Great question, right?
Unless former Lakers legend/broadcaster/Dodgers owner/future Clippers boss Magic Johnson wants to give us a peek at his “Magic 8-Ball”, there’s positively no way to know how long this Celtics’ rebuild will last. Not right now, anyway.
The C’s did what they had to do during a challenging 2013-14 season. Comprised of a flawed and redundant roster from the get-go, they lost significantly more often than they won (25-57), filled their schedule with inspired basketball on most nights, developed younger players, fought hard for first-year head coach Brad Stevens, stayed away from any substantial drama (“BirthdayGate” was blown out of proportion), and worked their lone perennial All-Star back to full health.
In the process, Boston notched a share of the fourth-worst record in the NBA and now has a 10.3 percent chance of landing the first overall pick in next month’s draft and a 33.4 percent opportunity to fall in the top-three. Should president of basketball operations Danny Ainge (seventh in the NBA’s Executive of the Year award voting, but first in our hearts) elect to hang onto the pick, the Celts are guaranteed to draft in the top-eight. We’ll find out at the draft lottery on May 20 exactly where the team’s first selection will be. That pick will of course accompany the 17th selection, courtesy of the Brooklyn Nets and what may wind up being one of the greatest steals in league history.
But to truly assess where the Celtics' organization stands in its turnaround after a disappointing, while necessary, Year One will take a few months and answers to loads of questions.
For instance, where will the C’s draft with that first pick? There’s an awfully big difference between welcoming a Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, or Joel Embiid versus, say, Noah Vonleh, Gary Harris, or Marcus Smart.
The caveat there also concerns whether Ainge will retain the pick, which will likely depend on where it falls in that top-eight. If he sends it away as part of a package for a proven, young NBA star to play alongside Rajon Rondo, that would speed up Boston’s contender hopes faster than getting a talented kid who would otherwise be a college sophomore comfortable playing in the pros.
Rondo, the team’s enigmatic captain, is a curious situation all alone. Ainge seems to want his star point guard around for years to come, while the versatile pass-first wizard has indicated he’d be interested in testing free agency for the first time when he’s eligible in the summer of 2015.
Trading Rondo for another superstar (say, Kevin Love) doesn’t make the Celtics any better in regard to being a contender. It’s a lateral move. The necessary move would be finding someone to gel with Rondo, a premier scorer he can feed the ball to without worrying about carrying the offensive load on any given night. Jeff Green isn’t that player.
Rondo may not have the patience for a lengthy rebuild when he can conceivably leave in a year and instantly improve his chances of winning another title, which puts the pressure on Ainge for those "fireworks" promised by ownership, or to get something in return. As we know, there will be suitors. At the moment, he’s an instrumental piece (a piece, not the piece) to securing Banner 18.
Rondo’s backcourt mate Avery Bradley will be a restricted free agent, coming off of another injury-plagued season (goodbye shoulders, hello ankles). He and Rondo look great together but, in four years, their shared time on the court has been a rarity. Ainge must evaluate what an injury-prone two-guard with an improving jump shot, an inability to create his own shot, and good defensive skills is worth. It’s not $8 million per year, as Bradley is said to want. It might not even be the $6 mil previously offered by the Celtics, according to the Boston Herald.
Other players, especially those rumored to be moved at last year’s trade deadline, are question marks as well.
Green is who he is; consistently inconsistent. Some nights he’ll chase 40 points; others he’s struggle to crack double-digits. Most games, he’ll live around 16, struggle from the field, and look disinterested. He’s overpaid and due $18.5 mil over the next two seasons (the second is a player option) and you’d have to believe Ainge would love to shed that financial headache.
Brandon Bass is a good role player and was one of the Celts’ most consistent players during a tough year. He could help a contender off the bench, and has an attractive expiring contract ($6.9 million).
Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk are productive bargains. Sullinger could be the centerpiece to an Al Jefferson-for-Kevin Garnett type of deal, circa 2007, but Sullinger is no Jefferson at similar stages of their careers so Ainge would have to sweeten the pot. As for Olynyk, he’s worth keeping around for another year to continue to monitor his growth.
Keith Bogans, Phil Pressey, Chris Johnson, and Chris Babb all have non-guaranteed contracts, though Ainge will almost certainly keep at least Pressey and Johnson. Bogans’ contract will surely be moved.
Currently, the Celtics have about $48.5 million tied to active contracts and another $8.7 mil in non-guaranteed deals. At the moment, though, those numbers are somewhat meaningless because Ainge is sure to make a trade or two this offseason and everyone is fair game. The projected cap amounts to $63.2 million. The C’s are also in possession of three trade exceptions with one valued at $10.3 mil (thanks again, Nets).
Some of those available funds or assets should go toward acquiring legitimate rim-protection, and I’m certain we haven’t heard the last of the Omer Asik rumors.
Looking more in the long-term, Boston owns nine first-round picks over the next five drafts. Ainge also has sign-and-trade options with a few of the players mentioned above and some decent, young talent he could unload in the right deal. The outlook is bright, but it will be a steady approach to the light.
Plenty of other questions will come into focus as the Celtics build their roster for 2014-15. Namely, how other clubs construct theirs.
Back in 2007, when the C’s climbed from the basement to the top of the mountain, the East was wide open. Today, it belongs to the Heat (all due respect to Paul Pierce, Garnett, and the few other hopefuls still in the playoffs). Unless LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, or Chris Bosh opt out in Miami, that will remain the case for at least the next two seasons. The Pacers and Bulls, despite their playoff displays in 2014, will likely command respect as well.
Among all the questions, there is one certainty. The patient and even-tempered Stevens will be the man guiding the ship for years to come, and that’s a good thing. The coach eats, breaths, and sleeps basketball, and now he has the transition year under his belt. Like his predecessor, Stevens has a way of reaching his players. It showed in his rookie season and it will continue to shine through with a new cast of characters.
So, how long will the Celtics’ rebuild last? Today, it looks like a five-year window, at best, and feels a lot longer. But, pending a top-three draft choice and some of those fireworks, another showdown with King James could come sooner than later.
Unfortunately, it’ll be at least a couple of months before we really know how optimistic to be about the future.
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