Opening night of the 2013-14 NBA season is upon us, and that being the case, it's time for everyone to make their picks and prognostications and whatnot.
Here, I'll start. I have a couple for the Celtics, and they might be a little bit controversial.
1. The C's won't be all that terrible this season. Really.
2. That's not such a bad thing.
The temptation these days is to talk about "blowing it up," of course, and I understand it. With Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Doc Rivers all gone, the natural inclination is to get rid of everyone else too, starting over from scratch. But conventional wisdom clashes with reality in this case. What Danny Ainge has on his roster today, on the official first day of the post-Big Three era, is not "scratch." It's an intriguing group of talented players. Several teams in the NBA are blowing it up this season, and Boston's rotation looks far better than any of them.
The Celtics are not Philadelphia, Phoenix or even Utah. Those teams gutted their rosters, and they're now looking forward to the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes next spring - the Celtics can't compete with those teams for Ping-Pong balls. Ainge isn't tanking, no matter how much you might want him to. He's rebuilding on the fly.
He retains a four-time All-Star in Rajon Rondo. He has a pair of young forwards in Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk with the potential to grow into All-Stars. He's got one of the game's best perimeter defenders in Avery Bradley, and a burgeoning star in Jeff Green who's still inching closer to his full potential. In Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Brandon Bass, Courtney Lee and Jordan Crawford, he has five more proven rotation members.
With most bottom-feeding NBA teams, the question is how many NBA-worthy players they have on the roster. With the Celtics, that's not a question. They're legitimately 10 deep. That's clear.
Even without a trio of Hall of Famers, the Celtics will stumble into more wins than you might expect. They'll have a few games where Green randomly goes off for 30-plus, as he did on several occasions last year. There'll be a few where one of the young power forwards plays out of his mind. There will most definitely be nights when Bradley annoys the bajeesus out of the opposing point guard all night long, leading to an ugly defensive struggle that the Celtics win 77-74.
Wins will happen. Vegas says 27.5 of them to be exact, but that number doesn't sound right. The Celtics just have too much talent and depth to lose 66 percent of their games. It doesn't compute. If you ask me, this ragtag group surprises a few people this season and breaks the 30 mark, eventually finishing the season with 32 or 34 wins. In a bad Eastern Conference, that may even mean a slight chance at a playoff berth.
To those who balk at that possibility, maintaining they'd rather tank for 2014: Not so fast. Very seldom does that approach work without a hitch. The lottery can be cruel, the picks can fail to pan out, and the process can take way too long to be worthwhile. There are other ways to build a successful team besides bottoming out and nabbing a No. 1 pick.
Look at the Pacers, who managed to build a legitimate title contender despite never making a draft pick higher than No. 10. They found Paul George and Roy Hibbert buried beneath the lottery headliners, and they turned those two into a scary good nucleus. Check out the Grizzlies - they took a flyer on a cast-off Zach Randolph and made a trade for a no-name second-rounder named Marc Gasol. How about the Knicks? Simple - they piled up assets, they waited for the right moment and they pounced on Carmelo Anthony.
None of the above approaches require a top draft pick or a market that's a prime free agent destination. Instead, they're all about intelligence, foresight and timing. Ainge's front office understands that.
The C's front office leader has repeatedly said that tanking isn't for him. In Paul Flannery's excellent profile this week, Ainge reiterated that losing on purpose won't work:
"It’s easy to say that, but it’s hard to live that. You have sponsorships, you have television, you have players that you’re trying to develop that become of no value when your team just can’t win a game. You have season-ticket holders that don’t get their value. You have coaches that get critiqued and blamed. There’s nothing good about losing except the possibility of a good draft pick."
That paragraph reiterates what we all kinda suspected all along - Ainge and the Celtics have too much pride to lose. They're fiercely competitive, even without KG and the rest of the guys on their roster. Whatever happens this season, they're not going to take it lying down.
Nor should they.
This team is good. In the 82 games ahead, it may just prove that it's better than you think.