We're at the point in the season where identities are finally solidified, giving way to clearly defined underachievements, average performances, and overachievements.
Players are who they are; a team will produce a standard level of output, given occasional deviations from the mean. Rudy Gay won't produce at LeBron Jamesian levels for more than one or two games in a row, while Kevin Durant won't shoot at J.R. Smithian percentages for very long. The capacity of a team works in the same way -- there's a reason why the Utah Jazz can't string off more than three wins in succession, or why the Miami Heat can do just that so frequently.
That line of logic also applies to the Boston Celtics. At this point in the season, you know exactly what you're going to get. Jeff Green doesn't do much but score, and he hasn't really even been doing that efficiently -- he'll put up some impressive shooting displays and throw down some thunderous dunks, but Green should be no non-tanking team's primary option (or secondary option, for that matter). A third option, maybe. Avery Bradley can still defend with the best of them and his overall offensive arsenal is much improved (and much more watchable), but Bradley's potential is clearly met by a hard ceiling.
The player with the most untapped potential -- and, currently, the second best player on the roster -- is Jared Sullinger. Yes, he can't really score efficiently around the basket and his defensive effort isn't quite there on every single possession, but the upside is apparent to even the most casual observers. Given a consistent serving of minutes, Sullinger snags rebounds like very few can and the foundation for a very well-rounded offensive game is already established -- with that touch and a silky shooting release, he could develop into a formidable inside-out frontcourt player for years to come. The Zach Randolph comparisons are brought up for a reason, and they may even sell him short.
And then there's Rajon Rondo, the mercurial point guard with a fiery temper and massive hands. It's yet to be determined how he recovers from reconstructive knee surgery, but Rondo's arguably the most impactful point guard in the league when healthy -- if you factor in scoring ability, passing, rebounding, defensive awareness, hustle plays, and so forth. He's a valuable piece to have during a reboot, to say the least.
A reboot it is, as the Celtics are clearly losing games in the short term while Danny Ainge's front office looks ahead to the future. No matter what anyone else tells you, Brad Stevens isn't overly concerned with winning games right now. He may say so, but it's partly for show. Rondo will pout from time to time, Sullinger will complain during a lengthy road trip, and Gerald Wallace will be Gerald Wallace -- but, winning now does not matter. At all. Your exciting regular season win in Washington D.C. is just an exciting win, not an indicator of a season turned around or a team making headway. In that regard, these January affairs mean very little -- they merely serve to inform Ainge, a mastermind's mastermind, of the pieces at his disposal. And what he can get in return.
There are other certainties as well. The organization will not trade Rajon Rondo -- one of those unique talents that doesn't come around every so often -- anytime soon. There's no need to when the cupboard's already so bare. Since the goal now is to accumulate assets (draft picks, attractive contracts, etc.), why trade away the most valuable asset in your possession? Unless the return offer is DeMarcus Cousins or a similar type of talent, pursuing willing trade partners is a foolish venture -- and Ainge knows this, as he enters contract negotiations with his team's new captain.
Repeat: Rajon Rondo will not be traded anytime soon, unless the offer is incredibly enticing. Iman Shumpert and change won't cut it.
Also, Brad Stevens is already one of the best head coaches in the league. A team so devoid of talent should not be so competitive in so many close games, and yet his players just seem to love playing for him. That's a testament to the calm demeanor of the man on the sidelines, who understands the ebbs and flows of the sport and maximizes the talent handed to him with a steady dose of patience and heartfelt communication. In the middle of a long rebuilding process, Stevens is perfectly suited to lead a group of unprovens and also-rans into an undiscovered frontier.
With so much brainpower from the top-down -- most notably Danny Ainge's progressive front office and analytics team, to which Stevens was drawn in the first place -- it is pretty safe to say that the rebuild will be completed sooner rather than later. The right pieces are in place for that to happen.
(The same cannot be said of the Utah Jazz, for instance, whose head coach rolls out all kinds of mysterious player combinations and relies on the most basic offensive sets to do the job. Talent must be utilized effectively, and the cupboard isn't so bare in the Beehive State as to warrant a 14-29 record. The job isn't being done.)
The Celtics will have cap space and numerous draft opportunities in the first round, which should make Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger, and (possibly, pending trades) Jeff Green sleep a little bit easier at night. They will soon be surrounded by more talent, so some of the pressure to perform should be uplifted. This could mean Andrew Wiggins or Dante Exum, or some undervalued free agent like Gordon Hayward, but the acquisitions are surely coming. Fortunately, the combination of the talent in place, a forward-thinking front office willing to take risks, and an exciting young coach makes Boston an attractive destination -- not to mention that the market's big enough to warrant national attention. There's a lot to offer, even with the likes of New York and Los Angeles always in the running.
Better days are ahead in Boston, so fans shouldn't have to endure watching Phil Pressey take the reins and Gerald Wallace pass up open shots for that much longer.
In the meantime, the team will struggle. With a transcendent point guard added to the fold, what the team provides in newfound excitement is rendered meaningless by its stagnant offense and underwhelming defense -- in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency, the Celtics are sometimes darn near unwatchable, even for the most dedicated observers. The scoring droughts are miserable and the lack of adequate rim protection too often translates into dunks, dunks, and more dunks for the opposing team. It's been a long time since 2008, when Kevin Garnett anchored one of the stingiest defenses in recent memory.
But, you should know this by now. The Celtics are not constructed for success in the present, as the nightly box scores will indicate moving forward. Brad Stevens has a sure thing on his hands, in that the team given to him is surely one of the worst in the league. That won't change, days and weeks down the road. The Celtics are pretty darn woeful.
They are who we thought that they would be entering this regular season, a collection of random and oftentimes misaligned pieces struggling to remain competitive when the end goal isn't rooted in present accomplishment. When underwhelming talent intersects a dearth of competitive motivation, the situation stinks of blown games and moody press conferences. Expect nothing more, only less.
And may the future yield some tastier fruit. Hold tight, ye faithful of green and white.