Remember: The Boston Celtics aren’t tanking. They’re rebuilding.
Whatever you want to call it, the reality is the Celtics probably won’t be winning many games in 2013-14. Highs will be few and far between.
In a season that at times will be tough to endure, Boston has to find a few reasons to celebrate.
I’m not talking moral victories here. Sure certain wins will mean more than others, but individual success will lead to team success. Some positives will take place off the court. Even the front office can give reason to cheer with some shrewd moves.
It’s going to be a long season that will feel longer as losses pile up. Despite the growing pains, the Celtics will find a handful of reasons to smile:
Jared Sullinger had a successful preseason, finishing third on the Celtics in points per game and second in rebounds per game.
Sullinger’s primary critique is he’s not in game shape. That’s understandable considering this is his first action since he left a win over the Sacramento Kings on January 30th after playing just four minutes.
Following surgery to repair a lumbar disk and many hours of rehabilitation and training, Sullinger is back on the court playing his typical physical style.
Now, the Celtics hope Sullinger stays on the court. He was a medical risk entering the 2012 NBA draft because of his back according to ESPN.com. The surgery fixed this problem, but for many with back issues, surgery is either a temporary fix or other problems arise over time.
Maintenance will be key for Sullinger going forward. Keeping up core strength and flexibility will help. And constant vigilance might be necessary throughout his career to ensure Sullinger’s back doesn’t trouble him again or at least keep flare-ups to a minimum.
Without Rajon Rondo to start the season, Boston will lean on Sullinger to be a leader for a team that’s going through transition. Sullinger is being looked at as a pillar for the Celtics, but he can’t support the team if his back keeps acting up.
Much like a “Do Not Open ‘till Christmas” note on a gift, Boston must wait until December for the return of its best player. As much as Rondo wanted to be back in time for the season opener, his body and his doctors told Rondo he must wait.
Rondo might not be waiting for long. The point guard recently said to The Boston Herald, “I’m getting fitted for my first brace, and I don’t think contact will be too far from there.”
The next step after contact for Rondo might be easing him back to full speed. If he suffers no setbacks, Rondo will be back on the court.
Even after returning to game action, Rondo’s repaired knee will be closely monitored. Initially, Rondo’s minutes might be limited as his knee regains strength. Maybe, occasionally, Rondo will be held out of games due to soreness. However long it takes to get Rondo back to his former self, the Celtics will be patient with his recovery.
So, what if this costs the Celtics a few games here and there? That helps Boston achieve the ultimate goal. But there are still a couple of objectives the Celtics hope to cross off their list first.
Wins and losses won’t determine the success of this season. But there are two wins over former mates that would be particularly enjoyable.
And the first two take place on back-to-back nights.
By the NBA’s design, Boston will travel to Brooklyn on December 10th to see Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The next night the Los Angeles Clippers stop at the TD Garden with new head coach Doc Rivers.
Rondo, though he won’t admit it, still has fond memories of winning a championship—Boston’s 17th—with the three mentioned above. Other players appreciate the leadership they received.
They will always have the relationship with Garnett, Pierce and Rivers. And just like any relationship between competitive people, beating the ones closest to you are always the most satisfying.
There’s no animosity here—just bragging rights at stake. Getting wins over former teammates when not expected to win will be gratifying for the Celtics. The Nets can have the season series. Boston wants just one win over their former comrades to avoid the embarrassment of being swept by Brooklyn.
There might be a chip on Boston’s shoulder in regards to Rivers, though. The he said-he said bickering between Rivers and Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge over Rivers’ departure got beyond annoying. And the players Rivers left behind might interpret it as Rivers turning his back on them. The Celtics only get two shots at Doc, so there’s very little margin for error.
The difficult part is Rondo might not be ready to play by early December. Boston might not have a chance at winning either game without Rondo. Gratification might have to wait until January when they visit the Clippers at the Staples Center on the eighth and when the Nets come to Boston on the 26th.
The moment after the blockbuster trade was completed and Boston’s roster was evaluated, my conclusion was the Celtics weren’t that bad.
The roster lacked balance with no true center at the time and six guards. But individually the players have certain skills that are valuable. If head coach Brad Stevens can replicate his collegiate over-achieving success at the pro level, he could get the best out of some of these players:
Kris Humphries was a reliable double-double machine as recently as 2011-12. A player that goes all-out like Gerald Wallace does every night is the kind of player every team wants on its roster. During his rookie season, MarShon Brooks showed promise as an instant offense scorer.
And if Stevens can get the best out of all of his players, they will become more valuable in trades.
None of the Brooklyn four will ever have their number hanging from the rafters. Maybe half of them won’t finish the season with Boston. Their long-term value to a rebuilding team isn’t high.
What they could do is bring in more young talent and draft picks when flipped to contending teams or franchises that want to shed salary.
No one is off limits. Even though Ainge said to The Boston Globe he’s building around Rondo, Ainge will listen to every offer. And if some team knocks Ainge’s socks off with an irresistible offer, Ainge will pull the trigger.
So don’t get attached to anyone. Bradley, already appealing for his defense, would really up his value if he contributes offensively nightly. Sullinger or Kelly Olynyk would look nice coming off a contender’s bench. And because the 2014 draft could be deep at the small forward position, Ainge could move Jeff Green in anticipation of selecting Green’s replacement.
Most of the players are solid players. But if Ainge can exchange anyone or package a few players to put the Celtics in position to add a franchise player or two, he will make the trade.
The trade deadline is February 20th, 2014.
Imagine this—as it could very well happen:
It took 25 games, but Boston is finally clicking. They are playing with tempo, the defense is stingy, and they’ve won seven out of 10 games.
Just as the chemistry developed, a trade happens, knocking the Celtics off their momentum.
Or maybe a couple of players take a little longer to return from nagging injuries. Maybe Sullinger and/or Rondo get some maintenance days off because of “soreness” related to their offseason surgeries.
Boston isn’t alone in their rebuilding effort. To ensure it works, it might take a little manipulating to guarantee the best shot at a high lottery selection.
Boston has been burned before by taking their chances with the NBA lottery. But the Celtics, armed with multiple first round draft selections over the next few years, don’t have to rely solely on the draft to rebuild the team.
Presently built, 30-to-35 wins seems possible for the Celtics. That should be enough to fall short of the playoffs but also show promise for a quick turnaround in the future.
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