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Courtney Lee trade makes sense in short and long terms as Celtics look for jackpot

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  January 5, 2014 08:37 PM

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If the Celtics' surprisingly winning start halted your scouting of this college basketball season's heralded freshman class -- also known as The Reasons To Tank, if that's your vantage point -- it might be time to start paying attention again.

First, check back in on Kansas. Andrew Wiggins, so hyped at the beginning, has had a terrific freshman year by all standards except for the impossible one that he was supposed to live up to. He's a wonderful player, yet some wholly understandable freshman hiccups have almost left him underrated now.

embiidfinn.jpgAnd Wiggins may not even be the most promising Jayhawk. Center Joel Embiid, a Hakeem-ish athlete (I do say that with hesitation), is improving at such a rate that he may be worthy of the first pick in this deep draft class by the time Adam Silver takes his spot at the podium.

You know the other names and games to admire, the players who aren't difficult to project as franchise-changers. Jabari Parker, the polished and poised Duke forward ... and Julius Randle, Kentucky's power-forward prototype ... and what qualifies as a veteran nowadays, Oklahoma State's tough and appropriately named sophomore point guard, Marcus Smart.

If only Dante Exum, the 6-foot-6-inch Australian who some believe is the best prospect of all, had chosen to come stateside after considering North Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan, Indiana and Oregon? He's the tantalizing mystery among a class that is already fascinating enough.

For those who have not been so caught up in the Patriots' resilient run or, I don't know, Stephen Drew's baseball purgatory that they've tuned out the Celtics, you know why this is a topic today:

Those who thought that the Celtics' best long-term approach should emphasize hoarding ping-pong balls for the upcoming draft lottery are going to get their wish.

The Celtics are going to be in the lottery, and very well could be picking high in the lottery.

This isn't just because Danny Ainge began what could be a systematic dismantling of the overachieving veteran core of this team by trading Courtney Lee to the Grizzlies for an expiring contract named Jerryd Bayless.

The move, which is not yet finalized, gives the Celtics more financial wiggle room now and in the future (Lee was guaranteed approximately $11 million over the remainder of his deal), and it makes all the sense in the world from that standpoint.

It also makes sense from a big-picture basketball perspective. Lee was a respected teammate, one who was having a fine year, shooting a career-best 49.2 percent from the field and 44.2 percent from 3-point range. Perhaps he can be to the Grizzlies what he was supposed to be during his first uneven season with the Celtics in 2012-13.

But he wasn't going to be a part of the next great Celtics team, to paraphrase another general manager in this city, and by dealing off useful veterans to would-be contenders, the Celtics weaken their roster now but strengthen their future by accelerating the rebuilding process.

And that process is well underway -- after that encouraging start, one that convinced us beyond a doubt that pilfering Brad Stevens from Butler might end up as Ainge's ultimate coup, the Celtics have been stumbling down the ladder in the Eastern Conference standings.

Since their December 16 win over the Timberwolves, they've lost 7 of 8, their lone win coming against the dysfunctional Cavs on December 28. They have fallen from the top spot in the Atlantic Division and third in the Eastern Conference -- they now are just 2 1/2 games up on the Magic for the second-worst record in the conference. They lead the comically inept Nets and Knicks by a half-game and a game-and-a-half respectively.

If the draft were held today, based on the overall standings, the Celtics would be picking ninth. And a hot stretch, at least over the next couple of the weeks, is unlikely.

They began a hellacious five-game western swing Sunday with a 119-96 loss to Kendrick Perkins's Kevin Durant's Thunder. Their best hope for a victory during the rest of the trip probably arrives Tuesday night, when the Celtics visit the Nuggets, who lost eight in a row before winning their last two.

Then, the gauntlet: They head to LA to take on Doc Rivers's Clippers (23-13) Wednesday, and maybe they can steal one there with Chris Paul out with a shoulder injury. But Friday-Saturday brings a brutal double-whammy of the Warriors (23-13, winners of nine straight) and Blazers (26-8, third in the West).

And there's no immediate comfort in returning home, either: Monday, they host the Rockets (22-13), who should totally be required to loan Omer Asik to the Celtics for the game on a kick-the-tires basis.

It might be difficult to swallow as this is happening, particularly for Stevens, whose team has lost 21 games -- six more than the most he lost in any of his remarkable six seasons at Butler. Now he has to deal with a well-liked and useful player being traded -- something that never happened in the Horizon League -- while implementing Bayless onto a roster that has had admirable unity, save for the occasional caught-by-cameras bickering.

(I'd rather watch a rehabbing Rajon Rondo and MarShon Brooks team up in the Red Claws backcourt than watch the conscienceless Bayless and Crawford share the court but rarely the ball.)

You feel for Stevens, but at least he knows he'll be here when the Celtics are true contenders again. And you feel for the majority of the players, who have given their all almost to a man despite limited hopes for success. It's a likable team win or lose, and the positive early impressions were authentic. They're still worthy of our attention, even as they go west and head further south.

But if the notion of watching this team slip isn't appealing, well, point the remote toward Kansas for your basketball fix. They Celtics are hypothetically closer to getting Wiggins or Embiid than it looked even a couple of weeks ago.

And as those of you who still can't fathom the concept of Paul Pierce, forward, Brooklyn Nets know, that is a program that's served the Celtics well when a franchise cornerstone has been needed.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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