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Taking stock of the Celtics' strange status

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  February 7, 2014 10:29 AM

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Taking my 9-year-old to her first Celtics game tonight because, hey, Boogie Cousins and Jimmer Fredette are worth any price of admission, right?

Actually, this is a big day, a crucial phase in my long-plotted master plan to make her love sports, the benefits of which are essential and two-fold: first, the camaraderie of being part of a team and working toward a common goal is immeasurably valuable in building self-confidence in children, especially girls.

And, second, it means I'll have good company on the couch whenever there's a good game to watch. That matters less, but it does matter. Basketball is meant to be discussed among aficionados in real-time and with real enjoyment.

So far, the plan is working accordingly. She long ago realized that if she at least feigned interest in watching the Celtics, it bought her a temporary reprieve on bedtime. I'm proud to report that the interest in basketball has become genuine, in part from the osmosis of the nightly NBA game and in part from her own playing experiences.

Her last actions of every day now involve trying to make 10 in a row on her Nerf hoop, her bedroom now reorganized in a bizarro feng shui with the purpose of leaving as much room as possible for a "basketball court." If you're a parent, you know: I couldn't be more proud. Don't tell her mom, I might even let her write Red Auerbach's name in Sharpie on the hardwood. Authenticity, you know.

As part of her dad's master plan, she has been promised that she can buy a new Celtics jersey before tonight's game, which has brought about an unexpected dilemma. I asked while waiting for the school bus this morning which player's shirt she decided to get. Rajon Rondo? Maybe Jared Sullinger? Wait, Chris Johnson! "I don't know,'' she shrugged. "Larry Bird? Do you think they still have one for Kevin Garnett?"

While her nostalgic old man certainly appreciates the nod toward the retro, it's also a reminder of the state of the franchise we're going to see. The Celtics are hovering in that strange NBA purgatory -- the early stages of a rebuilding project that would be accelerated by being downright lousy now. But at 17-33, with consecutive wins over teams also eyeballing a large collection of lottery ping-pong balls, they have just the sixth-worst record in the NBA.

It's a confusing place to be, trying to win each game -- you know Brad Stevens and the vast majority of the players do -- while also being aware that they win long-term by losing now. It leaves you with mixed feelings no matter the outcome of that night's game. But at least this feels better, or at less cheap, than did the miserable and lost seasons of 1996-97 and 2006-07.

In '96, the roster featured a few competent professionals such as Rick Fox and David Wesley, but M.L. Carr's incompetence-by-design on the sidelines lent an air of fraudulence to the Quest For Tim Duncan. (Not to mention permanently stunted Antoine Walker's development. Imagine what he might have become had he learned from a coach like Stevens at a young age, before all of the bad habits had metastasized.)

In 2006-07, injuries to Paul Pierce and Tony Allen sent a mediocre team into free-fall. You know who led that team in games played? The not-ready-for-prime-time Gerald Green. I'm sure a lot of people bought this shirt back in the day. Maybe they now wear them ironically in Phoenix, where at last he's become what he thought he was here.

There aren't many players here now whose name you'd be willing to put on your back, at least with any confidence that that player will be here long term.

Jared Sullinger is a blast to watch, with those All-Pro tight end hands and every low-post trick you'd expect a coach's son to have. But I worry about his extra weight and the long-term effect it might have on his surgically repaired back. He could be a core guy here when all is good again. He could also be the first- or second-best player to go in a blockbuster trade, the Al Jefferson of his time. Don't tell me you're not keeping an eye on what's going on with Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. You know Danny Ainge is.

It's wonderful to see Rajon Rondo back and doing all of those uniquely Rondo things on the court. I love watching him play, missed watching him when he was away, and hope he is running the on-court show when the Celtics are a contender again. But he is an all-time enigma, and who knows what his plan is. Sometimes he says he wants to test free agency. Another time he said he could see being a Celtic for life. It's probably best to ignore what he says and just savor what he does.

My daughter's generation's Celtics star, their Hondo, Larry, the Truth or KG ... well, he isn't a Celtic yet. This year's class of college freshmen has struggled to live up to the hype, which should come as little surprise since, you know, they're college freshmen. I'm not sure I've actually seen Andrew Wiggins play a single consistent game this year, but he was so over-touted that he may be underrated now. And I love Jabari Parker, who plays with more athleticism than he gets credit for and hustles relentlessly. I know, he and Joel Embiid are hinting that they may stay in school. I'm skeptical. I don't think they'll say it with much conviction once agents put specific dollar signs in their eyes over the next couple of months.

Ultimately, while Celtics fans endure the present in hopes of a bright future, there's one reason above all for encouragement. Ainge, with great preparation and absolutely no sentiment, is going to do whatever he believes is right to rebuild this thing. And I trust what he believes is right will be right, whether that's trading Rondo for 80 cents on the dollar at lunchtime tomorrow, or making a run at Irving on the small chance he has fondness for the city where his dad played college ball, or choosing the right player once the draft rolls around.

Not many of the current Celtics will be here when Banner 18 is a possibility. But during this sporadically fulfilling, necessarily frustrating season, the groundwork is being set down to build that next great Celtics team.

Tonight, I'm setting down the groundwork for a new generation of fan. And until my daughter has found her enduring Celtics heroes of her own, that Bird or KG shirt will do more than fine.

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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