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Celtics still lack direction at All-Star break

Posted by Adam Kaufman  February 13, 2014 11:34 PM

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You know how it goes at any league’s All-Star break. It’s the time for first-half evaluations. In the case of the NBA, the forthcoming “second-half” doesn’t quite fit the label.

The Celtics are 19-35 with a mere 28 games to play following their warm-weather reprieves. Twenty-eight games. That’s it. In all likelihood, there won’t be a postseason on the parquet for the first time since the 2006-07 campaign. Of course, while many people are rooting for that outcome, there’s still no guarantee.

Despite wins in four of six to begin February, Boston’s string of 19 losses in the prior 22 games helped sink the club to the sixth-worst record in the NBA behind Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Orlando, Sacramento, and Los Angeles. No, not Doc Rivers’ crew. Look a little closer, though, and you’ll see the boys in Green are very much in limbo. The Celts trail the Sixers by four games for the second-worst record in the league, and simultaneously sit just four-and-a-half games back of the Bobcats for the eighth and final playoff spot in a top-heavy Eastern Conference.

If you’re looking for a State of the Celtics speech, the theme is this: The organization still lacks direction.

Danny Ainge, the team’s president of basketball operations, seems to have a plan in mind and that consists of developing young players and building for the future. That should be the goal and, to this point, it’s been well executed. Between trading two future Hall of Famers before the season and not having his star point guard for the first half of the year, the presence of more losses than wins was a guarantee. But, the hiring of a promising coach who projects to be a stud for years to come offered a wrinkle to the plan. Brad Stevens simply has his team playing too well and too hard, and the group truly seems to want to make the postseason just to shove it in the faces of all the people who’ve kept the word “tanking” trending since late in the summer.

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If you believe short-term failure is the best recipe for long-term success, you’re not the only one. But if you’re one of those people screaming for Stevens or even a single one of his players to lose on purpose or not put in a max effort, re-examine your priorities. It’s downright dumb and delusional, especially when you’re willing to trade in a season of potential enjoyment for only the chance at a top prospect. Mailing it in would hurt those players’ development, trade value, or ability to be an integral part of the team in the future.

Plus, the 2014 NBA Draft projects to be deep and littered with future All-Stars, but there’s no franchise-altering Tim Duncan, LeBron James, or Kevin Durant in the mix, and there’s talk of some of those sky-is-the-limit freshman talents staying in school for another year. Are you going to pin your hopes on the 2014 and 2015 drafts now?

The only person with the power to dictate the ultimate direction of the Celtics this season is Ainge, and he’s trying his damndest. He dealt Courtney Lee in the midst of a career-year from the field to create future salary cap relief and then followed that up by shipping out an overachieving Jordan Crawford, a solid backcourt option off the bench, essentially for picks. And, odds are, he’s not done.

The trade deadline is on Feb. 20 and the C’s expect to be as busy as anyone. Ainge won’t say it, but he’s hoping to be a seller, albeit with some limitation. Nobody is untouchable, of course, but he’d clearly opt to move literally any guy on the team before captain Rajon Rondo or Jared Sullinger. Those men are two legitimate building blocks for the future.

You might be thinking, “Well, maybe they are, but those guys are also standing in the way of increasing the ping pong ball percentages.” That’s where you’re both right and wrong. Do Rondo and Sullinger make the Celtics better? No question. But stripping away other pieces will make their jobs much harder.

We’ve already seen the Celts struggle against good teams. Though many have been competitive losses, they’re a miserable 2-17 versus the dozen clubs that presently possess winning records. The problem, if you choose to view it that way, is that they’re better than most of the losing squads. Do the math; they’re 17-18 against sub-.500 opponents.

Of the 28 remaining games, 15 are on the road (where Boston is 8-18) and 11 are against winning teams. Those two categories will go hand-in-hand when the Celtics’ schedule resumes in Phoenix on Wednesday night.

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Should Ainge be able to unload the likes of Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, or Kris Humphries – and whatever additional pieces are required to make the money work – the C’s will instantly be ticketed for more defeats. All three could be coveted as role players by contenders and the trio will unquestionably receive interest. According to reports, Bass has already been linked to the Suns, Warriors, and Bobcats, while Green is the apple of Atlanta’s eye.

Thing is, it wouldn’t be in the best interests of Ainge or the organization to just unload these players without getting something in return. That doesn’t mean a premier young talent; that’s what he’d look for in shopping Rondo or Sullinger. For players of this caliber, it’s about value in the form of draft picks, cap relief, or expiring contracts. As it is, Ainge has stockpiled nearly 20 picks over the next half-dozen years.

Bass – averaging 10.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game – has been a dependable big man who’s capable of starting or providing a paint presence off the bench, and he’s due just $6.95 million next year. That’s a team-friendly deal for a player of his ability. The only thing consistent about Green is his inconsistency, even with his team-best 16.4 points a night, and the two years and $18.4 million he has left after this year is probably unappealing to a trade partner unless a team convinces itself he can be a good third or fourth scoring option. Humphries, however, will hit free agency after this season so it might make sense to just hold onto the energetic and increasingly-likeable power forward and let his $12 million come off the books. Who knows, the C’s may even try to re-sign him?

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If one, two, or all three go, it will impact the Celtics dramatically. Suddenly, Kelly Olynyk will see even more time on the floor. The Rising Stars Challenge participant has already been heading in that direction over the last three months as his minutes have risen from below 15 per game in December to 20 this month. He’s a rookie and a former 13th overall pick. The 7-footer should be playing more, and that time could go up if the ultra-competitive Sullinger allows for a few nights on the pine down the stretch to nurse his injuries. For Ainge and Stevens, the time is now to judge exactly what they have in Olynyk and, currently, they have a guy playing confidently, giving a consistent effort, and coming off of his first two career double-doubles.

On nights that Rondo’s out resting against the league’s cellar-dwellers, they can also examine whether Phil Pressey can be a viable backup point guard option in future seasons. Likewise for free-agent-to-be Jerryd Bayless with Avery Bradley out indefinitely with repeated ankle sprains.

The good news is, no matter the pieces on the floor, the Celtics play hard most every night under Stevens and they possess a Top-10 defense. Yes, occasionally that leads to some wins that don’t favor them in the lottery standings, but that’s more important as a means of assessing the individual worth of the participants. It’s also a testament to the mild-mannered Stevens, who for the most part has kept a hodgepodge cast of frequently redundant characters on the same page and free of public complaint (I see you, Gerald Wallace) in the midst of a very frustrating rookie year.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve even caught a good story or two between the emergence of Chris Johnson and Rondo showing flashes of his old self with a long-distance upgrade mixed in. And, whether the relentless Sullinger deals with illness or hand and finger ailments this year, there’s sure no curing that chip on his shoulder.

The Celtics are on pace for 29 wins. If they stand pat at the trade deadline, they’ll probably exceed that total and may even sneak into a playoff spot. If Ainge puts on his “Trader Danny” hat and heads into next week guns blazing, they won’t. Stevens and his players should continue to do exactly what they’re doing and give it their all each and every time out. The only man who can really determine where Boston will finish is Ainge so, if you’re looking for the C’s direction, look in his.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About this blog

Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.

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