T.S. Eliot said April was the cruelest month, but there is a lot to look forward to in the fourth month of the year in the foremost sports city in the country.
We have the recharged Bruins ready to defend their Stanley Cup crown in the NHL playoffs, the reconfigured Red Sox, replete with a new general manger, manager and closer, hoping to erase the grease stains of last season's epic collapse, the revitalized Celtics appearing ready to make one last championship run, and everybody's favorite rite of April, the Patriots trading out of the first round of the NFL Draft. Seriously, it's a fascinating draft for the Patriots, who have two picks in both the first and second rounds and are an impact defender or two away from Lombardi trophy No. 4.
With the foreword out of the way, here are four thoughts on each of the Big Four sports teams in town.
1. The Celtics are making Danny Ainge look smart -- It looked like Ainge had erred when he failed to pull the trigger on a trade at the deadline that would jumpstart the inevitable rebuilding process. But now Danny the Dealer looks shrewd for standing pat. The Celtics have won five straight and nine of their last 12 to jump from seventh in the East to fourth with a real chance to catch Orlando for the third spot.
The best part of the Celtics' recent renaissance has been the emergence of guard Avery Bradley, who has been a revelation while Ray Allen has sat out with an ankle injury. In his last five games, Bradley is averaging 14.6 points per game while shooting 52.8 percent from the field and playing defense better than a White House press secretary. He has given the Celtics a much-needed boost of athleticism in the starting lineup and a running mate for Rondo.
Even if the Celtics don't get beyond the second-round of the playoffs this stretch has been of enormous benefit, as it has turned Bradley from an NBA unknown into an asset. This is what Ainge does best -- turn late round picks into assets he can either hold on to (Rondo) or dangle out to attract better players (Al Jefferson).
Since taking over in 2003 here are the late-round players that Ainge has obtained through the draft either by selection or draft-day deal: 2003 -- Kendrick Perkins (trade with Memphis); 2004 -- Jefferson, Delonte West, and Tony Allen; 2005 -- Gerald Green and Ryan Gomes (second-round pick), both part of the Kevin Garnett deal; 2006 -- some guy named Rondo in a trade with Phoenix; 2007-- Jeff Green, the centerpiece of a deal for Ray Allen; 2010 -- Bradley (19th pick).
Not dismantling his team has been a strategic success for Ainge. It has made the pieces on his roster look more enticing to other teams, and it has made his team look more enticing to potential free agents, who may look at the Celtics now and realize that they could be a quick-fix, not a tear-down.
2. The Red Sox' standard operating procedure hasn't changed -- So, I created quite a stir with my piece on the dynamics between new general manager Ben Cherington and new manager Bobby Valentine. I think some may have missed my point, which wasn't that Cherington and Valentine were stabbing each other in the back with every sharp object they could find, only spoke to each other to spew invectives and were locked in a "The Hunger Games"-style battle for control of the team. (By the way, why is it "news" that a manager and general manager text and talk to each other frequently?)
The point was that the decisions on how to employ Daniel Bard and Jose Iglesias were going to tell us something about the Sox' organizational structure and whether it had changed with Theo Epstein's departure. It would appear not. It's still a collective process spearheaded by the GM.
Perhaps, making Bard a starter was a move that Valentine unwaveringly supported all along, but that seems even more dubious when taking into account the thumb injury to closer Andrew Bailey. This nugget from colleague Peter Abraham in which Alfredo Aceves, who really should think about starting his own Red Sox blog since he seems to break every story, said that Valentine told him Bard got his spot because the organization wanted him to is particularly telling.
Testing out Bard as a starter this season has always been particularly important to Cherington. It was something he was committed to. That's fact, not opinion. A first-year manager on a two-year contract at risk of losing the closer from an already suspect bullpen to injury wouldn't be leading the charge to turn one of the game's best late-inning relievers into a starter, not when he has other viable options for the rotation. He has to win now. Nothing undermines a team faster or produces more second-guessing of a manager than uncertainty in the late innings.
Valentine knows how much Bard can help him the back end of the bullpen. No one knows yet how much he can help him in the back end of the rotation. Yes, Valentine is on board with the idea of Bard being a starter, but that train had already left the station. He hopped aboard, but he'll claim he was the conductor.
3. The Bruins' hibernation is over -- Perhaps, the Spoked-B on the Boston sweaters stood for boredom and that was the explanation for the two-half month malaise --16-17-2 -- that culminated in an ugly four-game losing streak. Whatever it was, the Bruins are back and at the perfect time. They've taken points in five of their last six games and are 7-1-1 in their last nine.
It's not a coincidence that the Bruins renaissance dovetailed with that of their goalie, Tim Thomas. The Bruins stingy netminder hasn't allowed more than two goals in his last seven starts and has a .941 save percentage during that time. Which happened first, better defensive play in their own end or stouter play in their own net? Either way this is the type of hockey the Bruins are going to need to defend their Stanley Cup crown against a much tougher field than last year.
What is a little bit concerning about the Black and Gold this season though is that despite their propensity for scoring goals -- 251, trailing only tonight's opponent, Pittsburgh, and the Philadelphia Flyers -- they're front-runners.
The Bruins are 3-15-1 this season when going down 2-0 and 4-20-1 when trailing by two goals at any point in a game. The Bruins are unquestionably built to play with a lead, but two of their signature wins last spring came when they trailed by two goals, Game 4 of the first-round against Montreal and Game 2 of the conference semifinals against the Flyers.
You would think a team with six 20-goal scorers would be a little bit better at digging out of holes. They might have to be because they're not going to have the same distinct goaltending advantage they enjoyed last season.
4. This draft should be about quality not quantity for the Patriots -- Over the last three drafts the Patriots have selected 33 players. The draft is seven rounds, so a team with one pick per round would have taken 21 players. This year the Patriots have only six picks, but all are in the top 126. The Patriots have done an excellent job of building depth, but what the Super Bowl proved was that high-end talent on defense takes the day.
It's time to find the Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez of the defense. Along those lines they might have to take some chances. Some teams didn't even have Gronkowski (back injury) and Hernandez (off-field behavior) on their draft boards.
A player like cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who was booted out of Florida, spent last season at Division II North Alabama and has four kids with three different mothers, is a risk, but he could also be a Revis-like factor. Jenkins was the best corner in the Southeastern Conference in 2010.
He held A.J. Green, now of the Bengals, to four catches for 42 yards and a touchdown. Julio Jones, the player the Falcons gave up a bounty to move up and draft last year, got four catches for 19 yards against Jenkins. Alshon Jeffrey, considered one of the top half-dozen receivers in this draft, had two catches for 17 yards against Jenkins.
It's a familiar refrain, but the Patriots need pass rush too, and as old friend, Mike Reiss, has often pointed out they spent 60-plus percent of last season in the sub defense. No one would call Mark Anderson, part of that package, a traditional 3-4 outside linebacker, but he was a significant part of that package and the Patriots' defense.
The Patriots tend to go for tall, long-limbed types on the outside (Shawn Crable, Jermaine Cunningham) that can set the edge against the run, but to get an impact pass rusher they have to consider stepping outside of their prototypes and comfort zone.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.