Working in the Boston.com and Globe sports departments often feels like a real-life edition of Globe 10.0, except with no clock and more colorful language. Every day is essentially a meandering eight-hour sports podcast, with various voices dropping in and out.
One of my favorite colleagues to banter and blabber with, particularly when it comes to the Celtics, is Gary Dzen, who has been covering the team since Sebastian Telfair was getting minutes over Rajon Rondo and maintains a clear-eyed perspective whether they’re mission of the moment is hanging banners or accumulating ping-pong balls.
Rather than continuing to annoy our colleagues, we took our perpetual debate to email. A few days and a thousand or so words after we first started, here’s our back-and-forth on the state of the Celtics.
All right, Dzen, I know you’re the right person to go to here. You’ve been covering the Celtics since before Kevin Garnett ever had a photo op with a green jersey, let alone a black one. You’ve had the common sense to recognize
that this is a really good NBA Draft year to be beyond lousy, and that Danny Ainge set them up to be just that. Yet your interest in this team remains high – I busted you tweeting about the Celtics opener while we were covering a World Series game. So I’ll ask: Do you have legitimate hope for this team this year? Did you buy the four straight wins as an indication of good things to come, or are the last three games – all losses – telling a truer story of what they are?
What can I say, I bleed green. You’re right about Ainge and the construction of the roster. The C’s lack perimeter shooting, have redundancy at both forward spots, and are down their starting point guard. I’ll admit I didn’t see the winning streak coming. Sliding Avery Bradley over to shooting guard was the first step; he’s better on both ends of the floor when he doesn’t have to dribble and run the offense.
An obvious reason for three of the wins is the Celtics played bad teams, and that’s a lot of it. It’s hard to find four consecutive games later in the schedule where you can see this happening. But the offense is better under coach Brad Stevens, and for the first time in years the C’s are crashing the glass on that end. Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk have immense potential; it’s fun to watch guys who consistently, instinctively show up in the right spots on the floor. Brandon Bass is playing maybe his best basketball as a Celtic.
You disappoint me with your reason. I was expecting a treatise on how Jeff Green, Brandon Bass, and point guard – point guard!– Jordan Crawford are the new New Big Three. Instead, you hit me with clear-eyed logic, backed by statistical confirmation. Knock it off with the common sense. I demand you spell out how Banner 18 is in the making 11 games into this year.
Oh, all right, so maybe even the most irrationally optimistic Celtics fan isn’t that nuts. And your approach to watching this team is the same as mine – you’re paying attention to figure out who will be a part of this thing when it’s turned around. But I have to say, after that Miami win, there did seem to be a sense that, “Hey, this team might be better than we thought.” As fun as that was, it really was a memorable fluke, like the Celtics’ win over the Michael Jordan Bulls during Rick Pitino’s first game in 1997-98 but with an actually competent, humble and conventional coach.
We’ll get into why they shouldn’t be good in a minute, but you do agree that what we’re seeing now – losses in which they compete hard, but aren’t competitive, if that makes sense – means that they’ll have a sizable collection of ping-pong balls before this is over?
Agree completely. Two things in particular weren’t sustainable. One was that points per game average of 96.1 after seven games. The Celtics were 17th in the league in offensive rating, 19th in pace, and 24th in turnover percentage, and yet they were 7th in scoring? That said more to me about the opponent than the C’s themselves. It can’t and didn’t last.
Something else that’s unsustainable is all this harmony. There are a lot of good guys on this team, starting with Jeff Green, who is also the best player. That’s a good thing in terms of unity. But a week ago Gerald Wallace sounded like he wanted out, and now he loves coming off the bench? How long until 10-assist, 0-turnover Jordan Crawford reverts back to the shoot-first guy he’s been his whole career? Players are happy when they win, but the wins are going to be few and far between. The frustration will begin to feed itself.
I think Wallace still wants out, no matter how many Tom Brady bobbleheads he claims to have in his Boston sports shrine. Unfortunately, there are roughly 30.3 million reasons over the next three years why no one is going to take his contract off the Celtics’ hands, which probably should be pointed out to him. It’s too bad, too, because he does look healthy this year – he was arguably the worst player in the league per-minute last season – and could help a contender. This version of Wallace would have helped the Celtics of the last 3-4 years a ton. The guy hustles his butt off, I don’t think that entitles him to calling out his teammates’ effort before the season has even begun. Maybe that dope James Dolan can be enticed to covet him instead of Rajon Rondo, but that’s a desperate hope.
Which segues to another point: If they keep winning, Ainge is going to start selling off usable pieces until Willie Mays Hayes is their point guard and Pedro Cerrano is playing center. There should be players who have serious appeal to contenders, starting with Brandon Bass. And Ainge was front-and-center at the Jabari Parker/Julius Randle/Andrew Wiggins Show last Tuesday night – the scene actually reminded me of him sitting with Kevin Durant‘s mom at a game back in ’07. They may not tank, per se. But they’re going to make sure they’re not lacking in genuine hope when the lottery comes around in April, and the limited talent on the roster will take care of the losing without any dubious practices being required. They’re not ending up with Ron Mercer this time around, you know?
I don’t like this roster better than the 2006-07 roster, either, and certainly not when Pierce was playing. I covered many of the games during that 18-game losing streak, and the rhetoric from the locker room was the same.
“We just didn’t give effort for a full 48 minutes,” Doc would say in one form or another. “We took them lightly,” Jefferson might add. The current Celtics don’t have anything close to a Paul Pierce, an all-time great who could win a game by himself. Stevens and the players are going to tell you they aren’t tanking, and that’s 100 percent true. It’s not up to them. But we’ve seen the talent catch up to the C’s in the last few games. The Minnesota Timberwolves are much, much better than the Celtics, and they’re a fringe playoff team in the West.
How many wins for the Celtics? They have nine remaining November games and shouldn’t be favored in any of them. December and early January look equally daunting. You can’t play the Orlando Magic every night. I was going to go over, but I’ll take the under and say the Celtics will win right around 20 or 21 games. That’s a good thing, by the way, for Celtics fans rooting for the franchise to get better sooner. In order to talk about that, though, we’d need a bigger blog.
Considering we spent roughly 1,300 words here, our blog is plenty big enough, Brody. But we may have to do this again soon. We didn’t even get into Rajon Rondo’s redshirt season (don’t trade him!), how encouraging Brad Stevens’s first 11 games as an NBA head coach have been (I think he’s going to be better than Doc in the long run), and why those Nets draft picks are going to be much better than anyone counted on (KG looks cooked). Let’s plan on it after the Celtics win four more games. So, right around the new year.