Let’s have a discussion on what it means to be a fan of the Boston Celtics in 2014. We’ll begin by fast-forwarding to March 9, a hypothetical future; Boston is hosting Detroit, and the score is tied with six minutes to go.
A) Root hard for Boston to win, because they’re your favorite team and doing anything else is incorrect and dirty; it doesn’t matter how they get the W, so long as it happens.
B) Watch them with eyes shaped like ping-pong balls, smiling inside whenever Kris Humphries gets called for a moving screen and cursing aloud when Brad Stevens finally replaces Phil Pressey with Rajon Rondo. For you, losing is the new winning.
C) Do you strip your viewing experience of any emotion and context, ignore the clock and score, and instead focus on, you know, how the team is playing? If they win, great. If they lose, no big deal. You’re looking for specific on-court execution, and understand NBA reality. Boston isn’t very good, and the lottery guarantees nothing. In essence, being a fan is too much for you to handle.
Now, are those who’d choose A any more dedicated than those who’d choose B or C? Should those hovering under the umbrella of B laugh at the encumbering intensity and inevitable doom felt by A Is any answer the smartest? Are any flat out wrong? Is it possible to experience all three at once?There’s no “right” way to watch any sports team because the whole experience is way too silly and unpredictable. We know how to measure probabilities, but the very word finds root in the unknown. Also, it’s meaningless. Whether you want them to win or want them to lose, the Celtics will do whatever it is they’re going to do. You rooting for them one way or the other has no bearing on their performance.
But that’s clearly the least fun way to look at things. So, what’s the “proper” way to watch this team? How do we assess a lost season knowing it’s a necessary step back to smooth out the future. Whether you’re type A, B, or C, here are several segments of the team all Celtics fans should agree are vital. Treat this as your guidebook for the dark days ahead.
The trade deadline has passed. Barring any injuries
or public meltdowns by Gerald Wallace, Brad Stevens’ rotation will look the same two months from now as it does today. These are the guys you’re watching and cheering for, but for how much longer? A few are entering free agency—Kris Humphries, Avery Bradley, Jerryd Bayless—and even more could easily be in another jersey (or even out of the league) next season: Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, Vitor Faverani, Gerald Wallace (if the Basketball Gods are merciful), Joel Anthony, Chris Johnson, and Phil Pressey.
Of these players, who deserves the most of your attention? Bradley will enter restricted free agency this summer, but it’s unlikely he isn’t a Celtic for the foreseeable future. He’s only 23 years old, possesses a valuable and elite skill, and shows month to month improvement when healthy. He can certainly average 30 minutes on a competitive team, and is worth it for $6-9 million per year.
Humphries’ return is a question mark, pending offers he receives elsewhere this summer, and the odds are against Bayless coming back (because he isn’t very good). Everyone else can either be traded, bought out, or have the stretch provision used on Gerald Wallace’s contract. If Danny Ainge can spring a first-round pick or useful rookie-scale contract for any of those guys, he will.
On the other end of the spectrum are Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger, two players with valid value early in their contracts. Neither will be involved in any trade discussion that doesn’t bring back an All-Star. How should you watch them?
For Sullinger, focus on how he takes advantage of mismatches, uses his
humongous ass body to create space in the paint, takes threes only when he’s wide open (still not a bad shot in the right context), holds his own in the post, displays incredible touch eight feet and in, and avoids having his shot blocked—a flaw that stifled Glen Davis’ development. I wrote more about Sullinger’s development a couple weeks ago.
Olynyk is nowhere near as consistently productive as Sullinger, but he might be more intriguing as a long-term prospect. He’s getting to the free-throw line more of late. Watch how aggressive he is in the post. Can he score with his back to the basket? Will he be anything more than a spot-up shooter this season? Can we catch glimpse of a turnaround jumper? Will Olynyk use his size and length to an advantage against smaller defenders? Can he do more than crash the offensive glass and pop out on a pick-and-roll? Is he the most underrated passer in basketball? Will these questions ever end?
Last but not least, how did we go this long without mentioning Boston’s franchise star? Watching Rajon Rondo play basketball is a nightly pleasure. Now that he’s unquestionably the best Celtic, Rondo must show he can score in different ways. People love talking about his jump shot, and the three-pointer that’s gradually improving, but as this season winds down look for Rondo to take what the defense isn’t giving him. That’s speedy drives to the rim off a high screen, post-ups, nifty hand-off plays, and, yes, pull up jump shots from all over the court.
He’ll always be a pass-first player, but for these last few games try to focus on how Stevens is using Rondo as a scorer. Are there pin-down screens? Is he ever the screener in a pick-and-roll (an effective way to put the defense in an uncomfortable position)? Rondo was phenomenal against the Atlanta Hawks last night, the most aggressive we’ve seen him play in well over a calendar year. He’s that much harder to deal with when he forces the defense to foul him in the paint, when he’s selfish in the open court. Rondo has weaknesses in his game, but with a third contract looming on the horizon, now’s a great time to see if he’s fixing them.
Is there a right way to watch the Celtics? Of course not. But some players deserve more attention than others. Players who have relevance in Boston beyond this season. Players who’re still growing and could very well be a part of this team when its fans are once again united behind category A.