contenders
Don't get me wrong, the Celtics and their fans should be excited about extending their win streak to six games after a 116-95 drubbing of the rival Los Angeles Lakers. It speaks volumes of the C's that they've managed to follow up a six-game skid with a positive string of equal length, all without the services of Rajon Rondo, who's out for the remainder of the 2012-13 campaign with a torn ACL.
It's even more impressive that they've won these games by an average of 10 points despite topping the 100-point plateau just twice in regulation.
They've done it by moving the ball on offense, defending in typical Celtics fashion and working hard and playing in unison on both ends of the court.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves here, folks. Despite all the excitement that this recent run of success has (justifiably) generated, the C's are still far from worthy of being called Eastern Conference contenders.
Let's first consider the competition against which Boston has built up this recent surge. It began with a 100-98 overtime win against a Miami Heat team that's made a habit of playing with sub-par effort and allowing inferior opponents to hang around this season.
Since that game on January 27, the Heat have been pounded by the Indiana Pacers and played needlessly nail-biting affairs against such "juggernauts" as the Toronto Raptors, the Charlotte Bobcats and the Houston Rockets.
Then came an 18-point win over the Sacramento Kings, who've won all of five times away from their soon-to-be-former home of Sleep Train Arena. Up next was a 13-point pummeling of an Orlando Magic outfit that's lost 22 of its last 24 amidst injuries to Arron Afflalo, Glen Davis, J.J. Redick and Jameer Nelson, to name a few.
Boston's two-point win over the Los Angeles Clippers would've been impressive if not for Chris Paul's absence. The Clips had lost by 25 points to the Toronto Raptors just two nights prior without him in the lineup.
Speaking of the Raps, the Celts squeaked by Canada's only club by four points on February 6 before returning home to take on a Lakers squad in disarray. Remember, the Purple and Gold were without Pau Gasol on account of a foot injury and thoroughly distracted by shoulder-related sniping between Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard via the media.
This isn't to totally discount what the C's have done. After all, a win's a win, and six in a row counts just the same in the standings, where Boston now sits in seventh place with a record of 26-23.
Trying to derive additional meaning from these victories is overstating the impact and importance of this current turnaround. As recently detailed by some schlub, the C's need Rondo to reach their full potential, particularly in the postseason, wherein the All-Star point guard has proven in the past that he can and will rise to the occasion.
However, if Bill Duffy, Rondo's agent, is to be believed, the Celtics might be made whole sooner than expected.
Barring a miraculous recovery from a partially-torn ACL, though, the C's should expect to tackle a road-heavy schedule with Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley covering for Rondo's contributions up top. With or without Rondo, the C's were, and are, far from so much as challenging the Heat, the New York Knicks, the Indiana Pacers and the Chicago Bulls for supremacy in the East.
It's not like the C's exactly have the pieces or the partners to wheel and deal their way to instant title contention. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are Boston's only attractive assets at the moment. However, the former has a no-trade, the latter is a franchise legend and neither figures to bring back the sorts of players (i.e. a true post player and/or a pick-and-roll big) that could put the C's over the top.
Not to mention the fact that those two vets constitute the heart and soul of the C's, and as such, dealing one or both of them would shred the fabric on which this team relies.
It wouldn't exactly behoove the Celtics to try to go the other way, either. Rare (if not nonexistent) is the contending team willing to yield young players and draft picks for a future Hall of Famer in his mid-to-late 30's who draws an eight-figure salary. Rumors of KG going to the Clippers for Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler or DeAndre Jordan were summarily shot down.
And as much as general manager Danny Ainge once bragged about putting basketball ahead of sentimentality as it pertains to retaining franchise legends, he'd be loath to give up The Truth for anything less than a "Godfather" offer.
More importantly, the C's have a good thing going right now. They're playing hard and coming together, they're winning games and the fans are enjoying it. Why ruin that?
Unfortunately, you can't contend for a title every year, and you certainly can't attempt to do so with the sort of window-dressing in which the Celtics engaged this past summer. A surprising run to the brink of the 2012 NBA Finals lent Ainge license enough to re-sign KG and replace Ray Allen with a consortium of guards when in reality, the organization probably would've been better served in the long run by attempting to start over.
Are the Celtics good enough to win the title this season?
But Pierce was there, and so was Rondo—the former, a career-long Celtic who deserved the dignity of another shot, the latter a superstar-in-the-making who presumably could help Pierce get what he wanted.
All of which leaves the C's where they are today, stuck in the "demilitarized zone" between the cream of the crop and the bottom of the barrel.
That might not be the worst thing, for now, at least. They can run their multiple-pick-and-roll sets, as Grantland's Zach Lowe broke down so beautifully, and grind out some wins on the defensive end while they await Rondo's return. Once he's proven his fitness, the Celtics can explore the market more and determine whether they want to keep Rondo or hit the "Restart" button in earnest.
In the meantime, they might as well enjoy the ride, which may be the last for Garnett and Pierce as a tandem in Beantown.
Who knows? Maybe the C's will get lucky come playoff time. Perhaps the injury bug will strike their most daunting foes, as it did the Bulls and the Heat last year.
And to the team's credit, Boston has already racked up wins against each of the East's top four at the moment. A playoff-series upset against a familiar foe is certainly feasible for this team.
A title, though? Might as well keep chasing leprechauns.
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