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How Good Could This Celtics Team Be?

 


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.

  • just_mufkn_tank

    just fn tank. dont want to be the next Atlanta Hawks. get in the playoffs every year as a 5, 6, 7 seed…theres no point. just tank baby. lose every single fn game

  • High Rollers

    Now you’re talkin’, Ryan!

    Let loose the Playoff Rondo!

  • hax

    Also wanted to point this out, slightly on-topic. Our Nets pick in the next draft is actually swap-able by Atlanta(due to joe johnson trade). So if Atlanta ends up 3rd in the east, and Nets worst in the league, we won't get that pick, we'd get the low 1st rounders of the hawks instead.

    Just pointing that out incase anyone is sitting home grinning at the Nets/Celtics both missing the play-offs.
    Right now with Rondo's return, Hawks and Celtics and Nets could all make the play-offs, leaving us with no lottery picks.

    • Mark

      Talk about absolute worst case scenario. Just thinking of it playing out that way makes me want to barf.

  • TMC

    One bright side, we also have Brooklyn's 2016 and 2018 first round draft picks, and–correct me if I'm wrong– but those aren't protected and they don't involve swaps. Who knows what that roster will look like after 2015 (D. Williams is the only one under contract). There's the hope they really suck over that time period while we build toward something.

    By the looks of the NBA right now, even this Boston club is good enough to play itself out of the top 5 in the lottery: Utah looks abysmal, Sacramento and Milwaukee don't look a whole lot better, Philly is overachieving right now (have you seen that bench? yeesh), and Cleveland is a Kyre Irving injury away from a top three pick as well.

    Let's face it, Were not going to be bad enough to get Parker, Wiggins, or Randle. So tanking is probably not possible this year. There are other ways to build other than bottoming out, and we will probably have to explore those options further.

    • dslack

      And the Celtics have the right to swap picks with the Nets in 2017.

      • hax

        Billy King really likes these 'swapped picks' in trades.

  • dslack

    There's this common belief that the Celtics can't sign free agents (because of cold winters or something, like that stopped NYK from signing Amare or Chicago from signing Boozer).

    I see no evidence for such a belief. The Celtics have often signed their primary MLE target, and basically haven't ever had cap space.

    • greenboner

      players don't see boston the same as chicago and especially new york.if your a black millionaire boston is one of the most boring places in the country.plus the broads with money have style like lesbian tree huggers.

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