HOUSTON — This break didn’t seem long, did it?
It seemed like yesterday the Celtics and Bulls were taking basketball back to the pre-shot clock era with their 71-69 masterpiece. After that victory last Wednesday the Celtics needed a rest, time to recalibrate.
And it’s already over.
The second half of the season begins Tuesday in Denver and the Celtics could be a dramatically different team after Thursday’s trade deadline (3 p.m.) because the club has to do something to compensate for losing Rajon Rondo, Jared Sullinger, and Leandro Barbosa to season-ending injuries.
There has been a buzz here this All-Star Weekend that the Celtics have been in talks with the Los Angeles Clippers, who want Kevin Garnett and may be willing to part with Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan.
The question for Danny Ainge is whether to rebuild for the future with a trade-deadline deal and end a golden run in Boston. But that is highly unlikely to happen. Garnett would have to waive his no-trade clause, and Clippers management would have to agree to part with one of the league’s few legitimate centers and, in Bledsoe, a valuable backup point guard.
Garnett’s departure from Boston will come on his own terms, not some hastily organized trade that would uproot him and his family, even though Garnett has a home in Los Angeles. Garnett enjoys his anonymity in Boston and is comfortable with his role of trying to lead the Celtics to one more glimmer of prosperity.
“Are we a better team without Rondo? No,” Garnett said on Saturday. “We’re having it do it by committee versus one guy doing a lot of different things for us. But we’ve got a couple of leaders, guys who are willing to fight and scrap and I’ll take that team over any other type of talented team any day.”
Because the Celtics won eight of their last nine games before the break, management is inclined to allow this team to see its plan of competing in the Eastern Conference to fruition. So the challenge for Ainge is filling the roster with adequate players.
As Ainge said, he doesn’t want to fill those remaining three roster spots with D-Leaguers or fringe players. There are candidates such as Jannero Pargo and Delonte West, but the Celtics are being patient because they want to save roster flexibility for acquiring extra players in trade.
Also, teams that make deals before the deadline may waive useful players to create roster space. Former Boston College standout Jared Dudley is apparently on the block in Phoenix and has piqued the Celtics’ interest in the past.
There are also some interesting prospects in China, such as former lottery pick Terrence Williams, ex-Celtics Von Wafer and Lester Hudson, ex-Sacramento King Quincy Douby, and journeyman Sundiata Gaines. The free agent pickings are not attractive and Ainge is in a difficult position because the Celtics don’t have a lot of trade assets.
Rondo is hurt, Sullinger is coming off back surgery, and it is unlikely teams would accept Courtney Lee or Jason Terry with multiple years left on their deals unless the Celtics accept a contract of equal effect on the salary cap.
Ainge will have to be creative in his quest to boost the roster and it’s apparent that the Celtics need more depth. Barring a move over the next 24 hours, the Celtics will attempt to endure the altitude in Denver with 10 healthy players, with one being Fab Melo, so make that nine players coach Doc Rivers is comfortable using.
“We’re starting out on a tough road trip, nothing is easy about our schedule,” Garnett said. “We come right into it with a back-to-back [Denver and the Lakers]. And it’s the second half of the season so this is when everybody is going to make a push and it will be no different from us.
“Hopefully we have something [additional players]. We’re fighting right now. We don’t have a lot of manpower. The people we have are a bunch of fighters and guys who are willing to go out and play hard. So that’s a good thing, so we’ll see.”
The Celtics are finishing up their much-needed break. Garnett got a chance to rest, playing just six minutes in the All-Star Game, a favor to Rivers from East coach Erik Spoelstra. But this was a critical few days for Ainge and the Celtics brass to determine the direction of the organization, whether Garnett’s worth to the team is more as a trade asset or remaining a franchise cornerstone.
The consensus here in Houston was the Celtics are still a dangerous team, one the Knicks, Heat, or Pacers wouldn’t want to see in the first round of the playoffs. That sentiment may become even stronger if Ainge can figure out a way to strengthen the roster without sacrificing its soul in Garnett.
Let’s hope Ainge used this break to astutely generate a plan to give this overachieving roster a boost.