Sunday, March 30, 2014

Following The Brooklyn Bounce, Celtics Have Big Personnel Decisions To Make

I know that the Celtics just lost two in a row to the Playoff-bound Toronto Raptors. I know that there have been 72 games played already and that for the first time six years, the C’s are not making it to the second season. And, I know that there are some hard decisions that lie ahead for Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens about personnel and the future of the Boston Celtics.

The crazy thing is, none of that really matters to me right now and the truth of it is, it hasn’t mattered to me all season. My guess (and it’s an educated one, because I’ve talked to a few other C’s fans out there over the course of the season) is that there are others out there who will relate to the sentiment I’m about to express: nothing has really mattered because my brain has yet to process the entirety of the ending of the era that once was since Paul Pierce and co. left town.

Sure, I’ve watched the games and cheered my team on, rooting for the next generation wearing the green and white and wishing for brighter days. But, my mind has yet to take this season out of the context of what we were and what we now are as a result of who we no longer have – especially because they’re off chasing Playoff glory with another team while we’re stuck in neutral. Coincidentally, with the Lakers also out of it, this will mark only the second time in 65 years that one of the two teams didn’t make the playoffs.

So, with that, let me recap my feelings from the last game played this season against our former captain and his new band of brothers. And then, I promise you – I’ll move on and I’ll even try to squeeze out a thoughtful assessment of the talent remaining on the team and what the Celtics should do with it.

Ah Brooklyn Brooklyn take me in
Are you aware the shape I'm in
My hands they shake my head it spins
Ah Brooklyn Brooklyn take me in
Avett Brothers

In the end, it was just another beating at the hands of a superior team.
When the Celtics met the Nets for the 4th and final time of this long, agonizing death of a season, it was merely a case of the better team clinically and unemotionally taking care of business against a team that’s been bound for the NBA Lottery since the tip of the ball at the start of the season.

The Celtics – 1-3 against the Nets and 23-49 against the rest of the League – were bludgeoned by the Brooklynites for much of the game, which was remarkable for its general lack of remarkableness. Sure, you had the most familiar of faces from around these parts now toiling for the black and white (actually, in this one, he toiled for Brooklyn Dodger grey and blue…but I digress…) in Paul Pierce, but it wasn’t really our former captain…it was a guy who used to play here coming back to win a game that his team needed in order to continue their momentum and steady march toward better seeding in the Playoffs.
To continue with the “ex-wife\ex-husband” analogy that I, and so many others, employed to describe the trade that ushered in this new era of Piercelessness, this final reunion felt – at least for me – like that moment when one realizes that the flickering of a former flame has finally gone completely cold.

Though, without a doubt, there were still some feelings of nostalgia and maybe even some sentimentality, as evidenced by the friendly fist-bumps and passed pleasantries between former teammates and front-office friends. But, behind the increasingly brief reminiscences, there was formality and finality – Pierce, Garnett and the rest of the Nets were focused on the looming Playoffs, having long-since come to grips with the move to Brooklyn; and the Celtics, while continuing to acknowledge the special history shared between the two players and their former team, have turned their attentions to the NBA Draft Lottery and the team that they must continue to rebuild.
This, by the way, is a good thing.

Because, as we sit four notches from the bottom of the anemic Eastern Conference with just ten games left in the season, there are a lot of questions to be answered and decisions to be made. A whole lot.
As our beloved team prepares to move from the bench to the couch, management has any number of trade combinations ready to be worked and a ridiculously rich number of draft prospects available, none of which I am prepared to get into.
No, instead, I think I’ll just focus on those players with jerseys sitting in the home locker room that Danny is evaluating and assessing even as you read this. 

Rajon Rondo: If anyone has ever read even one of my posts about Rondo, then you already know what I’m going to say: Talent like his doesn’t come around often and he is the embodiment of what a true point-guard should be. If Danny can get him some scorers to run with, then I see no intelligent reason to let this future Hall-of-Famer slip out of town and help some other team play for a ring.

Avery Bradley: Maybe I’m just drinking the green Kool-Aid, but I think he’s earned the right to be the Celtics’ second guard next to Rondo. He’s finally stepped up his offensive game in the way that fans have been clamoring for since his arrival as one of the best on-the-ball defenders in the League. The common wisdom was, “If this kid could only get his act together on offense, he’d be AMAZING.” Well, how does 15 points per game while shooting the three-ball at a clip of 37% grab you? Sure, I’d prefer for a starting 2-guard to be a little taller, but what he lacks in height at 6’ 2”, he more than makes up for in tenaciousness and hops. It should take something really special to make Danny part with this guy.

Brandon Bass: The stats: 11 points 6 rebounds and shooting 48 percent, and almost 90% free throws. Since he arrived in Boston in the swap for Big Baby Davis, he’s been nothing but the loyal, hard-working soldier and I see a place for him on this team, even as Olynyk begins to take on a larger role. But, will he be happy with being possibly/eventually the third-string forward behind Sullinger and Olynyk? And, it’s only a matter of time (and draft picks) before the Celtics start rolling with a permanent center over 6’ 9”, so it’s entirely possible that Bass ends up being a trade chip down the line. If it gets him to a place with playing time and a shot at the Playoffs for the prime of his career, I’m all for it. I think he’s probably going to be a casualty of the glut of bigs with only so much playing time to go around, and the fact that he has good value for contending teams in need of a “stretch 4.”

