Boston Celtics' 5 Most Encouraging Developments from Rebuilding Season
As the most decorated franchise in NBA history, the Boston Celtics are in unfamiliar territory. Most realistic Celtics fans understood 2013-14 would be a rebuilding season, and after a brief stay at the top of the Atlantic Division, it appears Boston is more interested in tallying ping-pong balls than wins.
Nevertheless, simply landing a top-five pick is not a magic elixir.
The Celtics need some semblance of a foundation to build off of, and this season is about weeding out which players are part of the future and which ones are simply placeholders.
Despite the meager win total, it appears Boston has unearthed a few keepers. Moreover, it appears the team-building process is in good hands, with Danny Ainge continuing to pile up picks and first-year coach Brad Stevens earning universally rave reviews.
The Celtics will almost certainly miss the postseason and suffer a losing record for the first time since the pre-Big Three era. However, here are a few developments that C's fans can hold on to as legitimate hope for the future.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com, accurate as of Friday, Feb. 6.
No. 5: Danny Ainge Keeps Stockpiling Chips
The value of draft picks is skyrocketing around the league, as teams have emphasized the importance of acquiring cost-controlled talent.
Thus, if draft picks equate to trade currency, then Boston's coffers are the envy of the league. The Celtics own as many as 10 first-round picks over the next five drafts, with 2017 being the only year over that span when they do not hold at least two first rounders.
Hoarding these chips grants general manager Danny Ainge tremendous flexibility to adapt on the fly.
If Boston wants to go out and add a long-term piece—like they attempted to do with Omer Asik—Ainge has the ammunition. Alternatively, the C's can also hold on to the picks to restock a roster short on potential top-tier talent, as they may choose to do this draft.
And that cheap talent may prove not only beneficial, but also necessary given Boston's cap situation.
Per ShamSports.com, the Celtics have about $54.6 million committed to the cap next season, but that does not include potential extensions for either Rajon Rondo or Avery Bradley. If the Celtics keep both those players, they may not be able to fit another max contract under the cap until after 2015-16, when Gerald Wallace and Jeff Green could combine to grant $19.2 million of breathing space.
Of course, knowing Ainge's history, the Celtics roster and salary commitments will have changed drastically by then.
Eventually, Boston must convert its assets into a tangible franchise player or two, something that will require both skill and luck. At the very least, Ainge has maximized the number of chances the Celtics get to unearth a championship-caliber roster.
No. 4: Avery Bradley Remembered How to Shoot
Avery Bradley's viability as a long-term NBA player has never been in question due to his exemplary perimeter defense. However, the frustrating inconsistencies with his jumper have kept Bradley from evolving into a two-way difference-maker.
While Bradley may never be confused for Ray Allen, he's at least turned himself into a net positive.
The Celtics' offensive rating is about two points better with Bradley on the court this year. Some of that is just statistical noise since he generally plays with the starting unit, but it's plainly evident that the fourth-year guard has looked much more comfortable without regular ball-handling duties.
That's not to say that Bradley cannot thrive as a secondary ball-handler; indeed, his improved shooting has given the offense more flexibility in pick-and-roll sets. Bradley is shooting an impressive 43.9 percent on mid-range jumpers, which is especially valuable considering that only seven players have exceeded his 310 mid-range attempts.
Much like Rajon Rondo did last year, Bradley is hitting open shots from pick-and-rolls as his defenders go under the pick. In fact, the shot charts of 2013-14 Bradley and 2012-13 Rondo look eerily similar at the moment—notice the nice swaths of green at the top of the key extending out to the wings.
Combined with a passable 35 percent three-point shooting percentage, Bradley is providing spacing that he simply could not last season.
Now two years removed from surgeries on both shoulders, it appears the soon-to-be restricted free agent has earned a raise, one he fully deserves so long as he remains an above-average shooter.
No. 3: Jared Sullinger's Potential as a 20-10 Player
When Jared Sullinger fell to the Celtics in the 2012 draft, this is exactly the type of steal Boston envisioned he could become.
