Since the Celtics made the tough decision to move on from the "Big 3" era once and for all, the expectation of many has been that the organization is content to bottom out this season with the hope they can land any one of several top prospects in next year’s draft. We’ve heard the term "tanking" often applied to the organization’s short term approach. I’m not buying it.
I’d like to make a case that the 2013-2014 Celtics, no longer with any Hall of Famers on the roster, or even a 20-point scorer, could be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference next year. In fact, If I had to predict where the current Celtics would finish next year, I’d bet on no lower than the sixth seed in the playoffs. Yes, that’s one spot higher than last year’s team. Stay with me.
We know what the Celtics don’t have with Coach Doc Rivers, Pierce and Garnett gone. They don’t have their championship-proven head coach, one of the franchise’s all-time great scorers, and they don’t have one of the NBA’s most coveted defensive floor generals who also happened to make 17-foot jump shots at a prolific rate. To mimic the words of Rick Pitino, Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett are not walking through that door.
So who is?
How about an All-Star point guard poised to have the best season of his career.
I see Rajon Rondo flirting with a 20-and-10 season next year in points and assists, primarily for two reasons.
First, he’s coming off ACL surgery. Many might think a player coming off season-ending knee surgery is more likely to see a drop-off in production, but I see the opposite happening with Rondo. Everyone talks about the huge chip on his shoulder. Rondo loves to do things people say he can’t do. Whether it’s hitting uncontested jump shots or threading the needle on the fast break to make an impossible pass, Rondo thrives on proving people wrong. He’s also watched how Derrick Rose’s torturously slow comeback from his ACL tear has played out in the media, with critics questioning Rose’s hesitancy to return from the injury. I just can’t see Rondo accepting the same criticism Rose has taken.
Second, he finally has the opportunity to be "the man" in Boston. Who really knows how things were in the locker room when Rondo was sharing it with three Hall of Famers? I can’t answer that question but I do think Rondo has to relish the opportunity to be the sole leader of this team, no longer playing second, third, or fourth fiddle on a team of veteran stars. Leading this team of role players and Brooklyn Nets "cast-offs" to the playoffs could very well be the greatest act of defiance Rondo could impose on his naysayers.
Joining Rondo as a difference maker for this team is Jeff Green—likely to become Boston’s first scoring option heading into next season.
After failing to consistently produce with the volume and consistency many expected last season, Jeff Green still has his share of critics. He did have nights where he disappeared last season, but let’s remember the position Green was in. Coming off career threatening heart surgery, given a contract many felt he hadn’t earned, Green rejoined a team that even without Ray Allen was pretty crowded with team leaders and established scorers. He had his opportunities, but it’s not hard to imagine how overwhelmed Green might have felt last season readjusting to the game and finding his place in the locker room and on the floor.
This year, Green will have a fresh start and larger role in the offense, likely becoming one of Rondo’s favorite assist targets. I don’t think it has been pressure as much as uncertainly that has limited the consistency in Green’s production in the past. We all know what he’s capable of. If you need a reminder, check the box score from the March 18 game against the Heat when he dropped 43-points on a night he also spent defending LeBron James. Maybe it’s the flashes of talent we’ve seen, or maybe it’s the last name emblazoned on his jersey, I just think Green is going to a big-time player in Boston.
While immediate fan reaction following the Pierce and Garnett trade was mixed, the decision by Danny Ainge and Wyc Grousbeck to sign Brad Stevens, the former Butler coach, to a six-year contract has been met with enthusiasm. There was widespread feeling that a fresh face, as opposed to a number of veteran coaches available (see George Karl, Lionel Hollins, etc.), would be the best fit with this young Celtics team and I couldn’t agree more. Everything I’ve heard following the hiring of Stevens suggests he was one of the most coveted coaches at the NCAA level who hasn’t been pursued by many other NBA teams mostly because of his perceived loyalty to Butler, having previously turned down offers to coach other high-caliber college programs. This makes bringing in Stevens at this transitional time, a particularly shrewd move by Ainge and team ownership.
With the profound respect Stevens earned in just six years at Butler, turning a successful mid-major program into a back-to-back NCAA runner up, I see Stevens having success at Boston quickly and getting this year’s team to buy into his system and play with energy every night.
Much could be said about the other so-called "cast-offs" and role players we’ve gained and retained for the post-Big 3 rebuild, but since I’ve been able to see a lot of this particular player this week, I’ll mention just one. His name is Kelly Olynyk. I know, I know, it’s only summer league. But as sure as I was last year after watching Fab Melo that he wasn’t going to sniff rotation minutes in the NBA last season, that’s how sure I am that Olynyk has the footwork and scoring touch to be a productive NBA player, at least on the offensive side of the floor. Comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki are horribly unfair, but the fact that they’ve even been uttered tells you how well the guy has looked shooting the ball. In the three games I’ve seen this week it’s been one-legged fade away jumpers, hook shots in the lane, fast break layups, and 3-point shots from the top of the arc. Oh, and I can’t forget the masterful up-and-under moves he’s worked into his game this week, channeling his inner Kevin McHale.
Already showing his willingness to run the floor and fill space where needed, I see Olynyk as another player destined to be the beneficiary of some great open court passes from Rondo. I’d be shocked if Olynyk wasn’t playing big rotation minutes next season and having strong offensive games, helping lessen the burden on Green on nights when his shot isn’t falling.
My argument for why I think the Celtics will win 40-45 games next season and earn a playoff spot is largely based on opportunity. While there are certainly a lot of unknowns about this team, there’s real talent and with the old guard moving on, for better or worse, there will be an opportunity for players on the roster to make an impact and take a step forward in their career. I also look top-to-bottom at the Eastern Conference and once you get past the obvious run of Heat, Pacers, Bulls, Knicks, and now Nets, I don't see a reason why Boston can't fill in after those teams.
Maybe the bigger question for next year is "Would it be better if the Celtics weren’t a playoff team?" Some will question whether it was worth foregoing the opportunity to have Pierce retire a Celtic so that the Celtics could occupy a similar mediocre playoff spot this upcoming season and rob themselves of the chance at a high draft pick in 2014. While I understand the reasoning, it’s important to remember a few things.
If the Celtics are a low playoff team this coming season, it’s true they would be in the same position as they were last year—except for the age and potential of their roster. They will be a young team starting their ascent, versus an aging team in their final act. Let’s also remember it’s folly to bet on high lottery picks (Ahem, Tim Duncan).
The Celtics can continue to add talent through the draft and clear cap space to sign quality players in the years ahead. It’s not Andrew Wiggins or bust. Plus, I’d much rather see the Celtics as a low-seeded playoff team, playing hard and stealing a game or two from the Bulls or Heat in April, than sitting out of the playoffs praying the ping pong balls bounce a certain way.
Change isn’t easy and a rebuild can be tough to watch. But you also don’t need to hit rock bottom in order to make it back to the top.