WALTHAM – With a mere week remaining in the season, the list of the walking wounded continues to pile up for the Celtics.
Avery Bradley is dealing with a strained right Achilles that has forced him to miss the last 3 1/2 games. Kris Humphries was sidelined Saturday night with right knee tendonitis and now remains out indefinitely. Jared Sullinger suffered a bruised left quad during Saturday’s loss against the Pistons, keeping him out for the team’s practice on Monday.
Bradley and Sullinger are currently hoping to return to the lineup for Wednesday’s game in Atlanta, but with just five games remaining in a lost season right now, it’s fair to ask the question: Are the Celtics better off shutting down some of these players for the year?
It’s an idea that Brad Stevens was not willing to entertain at practice this week.
"There is no talk of shutting anyone down," Stevens said adamantly. “None. Zero. The only way somebody would be shut down is if they physically can’t participate.”
That kind of attitude is understandable from the rookie head coach, who is committed to having his team finish out the year on the right foot after a pair of embarrassing efforts last week against Washington and Philadelphia.
"It's really important to do your best and go after it every single day," Stevens said. "This is a real challenge. I talked about it the other day, you find out a lot about people with five games left in a season when you're on an eight-game losing streak.”
Therein lies the crux of the argument for why shutting down players like Sullinger and/or Bradley for the remainder of the year isn’t in Boston’s best interest.
Danny Ainge and Co. will have a number of crucial decisions to make this summer about their underperforming roster. While it’s easy to point to the NBA Draft and free agency as areas where the Celtics will find improvement, the decisions they make with their own roster will set the tone for the whole offseason.
Take the case of a player like Bradley. Due to his injuries, as well as Rajon Rondo’s, the backcourt duo has only shared the floor for 13 of the team’s 77 games this year. That’s not nearly enough time for the coaching staff to decipher whether the pair should be the team’s starting backcourt long-term, but it’s the decision the team will be forced to make with Bradley hitting restricted free agency this summer.
If Bradley is healthy enough to return to the hardwood now, Boston’s front office and coaching staff should use their time on the floor together over these final five games to better evaluate Bradley as an individual and the Rondo-Bradley pairing.
Five more games could be just as valuable for a player like Sullinger. The power forward has made great strides this season overall, but his play has been up-and-down for the past couple months. Sullinger won’t be a free agent anytime soon, but if the team is going to pull the trigger on a big trade this summer, the second-year forward’s name is bound to come up. At that point, Boston’s brass will have to make a tough decision about how much they value a promising player like Sullinger. Even just one more week of evaluation could help the team as they approach these tough calls.
“A lot of these guys are young in their careers,” Stevens said. “Every minute they play matters. And it matters not only for us collectively, but also for them individually."
To help improve their NBA lottery odds, it may not be in the Celtics best interest to win any of these last few games, but roster evaluation at this stage matters more than a potential few extra ping pong balls. If Bradley and Sullinger are healthy enough to suit up this week, they should.