Jared Sullinger: He’s a keeper. There’s no two ways about it. The days of Sullinger breaking out into a 20/10 player aren’t far away. If you’re going to have to choose between Bass and Sully long-term, it’s Sullinger who has the bigger upside and the kind of toughness you want out of your present-day power forward. Could he improve his free throw shooting, particularly since he will be drawing scads of fouls as he works his body into position under the hoop for years to come? Absolutely. He’s no Shaq, but even at 77% from the stripe, he’s giving up the kinds of freebies that can add up to be the difference in tight games. And, if he’s going to insist on shooting the three regularly, then he’s going to have to do better than 25% to make taking the shot worthwhile. He could (emphasis on “could”) develop into a Kevin Love-type if he stays healthy and keeps working at it.

Jeff Green: Ahhh, Jeff, Jeff Jeff. Let’s all just face it, Greenheadz, he’s never going to be that #1 that everybody hoped he would be, failing at first to help us forget Kendrick Perkins and then becoming a very unreliable replacement (non-replacement?) for Paul Pierce. But, with that said, he’s still a really good #2 and a Hell of a #3. What I’m saying is, he’ll never be the player you
count on as your night-in, night-out leader, but he can blow up and get you 40 on any given night. Of course, he’ll probably then come back and give you six the next night, but… Look, he’ll never be your Jordan, he’s not even going to be your Pippen, but he’s still a bit of a step up from your Horace Grant, and that guy was instrumental in helping the Bulls to three Championships and the Lakers to one. I would love to see Jeff become an important piece of an up-and-coming contender in Boston, but I wonder how long Danny will tolerate his uneven performances before he fields that inevitable call with the offer-he-can’t-refuse for a more established if less-talented player or even MORE first-round picks.

Kelly Olynyk: I’m a fan. I think he’s going to turn out for the Celtics if management can be patient and let him develop some strength and acquire some veteran savvy in dealing with the bigs of the game. He’s had three twenty-plus games and 14 double digit games averaging 19 minutes per game. His skills are undeniable: he can shoot and pass like a guard and rebound like a forward. Though his rookie rawness is also undeniable, I think he’s going to make it in this League if he stays healthy.

Kris Humphries: How much has Humph grown on me (and, I suspect the majority of Greenheadz across the country)? I stopped calling him Mr. Kardashian three months ago. While I don’t really want to see him as my starting center as this team enters contender-mode, there is most certainly a place near the 8th spot off the bench for a guy who hustles nightly and is always a threat to get you a double-double in boards and points. Again, while I hate to see talented players waste their best years playing for lottery-bound teams, I would be happy seeing Humph riding the upswing in green in a couple of years.

Jerryd Bayless: In the games since he joined the Celtics, he’s scored in double figures in nearly half, including one 29-point outburst. Is he the answer at backup point/shooting guard long-term? No. There will be plenty of more prolific and more talented shooting guards with size coming onto the open market and in the draft for the Celtics to make any kind of long-term commitment to Bayless that extends beyond third or fourth guard off the bench. I’ve always liked Bayless’ fearlessness and ability to score in bunches, but he’s not as consistent as one would want and there’s a reason he’s changed teams five times over his career.

Vitor Faverani: I’m really torn here. On the one hand, I really like what it seems he COULD be. On the other hand, there’s a chance that he doesn’t get a lot better than the best that we’ve already seen from him. Though he’s a rookie in the NBA, he’s already 26 years old. He’s shown, on occasion, that he can be an athletic force on the boards and on fewer occasions, a scorer with intermittent three point range. You could do worse than to have a legitimate 6’ 11” center on your bench, but if there are better options available or a roster spot you need to use for a better prospect, I’m not gonna get all teary-eyed watching the Jumbotron tribute once he’s gone.

Phil Pressey: Y’know…I kinda like this kid. I think he really needs to work on his offense – 28% shooting, 64% free throw shooting just ain’t gonna cut it in the NBA – but his passing skills are undeniable. He has a knack for setting people up to receive the ball in some of the most unlikely situations and if he can improve defensively as well, he might be a quality backup for years to come.

Chris Johnson: It really remains to be seen whether Johnson can make more of his opportunities, as he has the limited one’s he’s been given, and whether his drive will remain as high once he secures a longer-term deal. He’s got good size for a shooting guard at 6’ 6”, has a good stroke from three and a great free-throw percentage, and is a tireless worker. You could do worse than to have him on your bench as a role player and as an example to the young and impressionable about how to give the game your all.

As for the rest of the crew, I’ll name check you for old time’s sake – Gerald Wallace, Keith Bogans, Joel Anthony, Chris Babb – thanks for everything you gave the Celtics. I wish you well in your future endeavors. I can’t imagine we’ll be seeing you again for too long next year.

Now, if you’ll all excuse me, I have to get ready for the Playoffs and flip my jersey to black.

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