For those who don’t believe the NBA’s regular season matters, look no further than the 2012 Boston Celtics. A clashing mixture of grizzled warriors, self-aware journeymen, and still developing flowers on the cusp of a grand spring bloom, this unit grew into their individual roles, remodeling from a top heavy bag of creaky bones to a versatile, well-muscled monster in just under six months.
Very few basketball teams are able to squeeze out every single drop of talent like these Celtics just did. From Kevin Garnett’s resurgence as one of the NBA’s most valuable, and dominant, two-way forces, to Rajon Rondo making his final emphatic steps from economy to first class, to Ray Allen and Paul Pierce limping with gritted teeth through the most physically exerting action their sport has to offer, to timely gut checks from the likes of Greg Stiemsma, Mickael Pietrus, Keyon Dooling, and Brandon Bass, all that was asked for was delivered; in a way, watching it take place was even more fulfilling than a championship—although one of those would have been warmly embraced.
Today, that group and their season is permanently in the rearview mirror, and neither is ever coming back. As Danny Ainge looks ahead to the team’s most significant offseason in half a decade, several options lay at his feet, the most (un)popular being for him to “blow it up.” I never understand what people mean when they use this term for the Celtics. When the Charlotte Bobcats traded Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace, they blew it up. When the Portland Trailblazers fired their coach, hired a new general manager, and traded two veteran starters for a sack of unproven bench players and draft picks, they blew it up. When the Orlando Magic finally decide to deal Dwight Howard, they too will have blown it up.
To me, blowing it up means purposefully sabotaging a team’s infrastructure by replacing key figures with the hope of building a brand new foundation through the draft and cleared cap room. Blowing it up is becoming bad on purpose so that one day you can be really good. When you just came within one cold eight minute stretch of breaking into the NBA Finals, a complete overhaul probably isn’t the answer, and because of two crucial mid-first round draft picks made in the past six years, I don’t believe Ainge could if he really wanted to.
The two players I’m referring to are the aforementioned Rondo, who I could literally praise for days, and Avery Bradley. With them both onboard, the Celtics have a known strength that’s young, uber-talented, and only getting better. No matter what happens with anybody else on the roster, the Celtics will have Bradley and Rondo making up their backcourt next season, and an argument can be made that those two are not only be the league’s fiercest defensive guard tandem (the only comparable duo I can think of is the Grizzlies’ Tony Allen and Mike Conley), but overall, its best.
Let’s start with Rondo, who during the Eastern Conference Finals was knighted as a superstar by the superstar of superstars, LeBron James. From a viewpoint of predictability, Rondo might be the most difficult player in the entire NBA to game plan against. In the open court and in “no play” type situations (where the ball is loose or hanging in the air off a rebound), he’s impossible to stop. The strategy to lay off him in the half court has long been popular among head coaches throughout the league, but in doing so you’re giving up a wide open mid-range jump shot, which is increasingly becoming a not-so-great option (Rondo shot 46% from 16-24 feet in the playoffs. Taking into account the microscopic sample size, Chris Paul was 43.6% from this same range). If you play off him, not only do you give up a shot, but you make Rondo more comfortable than you or I watching on television from our living rooms. There’s no ball pressure, and no stress for him to force anything. You submit angles and openings for the game’s best passer, which when said aloud sounds idiotic. If he’s covered tight, bear witness to a blinding speed that either forces the defense to collapse—creating a wide open opportunity for someone else—or allows a one on one scoring opportunity at the rim—something Rondo is getting better and better at each year.
There’s much debate as to whether or not you can build a team around Rajon Rondo, and taking into account both sides of the fence, I believe you can for the simple fact that he directly makes teammates better. He might not lead his team in scoring (although it wouldn’t be shocking to see him do it next year, as his inability to do so is caused by self-restraint and not defensive scheme), but he takes over games in so many other ways that if he’s surrounded by the right pieces, the Celtics could definitely win a championship with him as their leader.
Rondo will be a legitimate preseason MVP candidate for the first time this summer. He is far and away the best player on the Celtics, and every free agent acquisition and draft pick should have “compatibility with Rondo” in mind as a priority. This means everyone on the court needs to have a respectable jump shot. This means the team’s primary offensive attack can now be a delayed transition with the addition of more young legs running up and down the court off of missed baskets. This means the entire defensive philosophy that favors “getting back” and setting up a brick wall in the half court can be tweaked to allow more atheltic players to hit the offensive glass, improving the team’s number one weakness. When one of the league’s top three point guards is entering his prime and under contract until 2016, it’s very difficult to blow anything up.
Now onto Bradley, a second year, 21-year-old defensive demon who changed the entire dynamic of Boston’s team after the All-Star break, vaulting them to the status of legitimate title contender. As everyone who’s seen him play already knows, the defense is more than capable of stacking up against any player at his position in the league, and the offensive development—alongside an intellectual play maker like Rondo—should be a joy to study. At 6’2″, Bradley is undersized, yes, but guess what? It doesn’t matter. Eric Gordon and Dwyane Wade are 6’4″, Kobe Bryant is about to retire, and when the Celtics go up against an elite point guard, Bradley can check him full court. Even when he doesn’t steal the ball, the impact of his ball pressure strains communication between the point guard and his coach as the two try to set up a desired play, while also taking crucial seconds off the shot clock so that when a play is finally run, it’s rushed and sloppy. For this reason and many others, Bradley is biological weaponry that no team can match.
Honestly, this is exciting. To have two limitless players working together on every possession at two crucial positions is something Celtics fans should more than look forward to over the next few seasons. Not to say Bradley and Rondo have flown under the radar by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re organic creations, which creates a distinctly different pride in terms of how a fan base treats them. (Not that Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett weren’t accepted by Celtics fans, but these two have a more protective feeling about them.) Because of these two players, Boston can dismiss the idea of “blowing it up” or re-tooling on the fly. They have the center piece and his side kick already in stow. Now it’s time to build around them.