Sep 17, 2013, 8:43 AM EDT
Last season: For the first half of the season Boston — with veterans like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce — looked like that team everyone wants to avoid in the first round. Remember, the year before they had taken Miami seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Maybe this version of the Celtics wasn’t going to be a title team, but they were going to be a tough out.
Then in late January Rajon Rondo blew out his knee and all bets were off. That injury was the first domino in a rebuild that landed full force this summer. Boston went on to win 41 games but was bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Knicks.
Key player changes: Welcome to rebuilding Celtics fans. It’s painful and kind of sucks. As has been said the Rondo injury was the first domino, the next was Doc Rivers heading to the Los Angeles Clippers — he was replaced in a surprise move by Butler College’s Brad Stevens, a guy very well respected in coaching circles but a guy making a jump from a mid-major college to one of the most prestigious jobs in the NBA. Danny Ainge rolled the dice on that one.
Then came the big trade that officially meant end of the big three era (which really ended when Ray Allen left anyway)—Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry to the Nets in exchange for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Keith Bogans, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph, and three future first round draft picks. (Those picks are key in a rebuild.) That trade made it clear Boston was all in for the rebuild and the only question left was how far down that “get bad to get good” rabbit hole they wanted to go. Danny Ainge and everyone in Boston says they are not tanking, but should they?
Keys to the Celtics’ season:
1. Can Rajon Rondo be a central building block? Can everyone tune out the trade rumors? Rondo could well miss the first part of the season due to his knee injury (no timeline is set), but his return date is not the biggest question about him or the team. Put simply, is Rondo the future in Boston or not?
Rondo is now the unquestioned leader on this team, but it’s time to prove he can really lead. On the court he has been fantastic when tasked with setting up veteran star players, but his jumper has been inconsistent and a lot more pressure to score will fall on him. Off the court he can be challenging and at times abrasive — you can lead being that way at times (KG and Kobe Bryant are as well), but you can’t be that way all the time. Rondo needs to show he is ready for the leadership role in Boston.
Then he and his teammates have to tune out the trade rumors that will fly around this team. We should expect GM Danny Ainge to shop Kris Humphries like mad and if he can find a taker for Gerald Wallace he is gone as well. Really everyone on the roster is available… except Rondo. Maybe, well probably not Rondo. Ainge has listened to offers for Rondo for a couple of years now, and I suspect that will not change. But he also never pulled the trigger and has said he wants to see if Rondo can lead. He needs to be publicly firm about this now. If Ainge thinks the rebuilding of the Celtics is better done with the pieces they can get by moving Rondo (who has a lot of value around the league) then now is the time — get the best deal you can for him this season and move on. But I think what we will see long before that is Rondo getting his chance to lead Boston into whatever is next.
2. Jeff Green needs to be consistent. There was a game last season where Jeff Green went toe-to-toe with LeBron James and held his own by and large (Miami won but Green was impressive). That is the engaged Jeff Green. But there are so many other games (and halves of games) where he is Casper — he floats around, doesn’t make an impact and is generally passive. With all their roster changes the Celtics are putting a lot more responsibility on Green’s shoulders and he needs to show up and lead every night. Garnett said last year Green needs to be more of an a******* and KG was right. That needs to start this year. Green and Avery Bradley need to step up into the void on this team following the KG/Pierce trade.
3. You’re rebuilding, so throw the kids and see who can play. The Celtics have said they are not in the tank for Wiggins, and the truth is in the East they have the talent on the roster to potentially chase a bottom playoff seed — Rondo, Humphries, Wallace, Courtney Lee and Brandon Bass can all play. We know what they can do.
However, for the future of the franchise show me more Avery Bradley (who could have a big year), more Kelly Olynyk, more MarShon Brooks, more Jared Sullinger, more Phil Pressey. Those guys are only going to get bet better with experience on the court and this is the kind of season where you give it to them, even if that is frustrating at times.
Why you should watch the Celtics: Kelly Olynyk — the floppy haired rookie out of Gonzaga was a breath of fresh air at Summer League and one of the most fun players to watch. He showed he can rebound, scores well inside and just seems to be having fun out there. This coming season may not be a lot of fun in Boston depending on how things shake out, but Olynyk will be.
Prediction: 32-50. Honestly, that number is just a dart blindly thrown at the board — this team could be around .500 if they play their veterans and everything breaks right, or they could be the 13 seed and come apart at the seams. Teams in transition are hard to predict. If Rondo comes back healthy and can be a leader, if Avery Bradley’s offensive game takes a step forward, if Jared Sullinger is healthy, if Brad Stevens can coach at the NBA level, and most importantly if the Celtics can find a new identity then maybe they could get the eight seed. Probably not, but maybe at the bottom of the East where under .500 can get you in the dance. However, the more likely outcome is this is a pretty poor team that sees a lot of roster turnover in trades this season as the Celtics reboot and rebuild. So I’ll go with 32 wins.
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