Surely, that was it. The Celtics had traded their two highest-profile players, including a point guard in Rondo whose departure officially signaled the end of an era.
Boston was tanking, we all thought. There was no way it could possibly make the playoffs with that roster.
Then, after a shocking 89-88 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Feb. 11, Jared Sullinger went down for the season with a stress fracture.
The final blow had been made...right?
Not so fast.
Here we are in the middle of March, and the C's are smack dab in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
It's time to embrace it: The Celtics may just qualify for the postseason.
This was something that many (including myself) felt would be a poor outcome for Boston this year. It wouldn't go anywhere in the playoffs, so why bother making them?
Well, I have had a change of heart. Not about Boston making noise in May, but about the team finding its way into the dance.
C's fans: You should jump aboard, as well.
Let me tell you why.
Draft Pick Status
Last season, the Celtics won 25 games. They had a realistic chance of earning a top-three draft pick. While they didn't get lucky in the lottery, their record was poor enough where they were able to land the No. 6 overall selection and select Marcus Smart.
This time around, Boston's draft position likely won't be so rosy.
As it stands, the Celtics are 30-37, tied for eighth place in the East.
Barring some incredible lottery fortune, the C's will almost surely end up with a pick around No. 10 if they don't make the playoffs. They are just too far ahead of the worst teams in the league to start tanking now, having already shattered their win total from 2013-14.
So, if the Celtics do make the playoffs, their pick will not take that much of a hit.
Let's assume they grab the No. 8 seed in the East. That would give them the 15th selection in the first round. Is there really that much of a difference between 10 and 15?
That's not to say that there is no variation at all, but the gap there is generally not the same as the gap between five and 10.
With the chance of a top-three pick basically out the window, Boston may as well just sneak into the postseason and give the fans at least a couple more home games.
Some of you may think of making the playoffs as a bad thing because it takes the Celtics out of the running for the lottery, but look at it this way: It also demonstrates that general manager Danny Ainge is doing a solid job of accumulating talent.
Yes, it is the East, but regardless, Boston is clearly making progress. Ainge has put together a group of young players that is certainly capable of winning some games. Guys such as Smart, Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Zeller and the freshly acquired Isaiah Thomas have been playing very well as a collective unit, and that is a terrific sign moving forward.
Obviously, the roster is not entirely set yet. There are some holes that need to be addressed, particularly in the frontcourt. However, it doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility that the backcourt is already in place.
Perhaps the most likable quality of the Celtics' guard play has been Smart's remarkable defensive prowess.
The rookie was always known as a great defender in college, but some felt there would be a learning curve for him on the NBA level. That hasn't been the case, as Smart has already stamped his name among the elite perimeter defenders in the league.
What makes Smart so good on that end of the floor is his blend of size (6'4", 220 lbs), strength, athleticism and toughness. He can harass point guards bringing the ball up the floor, body up 2-guards and even switch on to big men in the post. Smart has also proved to be deadly as a double-teamer.
Just take a look at some of his highlights from this season:
That isn't to say that Smart has been solely a defensive juggernaut. He has had his offensive moments this season, such as dropping 25 points in a 122-118 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder Wednesday night. Smart, a youngster who has always been chastised for his lack of an outside shot, drained seven three-pointers.
Prior to the game against the Thunder, head coach Brad Stevens had high praise for the Oklahoma State product, but as you would expect, it was Smart's defense that had Stevens glowing.
"He was as ready defensively as any 20-year-old player could be," said Stevens, per Chris Forsberg of ESPN Boston. "I would say that’s probably unusual."
How important has Smart been to the C's this year? Forsberg breaks it down:
Since Smart rejoined the starting group on Feb. 3, the Celtics are 14-7. That .667 winning percentage ranks Boston seventh in the NBA over the past month and a half, trailing only a pack of six playoff-bound teams, including some of the top seeds in each conference.
Forsberg then stated how Smart nearly carried Boston to a huge road win, sans Thomas:
These Celtics, especially while playing without offensive spark plug Isaiah Thomas, need an aggressive Smart on the offensive end. Smart connected on five of the six shots he put up in the second quarter while scoring 14 points that helped Boston carry a four-point lead into the intermission.
Smart finished plus-10 in plus/minus on a night when none of his teammates were in the positive. And he continued to do the little things that have made him so valuable even when he hasn't been a consistent offensive threat.
There was a hustle block on Dion Waiters that prevented an easy layup in transition in the first quarter. Or two instances of heads-up outlet passes that created easy buckets, including a third-quarter sequence in which Smart chased down a long rebound and had the presence of mind to immediately push the ball ahead through traffic to Jae Crowder for an easy dunk.
We may be witnessing the development of a special player in Smart.
Throw in the fact that Bradley is a terrific defender, as well, and you have an awesome tandem and arguably the best defensive backcourt in the league.
That's why Thomas fits in so well.
