Minus Rajon Rondo, minus Jared Sullinger and Leandro Barbosa, the Celtics return to the TD Garden on Wednesday night against the Chicago Bulls. The All-Star break looms. A grueling road trip awaits. The trading deadline nears.
And, so, the question persists:
What to do with this aging, deteriorating yet inspiring basketball team?
A word of advice to Celtics season-ticket-holders in attendance for Wednesday's game against the Bulls: take a lasting mental image of your basketball team, and maybe even take an actual picture or two. You just never know. Celtics vice president of basketball operations Danny Ainge is not likely to trade either Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce (or both) before the Feb. 21 trading deadline, but such an outcome will not be the result of sentimentality or trepidation. Maybe you like Ainge. Maybe you don't. Maybe you find him too analytical or maybe too coy. But we all can agree that Ainge is fearless and bold, that he will trade anyone or do anything if he feels it will serve the greater good.
Al Jefferson would attest to this. So would Kendrick Perkins. Even Ray Allen might have something to say. For better or for worse, Ainge has never been afraid to shake things up.
To this point in the 2012-13 Celtics season, we all know the score. The Celtics are 18-20 with Rajon Rondo on the floor this season, 9-4 without. Before Monday's unsightly loss at Charlotte, the Celtics had won seven straight since Rondo blew out his knee. In the nearly three weeks since, Sullinger and Barbosa similarly have been lost to season-ending injuries, the body bags piling up alongside the Celtics bench liked used paper cups.
That extraordinary depth Ainge built during last summer? It is gone now. Beyond Pierce and Garnett, the Celtics still have Courtney Lee, Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass and Jason Terry. But things start to get rather skinny after that. Already in the sixth year of a three-year window, Ainge is well beyond Plans A, B or C. For their answers, the Celtics are now reaching into the D-League, and even Red Auerbach couldn't strike gold there.
So what does Ainge do? Does he try to make do with people like Shelvin Mack, as Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski reported earlier this week? Does he trade what diminishing assets he has for a forward? Or does Ainge finally succumb to those who have urged him to blow it up, accepting the seemingly inevitable and simply moving on?
There are arguments for all.
And, at the moment, there appear to be no right answers.
What Ainge could indisputably use, of course, is more time, something he does not possess. Since Rondo went down, the Celtics have defeated Miami, the Los Angeles Clippers (albeit minus Chris Paul) and Denver Nuggets - all on the familiar parquet of the TD Garden. Their only road win was at Toronto. Now comes a Bulls team that remains among the best in the Eastern Conference despite the absence of star point guard Derrick Rose, followed by a five-game road to Denver, the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix, Portland and Utah. The trading deadline falls neatly between Los Angeles and Phoenix, a stretch of desert during which Ainge and the Celtics must do some serious soul-searching.
The obvious questions, as always: Who are we now? And what do we want to be?
What the Celtics are now has been debatable for some time, particularly in the absence of Rondo. Whether you think they are better with him or without him is often a matter of semantics. The fact is that the Celtics have played their best basketball of the season since Rondo was lost for the season, albeit in a decidedly small sample. But Boston's depth has been a huge asset during that stretch, even after the team lost Sullinger.
Some nights, Barbosa picked them up. On others, it was Terry. Lee has had his share of moments and so has Bass. But every time the Celtics lose a body, there is more pressure on all of those players to be more consistent.
Were the Celtics going to win a championship even with Rondo, Sullinger and Barbosa? Unlikely. On Tuesday, one national sports talk show suggested the list of NBA championship hopefuls was no longer than three or four teams -- Miami, Oklahoma City, maybe San Antonio and the LA Clippers. That equation can obviously change depending on the events leading up to Feb. 21, but the NBA always has been an oligarchy.
For Ainge, getting back into that group of a select few becomes a greater challenge as the Celtics slip further and further down the NBA hierarchy, closer to the middle and further from the top. Whatever the Celtics do (or don't) at the Feb. 21 deadline, another year of tread comes off the tires of Pierce and Garnett. Their value diminishes. They contribute less to the Celtics and will garner less in a trade, the definition of a depreciating asset.
Certainly, you can make the argument that the Celtics are better off keeping both. You can also make the argument that the Celtics are better off trading both.
Whatever the choice, Danny Ainge has about eight days to decide.
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