From the moment the Celtics offloaded Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Doc Rivers, league observers assumed the Celtics were positioning themselves for another lottery shot at a franchise-changing talent. Those observers are probably right. Because Boston is still loaded with a lot of useful complementary talent, the smart money would be on Danny Ainge eventually offloading productive pieces like Brandon Bass and Jordan Crawford to a contender in need of reinforcements in return for some combination of young players, veterans on shorter contracts or future low draft picks. That path would see the Celtics consciously getting worse in the short term.
But there’s another path to consider. Maybe it’s just a thought experiment but if Rajon Rondo can return to the lineup by Christmas and then anything like peak form by the all-star break, this Celtics team could find itself somewhere in the 5-8 seed come playoff time. Rondo came in at a soft 27 on ESPN’s #nbarank project but that’s injury-contexted and assumes a long stretch of in-game recovery once’s he’s back. And that may not be as significant a concern given recent reports out of practice.
If by mid-season a top-5 pick looks out of the question, it could make sense for Boston to pivot and get better sooner.
What if the Celtics used some of their accumulated assets (predominantly first-round draft picks, but these have greater value than ever in today’s NBA) in a package with a young player or two and an expiring contract for a second or third-tier star? Think Carlos Boozer — but purely for illustration purposes; he’s too expensive. With the 11th-ranked defense in the league, but an offense that’s the fifth worst, Boston’s goal would be to add a scoring option to the array of weapons at Rondo’s disposal, in the hopes that the Celtics could get up to a mid-level offense in overall efficiency. This improvement would also be predicated on continued improvement from the likes of Jared Sullinger, Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk. You’d need to see each of those guys making strides as the year went on.
By taking this path, Boston would be, in effect, crafting a New England version of the recent Atlanta Hawks teams. That’s the kind of group that would be nobody’s favorite going into the playoffs, but that Brad Stevens could push deep into the second round or, if their second-round opponent happened to lose a key guy at a very inopportune time, to the conference finals. That’s hardly a sure thing. That’s the extreme, unlikely upside. But it’s at least feasible given the decrepit state of the Eastern Conference.
The real challenge for the Celtics would then come in the summer when Ainge would have to try and elevate a mediocre team into a title-contender. Because we don’t hang banners for division championships and all that jazz. That’s where this approach gets tricky. Unless somehow Boston can pry lose a disgruntled superstar from another team, or draw one in free agency, always a challenge with the cold Boston winters, there’s a real chance of living in the middle in perpetuity.
Ultimately, it’s hard to imagine Danny Ainge being baited by any short term gains if they slowed Boston’s return to the NBA Finals. He would probably find less utility in a 2014 playoff run through the weak East than either fans or ownership, the same way he was unimpressed with the prospect of the 2002 ECF team as an ongoing NBA power. Which means he’ll probably hold fast to his future picks, unless a legitimate star suddenly, unexpectedly becomes available. At this point, no batch of pre-Christmas wins is likely to alter the trajectory set into motion last spring. The future will not be sacrificed for the present. But at least these Celtics are proving punchy enough to make us consider that possibility.