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BOB RYAN

This team cries out for time to develop

The Boston Celtics stink. That's what everyone says.

OK, maybe not stink. But no one who is paid to analyze the NBA seems to think they’ll be any good this season. Sports Illustrated’s preview is fairly representative. SI has the Celtics ranked 14th in the Eastern Conference, ahead of the woeful Atlanta Hawks, and no one else. The universal opinion is that no one in these here parts need worry about Celtics playoff games interfering with spring vacation plans, a point of view perhaps bolstered by last night’s 91-87 deja vu loss to the Hornets.

It is not surprising to learn that neither Danny Ainge nor Doc Rivers agree with that gloomy evaluation. They’re not asking the mayor to clear the streets in anticipation of a victory parade celebrating No. 17, but they firmly believe their team is far from the worst out there and, in due time, can be pretty good. Yet x again, they ask for your kind indulgence as what they feel is an excellent collection of talent — much of it very young — jells into a proper NBA T-E-A-M, team, team, team.

"I'm trying to be patient," Ainge says.

"The key, for me, is patience," concurs Rivers. "That's tough. I'm not a patient person by nature."

The Celtics are young. Very young. Almost ridiculously young. There are 10 players on the roster 25 or under. Even the young so-called "vets" are pups. Kendrick Perkins is about to begin his fourth season. He will turn 22 in eight days. (Larry Bird, by contrast, turned 23 in December of his rookie season.)

Here's the real question: Will the fans continue to be patient?

This is Year 4 of the Danny Ainge regime and it is the third year for Rivers. In terms of record, the team is going backward. After winning 45 games and the Atlantic Division title two years ago, they slumped to 33-49 last year, a languid season in which the team, amazingly, never once won three in a row. That gave rise to a joke told to me by a Celtics employee whose identity I will protect, even if I must join Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada as guests of the government.

"Did you hear? The Celtics’ website went down."

"Really? What happened?"

"It couldn't put three ‘Ws’ together."

Bada bing.

But would I be laughing if I were paying 125 bucks to get in (or worse)?

That’s the real question here. The Celtics are 20 years removed from a championship. Since the Big Three packed it in more than a decade ago, Boston has been an irrelevant stop on the NBA trail, with the aberrational exception of that run to the Eastern Conference finals with Jim O’Brien’s ‘‘bombs away’’ gang in 2002. You’d have to be at least 25 to know what it was like when the Celtics were The Celtics, a feared and respected team synonymous with excellence.

Somebody pays to get in. The joint was banged out last night even before people knew they would be there for a Red Auerbach tribute. But there has been no significant buzz about this team in this town for 15 years, again acknowledging that one brief fling in ’02. The ownership will tell you about business partnerships and gross revenue and all that stuff, and since I haven’t been invited to peruse the books, I’ll have to take their word for it. But you know what I’m talking about.

You are, in fact, very likely one of the untold thousands around these here parts who once cared deeply about the team, and who have been waiting with a diminishing degree of, yes, patience for Danny and Doc to show you something before you will reinvest your heart, let alone your wallet, into this enterprise.

Here’s the No. 1 question people ask me concerning the Celtics: ‘‘What is Danny doing? Is there a plan?’’ They see players come and players go (and if it’s Antoine Walker, go and come and go again), and they do not see anything being accomplished. Hey, even the God-awful Knicks stumbled into a six-game winning streak in January.

Of course, there’s a plan. Danny wanted his team to get younger and more athletic, and it has. ‘‘The first thing in the process,’’ he says, ‘‘is to accumulate talent. We’ve done that.’’

Understand that in Danny’s mind he could have done even more wheeling and dealing.

‘‘There have been occasional opportunities that would make us better,’’ he explains, ‘‘but not that much better and not for long enough. We constantly evaluate and reevaluate what we are doing, and I am confident we are going in the right direction.’’

I can look you in the eye and say that each of the young players in question has at least one NBA skill, and in some cases the player in question has several. Were any one of them placed on a veteran team and allowed to grow at the proper and predictable pace, that would be fine. But there is trouble, if not downright chaos, when there are so many players at the same stage of development.

Each player has to translate his NBA skill into becoming a true NBA player. Then the young contingent must be blended with the trio of Paul Pierce, Wally Szczerbiak, and Theo Ratliff (no offense, but I’m not including Michael Olowokandi in the discussion yet). I believe this is the hardest team in the NBA to coach, period.

"I love this team," says the coach. "I don’t know how good we can be, but I believe they will give me an honest effort every night. I know they will do whatever is required to win the game."

Brave talk, and the Doc Rivers I know is not a fool. So he must know in his heart of hearts that his team must show major improvement this season if he is to have a fourth year on this job. He must know better than to believe anything his general manager says about job security if things go south, not that Danny Ainge is a liar, but because Ainge is a general manager, and those people deal in the truth as it exists now, not a month, week, day, or hour from now. Danny will demand that Doc develop some of this raw talent into true NBA players.

A further problem with this team is that its best player is at the age (29) where highly skilled players who have eight figures, and then some, in their bank accounts start getting antsy about playing in games scheduled for the months of May and June. Thus far, Pierce is publicly buying into the program. Thus far.

"Chemistry is very hard to achieve in basketball," Pierce reasons. "It's like a scientist working with potions. He's got to get the right mix. We have a lot of young talent. I think we can do some great things in the next two or three years. As much as you’d like to talk about championships being what you play for, what we have to do is make the playoffs, and then build on that."

So he, too, is prepared to be patient, or so he says.

Are you?

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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