The Boston Celtics overhauled the roster last summer and look drastically different at this point in the season than they have in years past. New leaders, new faces, new coach. Here are six things you need to know about the Celtics approaching the second half of the season.
#1 – This is Rajon Rondo’s team
First it was “The New Big Three.” Then it was down to Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
For years, Rajon Rondo played behind future Hall of Famers. Even as his status among the top point guards in the league rose, his veteran teammates were the face of the team. But with Rondo as the sole remaining player from the 2008 championship squad, there is no question who is at the forefront of the organization.
Last week Rondo was named captain of the Celtics prior to his return from an ACL injury. The 27-year-old became the 15th player in franchise history to receive the honor, a role held by Pierce since 2003. (Pierce was named co-captains with Antoine Walker in 2000).
“I’m just definitely honored, following Paul Pierce who was our last captain, and he held the seat for a long time,” Rondo said. “It’s definitely something I’m very proud of. I think I’ve earned it, but at the end of the day, it’s not just me as a leader. It’s honestly a lot of guys who lead this team.”
Previous Celtics captains include Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Larry Bird, Reggie Lewis and Robert Parish.
#2— Brad Stevens is a fast learner
When the season began, Brad Stevens’ lack of NBA experience was lumped into the checklist of reasons why the Celtics could struggle. The first-year coach quickly proved that wrong.
The team bought into the former Butler University coach early into his hiring. At his introductory press conference, he stressed the value he places on building relationships with his players. This summer he made phone calls, had lengthy conversations, and even traveled to Kentucky to appear at Rondo’s camp. The Celtics felt comfortable with their new coach and were energized by the confidence he showed in them. The once-timid Avery Bradley has emerged as an offensive threat and the often-chaotic Jordan Crawford, who Stevens says was one of the first to buy into the system, earned Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors as the starting point guard in Rondo’s absence.
The Celtics opened this season with a four-game losing streak but bounced back with four straight wins, including a road victory over the Miami HEAT. After an early skid Stevens kept his team fighting, and has done so throughout the season. Although the Celtics have had their fair share of difficulties (blowing double-digit leads continues to be an issue), the players have not stopped fighting under Stevens.
Stevens’ early efforts have already earned praise from fellow coaches around the league. He is signed to a six-year contract and has exceeded many expectations halfway through year one.
#3— The Celtics have picks … and lots of them
One first-round pick here, another second-round pick there, they all add up. The Celtics have been accumulating draft picks through various transactions and are stacked with options when it comes to June.
The Pierce-Garnett trade resulted in a bevy of picks, and they received more from the Doc Rivers trade with the Los Angeles Clippers. A recent three-team swap with the Miami HEAT and Golden State Warriors that sent Jordan Crawford and MarShon Brooks out west also yielded more.
Take a look at the upcoming 2014 Draft alone: In the first round the Celtics hold their own pick, the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick (less favorable between theirs and the Atlanta Hawks) from the Pierce-Garnett trade, and the Philadelphia 76ers protected first-round pick from the HEAT through the Brooks-Crawford deal.
Will the Celtics draft players with all of these picks? Most likely, no. But they can use them as chips in trades to give them flexibility when maneuvering moves in the future.
#4— Tanking wouldn’t give the Celtics any guarantees
At the beginning of the season, many were calling for the Celtics to tank in order to land a high lottery pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. Drop as many games as possible and lock in a top selection, right? As exhibited in 2007, even an 18-game skid doesn’t guarantee Kevin Durant.
Tanking also doesn’t benefit the trade value of the current players, and the existing roster is just as important as future picks. Rewind to the 2007 Garnett trade with the Timberwolves. There were only two draft picks involved in the deal compared to five players moved from Boston. This season, the Celtics are building assets in their players, and their performances now could catch the eyes of other teams who want to make trades down the road.
It’s not all about players who would be sent elsewhere, either. Rookies and sophomores like Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger would not develop to their full potential in a system where losing is the priority. Hypothetically fast forward three seasons from now, and if still on the team their progress could be behind because it wasn’t fostered early in their careers. When building for the future, hindering its growth won’t help in seasons to come.
#5—The mystery of Jeff Green continues
Jeff Green’s transition to the Celtics has been an up-and-down ride since he was traded from the Oklahoma City Thunder in February of 2011. A starter in Oklahoma City, Green was moved to the Celtics bench to play behind Pierce. This role wasn’t just backing up a veteran scorer, it was backing up the team captain, mainstay of the organization and go-to scorer. So where does that leave the new guy?
Green missed the 2011-12 season due to heart surgery. He returned last season to a four-year, $36 million contract and encouragement of his teammates to play more aggressively. Garnett even urged him to be an “a-hole” on the court.
He showed flashes of that kind of player, driving the lane with intensity and slamming down dunks that became fixtures of Celtics highlights (like this dunk over Al Jefferson). And then … he’d just blend in with the others in the game.
This season Pierce is gone. So is Garnett. With Rondo sidelined as he recovered from ACL surgery, the opportunity was wide open for Green to emerge as an offensive leader on a shorthanded team. Although he ranks as the Celtics’ top scorer with 15.8 points per game in 33.2 minutes, it is only a slight increase from last season’s 12.8 points in 27.8 minutes. His field goal percentage has dropped to 42.9 percent.
Are these numbers bad? No. Has Green put up big games this season? Yes. But he has shown glimpses of the level to which he can play, and the Celtics haven’t seen that nearly enough. Green has made it clear he isn’t following in anyone’s footsteps – not Pierce, not Garnett, not anyone else. And that’s fine, too. The question, though, is when will Green fulfill the potential of his own footsteps?
#6— Things can change in an instant
Basketball is a business, and the Celtics front office works round the clock to identify players and deals that can help the team now and in the future. Yes, Rondo is the face of the team (as mentioned in point one) and Jeff Green is the squad’s leading scorer (point five), but how long that remains the same will have to be seen. Exploring all options – regardless of the fan base’s attachment to the player – is the responsible thing for an executive to do.
The Kendrick Perkins-Green trade in 2011 showed that what seemed to be an unbreakable core could be split up if the front office believed a better option was available. Two years later, many fans were outraged when the C’s traded Pierce and Garnett to the Nets. Regardless of their production or trade value, the Celtics faithful is a loyal group that holds tradition and longevity to a high standard. In the end, though, the organization made the move they believed garnered the most in return and put them in the best position for the future.
This season the Celtics have already traded three players (Brooks, Crawford and Courtney Lee) with a month to go before the deadline. With expiring contracts (see: Kris Humphries) and hefty deals that would be financially beneficial to unload (i.e.: Green and Gerald Wallace), expect them to actively investigate more moves in the coming weeks.
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