The former Phoenix Sun complements Smart and Bradley perfectly with his ability to take over games offensively.
During the 2014-15 campaign, Thomas is averaging 16.3 points and recording a true shooting percentage of 58 percent. With Smart and Bradley having predominantly inefficient shooting seasons, Thomas has been a mitigating presence.
Of course, Thomas getting healthy is key. The diminutive guard has missed the past five games with swelling in his tailbone, and he is going to be out just a bit longer, per A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com:
Once Thomas returns, we will get to see that exciting trio of guards in action again.
Get used to it. We may seeing a lot of that over the next five years.
If you were a free agent, would you rather go to a team that has been in the lottery for two consecutive years, or would you prefer to play for an up-and-coming squad that has already flashed considerable promise?
The Celtics making the playoffs could pay some dividends in free agency this summer.
No, they probably won't be signing the Marc Gasols or LaMarcus Aldridges of the world, but there are plenty of other players in this deep free-agent class who can be of significant help to Boston.
Signing young and talented players on good contracts is key to progressing as a franchise, and the C's have put themselves in a solid position to do that in the coming months.
How nice would it be for the Celtics to finally add a rim protector to their frontline? They will have their chances to do that in the offseason. Two impending free agents who immediately come to mind are Omer Asik and Robin Lopez. Or, if Boston would prefer a cheaper option, Kosta Koufos will be available, as well.
That's what's so nice about Boston right now: You can clearly identify its needs. It's not like the beginning of last year where the entire roster was a question mark. It's a process, and the C's have moved forward quite a bit since starting this rebuild.
Ainge recently said as much, per Paul Flannery of SB Nation:
We're always building toward something. There's different phases. I feel like every day is a building day until we get there. There's all kinds of different phases along the way. It's not like there's Phase 1, Phase 2, Phase 3. Sometimes you can go from Phase 1 to Phase 2 to Phase 10 and you're there. Sometimes it takes a lot longer. We have a lot of good players, but we don't have any superstars.
This is very true.
The Celtics may not have any superstars, but they have numerous pieces in place who can either stay for the long haul or be used as chips to trade for a superstar. Remember: Boston not only has young talent but also a wealth of draft picks at its disposal.
Free agents will absolutely take that into consideration, too. If you're someone on the level of a Greg Monroe or a Tobias Harris, you will look for your best opportunities while also examining each potential situation to see which direction your prospective suitor is going. Is it just starting a rebuild? Is it doing it wrong? Or, is it on the come-up?
The C's fall into that latter category. It's clear that Ainge has a vision and is assembling the necessary pieces to realize it. He may not have one set way of reaching his final destination, but there is undoubtedly a framework that could have multiple ways of manifesting itself. Ainge's job is to explore every avenue and then evaluate his choices. He has done a spectacular job of that thus far.
Playing in big games is invaluable to young players, and what better way to do that than to make the postseason?
Sooner or later, the Celtics are going to be contending, and when I say "contending," I don't mean fighting for a playoff spot. I mean they are going to be challenging for the Eastern Conference crown.
For that reason, it would be wise to get the youngsters some playoff experience early to give them a taste of what it's like.
Let's look at a ballclub such as the Golden State Warriors, for example. They are just now starting to fully blossom, but make no mistake about it: Qualifying for the playoffs two years ago when they were still young pups was very significant in their development.
Of course, this Boston team is not nearly as talented as the 2012-13 Warriors, but the premise remains the same: make the postseason and play in some big games so the players aren't shell-shocked when they are ready to legitimately contend a couple of years later.
The Celtics' recent stretch of winning basketball may already be having positive mental effects. Stevens insists that his players haven't even been talking about the playoffs, per Mike Petraglia of WEEI.com:
I don't know. I haven't heard them talk about it once. I'm dead serious. I mean, we've talked about it, we've seen the standings, like you see it but I don't hear it. I have not hear them say whoever Miami's playing today, or who's Charlotte playing today? They haven't talked about it around me; maybe they are, I don't know.
If what Stevens says is true, that entails that the Boston players have taken a very professional attitude about all of this and that they are not rattled by the pressure.
Obviously, the winning atmosphere is already rubbing off on the young guns.
Who Wouldn't Want to See Playoff Basketball?
For a fanbase that has been spoiled over much of the past decade, a return to the postseason will certainly be a breath of fresh air after an abysmal 2013-14 campaign.
It's not like Boston would be backing in, either. The ballclub has been playing very good basketball of late, even beating Western Conference ballclubs such as the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans. The C's would be going into the playoffs with confidence, and while they would almost surely be eliminated in the first round, they would still be fun to watch.
Again, qualifying for the dance would be a sign of things to come. It wouldn't just be a "well, they are better than the Nets and Hornets" sort of deal. It would essentially serve as a rite of passage for this young squad and represent the beginning of what could end up being a very fruitful journey in the coming years.
Get on board, Celtics fans.