With the Celtics rounding back into 2010-11 form (excellent defense, mediocre offense, poor rebounding) Danny Ainge will soon face a decision. Are the Celtics good enough to go three or four rounds deep in the playoffs with the kinds of upgrades he can pull off in the next six weeks? And what upgrades might he pursue?
Right now, the C’s are probably a second round out to Miami or Chicago. At absolute best, they lose in the conference finals, but even that may be a stretch, given the age of the core players and the weaknesses noted above. It’s a safe bet that Ainge has a less romantic view of a final, desperate run for this core than many fans, especially if he believes the outcome is, at best, going a couple of rounds deep. It’s bloodless, but I think Ainge has to seriously augment or disassemble this core.
The real gap is at the center position. You’d be forgiven for having doubts about Avery Bradley and E’Twaun Moore’s abilities to handle high-pressure playoff minutes but finding a Sam Cassell or Stephon Marbury is a lot easier than finding a mid-season big, as Mikki Moore made clear a couple of years ago. A center that could haul in some rebounds, trigger the fast break, protect the rim and score a little bit would be significant.
There’s a possibility of organic improvement from within. Chris Wilcox can probably move his 17.3 DRR back up to somewhere around 22, which would help. It’s less certain that Kevin Garnett can repeat his renaissance of last year. He’s slipped from a 28.7 DRR to a 22.5. That may be his new normal and his offense is no more assertive than last year, save for the three-point shooting. Of course, Jermaine O’Neal remains Jermaine O’Neal, which is to say that if Ainge is counting on him to be available in the spring, he hasn’t learned the lessons of last season.
The challenge for Ainge is that he has precious few assets to move in return for upgrades, without touching his core. He could move any of Moore, Bradley and JaJuan Johnson. Packaged with a draft pick, they have some value. But probably not enough to get what this team needs.
Chris Kaman remains a viable, if unlikely, possibility if the Hornets eventually buy him out.
Beyond that, there are few obvious fixes for what ails the Celtics, unless Ainge is inclined to move Rajon Rondo and seriously alter the core of the team in mid-season. That didn’t work last year with the OKC trade. But that was more about the specific pieces he received and lost than the act of making a deal. It certainly wouldn’t be beyond Ainge to try something like that again.
The numbers don’t lie. Despite better depth and a younger roster, the Celtics aren’t materially better than they were last season, and that wasn’t good enough.
Something has to be done.
One way or another.