Year two of the Celtics’ “Project Master Rebuild” gets underway a week from Wednesday at TD Garden. You don’t need the Property Brothers to know that plenty of work still remains.
Despite lots of roster churning over the summer, the Celts’ inability to make a blockbuster move pretty much ensured that this season would closely resemble the 25-win grind of last season. They still don’t have much defense in the paint and at the rim, will again struggle to rebound and continue to be missing a reliable, go-to scorer.
Plenty of national publications think they’re in trouble. ESPN has them with 26 wins and 12th in the East. Yahoo! Sports’ Ball Don’t Lie blog picked them to finish 28-54. Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose buried them in fourth-to-last place overall in the entire NBA. Scouring the interwebs, there aren’t many places that feel all that different.
But what if things are different? What if some of the positive signs we’ve seen during the preseason hold up once the real games begin? What if Brad Stevens, a far better coach than his 25-57 record in his first NBA season indicates, pushes this team to its maximum capabilities and even (wait for it…) challenges for a playoff berth?
Far-fetched, of course. But don’t underestimate Stevens, the potential motivations of some of the players on this roster or the weakness of the Eastern Conference, which features more question marks than surefire, quality teams. The Celtics might actually have a real chance to accelerate “Project Master Rebuild” and make a little noise this year. And boy, would the city of Boston be pumped about that.
Hey, it could happen. And it all starts with Rajon Rondo. Even though he busted up his hand on the eve of training camp, the Celtics’ captain may indeed be ready to play on Opening Night against the Brooklyn Nets next Wednesday. The trade rumors that have been attached to Rondo for years still exist, and may be louder than ever now that he’s finally entered the final year of his contract. But while some folks who know things (Simmons) think he’s a goner while others (Grantland’s Zach Lowe) aren’t so sure, for the sake of this exercise, let’s say he stays put for the entire season.
Celtics’ fans who want to see their team as competitive as possible should be dreaming about this scenario. In Rondo, they have a player who is not only in a contract year after going on record to say he thinks he’s worthy of max dollars, but one who is coming off an injury that has rendered him obsolete for nearly two years. If playing for that max deal doesn’t elicit enough hunger to be great in Rondo’s gut, the fact that he’s finally got his legs back and can again be the dynamic, elite player/playmaker he was prior to tearing his ACL in February of 2013 has to.
And while Rondo likely doesn’t pay much attention to what’s said about him in public, he’s been ripped every which way time and again by some very loud voices over the past handful of years. If any Celtic has the right to feel disrespected, it’s Rondo. Never underestimate the power of a little extra motivation.
Rondo is hardly the only player on the C’s roster with something to prove. Newcomer Evan Turner went from being the No. 2 overall pick in the draft to a vagabond in barely four years. The Celtics got him for the discount price of $6.7 million over two years. and he came so (relatively) cheap because his reputation was in tatters after a woeful couple of months with the Indiana Pacers. He’s not the only reason, but the Pacers, who looked primed to make a legit run to the Finals last year, began to disintegrate almost exactly when Turner arrived at the trade deadline. He was supposed to be the final piece to the Pacers’ puzzle but instead wound up nailed to the bench. Even though Indiana made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, its series with Miami wasn’t particularly close, and Turner spent most of it as a spectator anyway.
Turner is still a young player with plenty of upside and potential but could already be at the crossroads of his career. Forget a max deal, Turner may be playing for his NBA life. If he’s lousy this year, the rap that he’s a bust becomes tougher for him to shed. Turner needs to be successful as a Celtic. Maybe even more than the Celtics really need him.
Then there’s Avery Bradley, who signed a big deal as a restricted free agent over the summer. Both Bradley and Danny Ainge caught some heat for this move and so far in the preseason, Bradley looks like he may know it.
Known as much for being injury prone as he is for being a tenacious, maximum effort perimeter defender, Bradley, still just 23-years-old, is shooting the lights out this fall. A career 37 percent shooter from three-point land, Bradley is 15-for-28 from deep in six preseason games. Who knows if he can carry that kind of torrid pace into the regular season. But there’s nothing wrong with him looking to shoot and trying to be as aggressive on offense as he already is on defense. The Celtics need more of that from somewhere, and if Bradley wants to take on that role, then good on him. Now all he has to do is stay healthy. He’s never played more than 64 games in a season, and if the Celts are going to outperform expectations, they need a lot more than that out of Bradley.
Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger will each have with another year under his belt. Rookie Marcus Smart, who while offensively challenged, will make an impact on defense quickly, and Jeff Green, who could go for 40 on any given night and, if he feels like it, has the talent to be that go-to guy the Celts sorely lack.
And don’t forget all of the assets under Celtics’ control. There are so many future draft picks and expiring contracts on this roster that come February, when the trade deadline arrives, if the Celts are indeed anywhere near playoff position, Ainge could well make a deal to fortify the roster for this season and beyond. Players like Atlanta’s Al Horford and Paul Millsap and Denver’s JaVale McGee could be available and all fit a need, or at least a potential one.
Can you imagine? Celtics’ fans would go bananas. This is a group that still came out in droves and showed the same kind of support during last season’s descent into the league’s dregs as it did during the glory years of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. As great as that era was, after suffering through the interminable stretch that was 1994 to 2006 and all the torment (M.L. Carr, Rick Pitino, the 1997 lottery, etc.) that came with it, another protracted period of mediocre to awful play could very well drive some of this forever loyal fan base away.
But if the Celtics come out of nowhere, win a bunch of games and find themselves battling it out in late winter/early spring with the likes of Charlotte, Indiana, Brooklyn, the Knicks and even the Heat, who are loaded with question marks now that LeBron James has flown north for the winter, what then?
We all know the answer. The city would be bouncing. And given the underdog nature of this year’s team, the whole “nobody believed in us” factor would result a different kind of electricity pervading the proceedings. When Boston sports teams succeed and defy reason and rational thought in doing so, the populace gets even more fired up than it does when those teams are the favorites.
Are the Boston Celtics really going to emerge from the fog of last year and take the NBA and the city of Boston by storm en route to a return trip to the postseason? Nah, probably not. But stranger things have happened. And none of us will soon forget some wise words shouted loudly on that fateful night back in June, 2008.
Jeremy Gottlieb can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jmg2776.