The Boston Celtics entered the 2013-14 season with devastatingly low expectations. So far, they've had trouble meeting them.
They had a new coach, Brad Stevens, who’d called exactly zero plays from an NBA sideline, an injured star point guard expected to miss the first couple months (at least) and a roster mostly filled out with replacement-level players.
Boston was supposed to struggle through a treacherous November—with six games played on the second half of a back-to-back and 11 road games against six teams that made the playoffs last season—then limp into December with their tale between their legs.
Instead, after losing their first four games, the Celtics have been one of the NBA’s most pleasant surprises. They’re now 10-13, playing cohesive, coordinated basketball on the defensive end while getting career years from the likes of Jordan Crawford, Brandon Bass, Jeff Green and Avery Bradley.
This all sounds like a wonderful story of grit and perseverance, but the short-term success could have negative consequences down the line. The Celtics are rebuilding at exactly the right time, with a 2014 NBA draft on the horizon that's loaded with six or seven players who have All-Star potential.
Being that young blue-chip talent is the NBA’s second-most sought-after commodity (behind an established superstar), Boston’s management badly wants one to groom.
But if they overachieve and make the playoffs, a lottery pick will be lost, and a wonderful opportunity will be wasted. One question Boston needs to figure out in the months ahead: Can they "turn it around" and get back "on track" (to losing) even if they wanted to?
Boston's unexpected play isn't the only reason they're so high in the standings. Through the season’s quarter mark, the Atlantic Division has been a complete disgrace, with the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets combining to go 12-29. This is an obvious surprise, as both teams qualified for the playoffs last season, then spent the summer making notable additions to their rosters.
Both teams have way more talent than Boston, but both have struggled through injuries to key players such as Tyson Chandler, Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Paul Pierce and Andrei Kirilenko. New York’s two teams should pass the Celtics in the standings once they become stable and healthy, but so far neither looks like the division’s best team.
If Boston wants to help those squads out (as well as other Eastern Conference teams that publicly remain committed to a playoff berth—the Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks—the best way to do so would be with a trade that undercuts the team’s current prosperity in favor of assets that will help in the future.
But how much worse can they get by moving their veterans?
Courtney Lee, Bass, Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace—despite the $30.3 million he’s due over this season and the next two, which shreds all remnants of trade value left for his deteriorating skills, we’ll throw Wallace in for the sake of counting every Celtic who won’t be around to see Boston’s rebuild through—and Keith Bogans rank eighth, ninth, 10th, 12th and 13th on the roster in usage rate, respectively.
They aren’t impact role players, and if any are dealt (apart from Bass, who’s a key contributor on both ends), Boston’s depth is hurt more than its immediate production.
The depth issue could be resolved, though, if similar replacement-level players on shorter contracts come back in a trade and are then implemented into the rotation.
If Boston general manager Danny Ainge is serious about improving his team’s odds in the draft, there are two players on the roster who both have legitimate value on the trade market and are helping Boston win games right now: Crawford and Green.
Crawford’s been a revelation, named Eastern Conference player of the week for his work from Dec. 2 through Dec. 8. As the point guard keeping the seat warm for incumbent starter Rajon Rondo, Crawford has played the best basketball of his career. He leads the team in PER, assist rate and is second in True Shooting percentage.
He’s the only Celtic able to consistently create offensive opportunities for others off the dribble, and losing him before Rondo’s back in the swing of things would throw Boston’s 21st-ranked offense into a wood chipper.
Seriously. A wood chipper. When Crawford sits the Celtics average 93.1 points per 100 possessions, which is a full point worse than the 30th-ranked Milwaukee Bucks.
Green is Boston’s leading scorer and most potent offensive threat. He can put the ball in the basket from a variety of areas, meander around double-teams and spread the floor as a spot-up sniper. Here's his shot chart so far this season.
Green is above average from behind the three-point line, but also incredibly gifted in the open floor, especially in transition. Green has a $9.2 million player option, in 2016, so that contract is more than tradable should any team be looking for offensive assistance in its frontcourt.
As individuals, the players aren’t the cause for success, though. They’re an orchestra conducted by Stevens; note after note their timing is unexpectedly on point.
Avery Bradley is a perfect example. Despite standing just 6'2", he is not a point guard, so after four games Stevens moved him off the ball. Now he’s thriving as a prolific mid-range shooter (only six players in the league have attempted more) while still living up to his reputation as one of the world’s cruelest on-ball defenders.
Boston was supposed to be a dishonorable basketball team. Restless veterans would eventually become disgruntled, while young talent was supposed to crumble in the face of increased responsibility.
With no Kevin Garnett, and no rim-protector ready to replace him, the defense was supposed to be the weakest part of all. Instead it’s a strength, Brad Stevens has everybody moving on a string and the playoffs don’t seem like a mirage anymore.
Even if the team secretly wants it to be.
Michael Pina has bylines at Bleacher Report, Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Sports On Earth and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.