The Celtics traded Rajon Rondo on Thursday. They then went out and promptly won big on Friday, their third straight. They may still be under .500, but they’re currently hanging around the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race with a handful of games against struggling and/or subpar teams on the schedule between now and the new year.
So what happens now? The Celts can’t be pushing for that 8-seed, can they? If the goal was to try to make it to the postseason, they would have had to keep Rondo, right? As putrid as the East is this season – and man, is it putrid – a run at the playoffs doesn’t seem to fit with what the Celts are trying to accomplish.
Unless it does. I know, we’re entering some foggy territory here. That’s why even though Danny Ainge implored reporters to “take a deep breath and let’s enjoy the holidays and let’s let these guys play, see how everybody fits in,” when detailing the Rondo deal prior to Friday night’s victory over Minnesota, it would make sense for him to take the next step toward a total overhaul and trade Jeff Green and Brandon Bass as soon as possible.
There’s a long, long way to go this season and the Celts were 12-14 last season before finishing the year at a 13-43 clip. It’s conceivable that they can stand pat and still stink, if that’s what they want. And to be honest, that may be what’s best.
As has been well documented, teams that hover around the NBA’s soft middle are ultimately in far worse shape than those who scrape the bottom of the barrel. As gross as the current incarnation of the Philadelphia 76ers is — constantly collecting second round picks, young, injured players and other flotsam that doesn’t belong anywhere near an NBA arena — they will be better served down the road for taking this approach than sneaking into the playoffs or getting the sixth or ninth pick in the draft lottery.
The Celtics are in asset collection mode as well although hardly in as horrid a fashion as the Sixers. They have draft choices coming out of their ears covering the next four seasons after this one, as well as some upcoming salary cap space and a giant, $12.9 million trade exception opened up courtesy of Rondo’s departure.
But given their current state, the most important asset they have is as of yet unknown: their own first-rounder in next summer’s draft.
It’s so incredibly imperative that the Celtics kick start their process as soon as they can and one key variable in doing that is getting a star player. They tried to bring one in to pair with Rondo but there was no Al Jefferson – the main cog in the Kevin Garnett trade from 2007 – to headline the package and we all know the rest.
We also know that the haul they received in return for Rondo was pretty negligible relative to what they may have gotten for him, say, 18 months ago. So all that’s left to do is a little more stockpiling and, sadly, a lot more losing, to make their chances of grabbing a budding, game changer of a big man like Duke’s Jahlil Okafor or Kentucky’s Karl Towns increase.
The problem is that even without Rondo, the C’s may still be a little bit too good to do that. Granted, the three teams they’ve blown out during this modest win streak – the Sixers, Magic and Timberwolves – are all bottom feeders themselves. It’s not like they’ve ripped off big wins over Golden State, Memphis and Chicago. Wins are wins though. They all count equally in the standings.
The Celtics aren’t going to get any better than they are right now and that’s a bad thing. They are doomed to be stuck in NBA purgatory forever unless they find a way to bring in that star in one way or another. Marcus Smart looks like he has what it takes to be a very good point guard someday, but he’s not a star. Kelly Olynyk has bounced back from a recent mega-slump very strong and is playing great but he’s not a star. Jared Sullinger is talented and has proven capable of diversifying his game a bit but he’s not a star. And Jeff Green was given the opportunity to become a star but it’s just not in his makeup.
So deal him. Bass too. Throw in veteran Jameer Nelson, part of the Rondo return. Play rookie James Young 30 minutes a night when he comes back from his shoulder injury if he’s up for it. Allow Smart to learn and grow on the job while Olynyk and Sullinger continue to develop.
Things will get appreciably worse but it’s the only way this whole miserable experience can possibly get any better. Such is the current plight of the Celtics, Rondo or no Rondo.