On a per-36-minute basis, Sullinger is averaging an eye-opening 17.4. points and 10.6 rebounds. Per Basketball-Reference.com, only 14 other players this season have matched those numbers. Seeing Sullinger's name alongside the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard and Tim Duncan should be enough to get any Celtics fan salivating.
Quite simply, everything is better.
Sullinger holds the fifth highest offensive rebounding rates among players with at least 25 minutes per game, and tweaks like the addition of a three-point shot and improved post defense have rounded out his game on both sides of the floor.
Sullinger will always have some limits because of his size. Nevertheless, in roughly over one season's worth of games, Sullinger has established himself as one of the better two-way post players in the league.
Consequently, the second-year forward owns the best contract on the Celtics roster. Sullinger will earn a meager $1.4 million next year and has a $2.3 million team option in 2015-16 that Boston will certainly pick up.
He'll become a restricted free agent after that, but so long as no more medical red flags emerge about his back history, Sullinger looks like one of the most surefire long-term pieces on the current roster.
No. 2: Brad Stevens Looks Like the Real Deal
When fans and media refer to building blocks, they usually refer to players. However, it appears the Celtics' best long-term asset is not on the court, but rather on the sidelines in the form of precocious coach Brad Stevens.
That notion is not simply a product of Boston's relatively barren roster, either. Stevens has emerged as both an X's and O's wizard as well as a firm general who has a steady grasp over a young locker room.
Stevens' rational approach is supremely important in a league where the advanced statistics movement has created organizational divisions over on- and off-court philosophies.
But as MassLive.com's Jay King notes, Stevens and Danny Ainge are unified in their understanding of Boston's short- and long-term goals:
But Stevens is obviously on board with president of basketball operations Danny Ainge’s focus on the future. The coach wants to win now, but he knew when he signed with the Celtics they would be undertaking a rebuilding process. He’s being patient with his approach. ...
“I’m not privy to every part of every decision that our management and leadership team will make. But I trust them and I love the idea (that) we’re really looking to be as good as we can be, for as long as we can be,” Stevens said. “Obviously not only with Anthony, but with all these picks that are just adding up and adding up and adding up, you’re going to have a lot of flexibility moving forward.”
If this season is all about development, Stevens falls into that category as well as his players.
Culture is often a crutch used to explain success or failure in the absence of helpful analysis, but considering how far "Ubuntu" carried the last Celtics era, it is encouraging that Stevens continues to coax admirable night-to-night effort out of a losing squad.
No. 1: Rajon Rondo Is Still Wearing Green
Trying to follow all the head-spinning contradictions surrounding Rajon Rondo trade rumors is enough to make one dizzy. But what is clear is that Rondo is currently a Celtic, and possibly for the long haul as well.
Though Rondo reportedly turned down an extension offer, per CBS Boston, the mere fact that an offer was made implies that the Celtics are cooling on trading their All-Star point guard. Danny Ainge has repeatedly diffused speculation that Rondo would leave, and there have been no concrete reasons to believe otherwise.
The numbers are predictably poor as Rondo shakes off the rust—the turnovers are up, shooting percentages and assist rate down.
Nevertheless, he has recently shown better form, nearly posting triple-doubles against Orlando on Feb. 2 and Philadelphia on Feb. 5. The Sixers game is particularly eye-opening, as Rondo played a season-high 32 minutes.
But this season is more about helping Rondo round back into form than his pure numbers. The more pressing issue is determining his long-term fit on the roster, a verdict that will determine if and how far the Celtics are willing to extend themselves to keep Rondo.
The argument against Rondo is fairly straightforward—he is a head case whose playing style does not lend itself to alpha-dog status (even if his personality does). However, it's important to remember that the Celtics could land a primary scoring option with a potential top-five pick in the 2014 draft.
For a young player like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Marcus Smart, having Rondo around to create scoring opportunities for them should theoretically make the adjustment to the NBA game significantly easier.
Rondo has proven he can be a 1A or 1B player on a championship-caliber team, and there is little reason why he cannot be part of the next great Celtics squad.