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As the NBA's trading season begins, where do the Celtics stand?

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Today is Dec. 15, which means the start of a frenzied two-month trading period in the NBA. What's the Celtics' status going into this pivotal stretch? Are they buyers or sellers?

Where do these guys stand?
Where do these guys stand?
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

It's now 11 a.m. on Dec. 15. Do you know where your basketball team is?

While you may not realize it at this very moment, today is the beginning of a crucial juncture in the history of the Celtics' franchise. A crossroads, if you will. The team is in the middle of a transition period, looking to build a bridge from the end of the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett era to the beginning of - well, I'm not sure exactly what, but something - and today is the beginning of a pivotal two-month time period in which they absolutely must figure it out.

Why now, you ask? Because Dec. 15, you'll recall if you know your NBA salary cap rules, is the first day that free agents who were signed during the most recent offseason become eligible for trades. In other words, it's the genesis of a frenzied period of wheeling and dealing that will continue until the trade deadline on Feb. 19. The clock has begun ticking. The Celtics basically have two months to determine the future direction of the franchise.

Now, it's worth noting that the Dec. 15 end of the moratorium doesn't affect the Celtics' personnel directly. None of the players on Danny Ainge's roster will see their status change today. The rule technically says "Dec. 15 or three months after the player's contract was signed, whichever is later," and Evan Turner wasn't officially signed until Sept. 29, so he's still a Celtic until after Christmas at least. As for Avery Bradley, he wasn't a true free agent - he was a previous Celtic being retained via Bird rights, and those guys have a separate trade eligibility date of Jan. 15. So nothing's changed for Ainge, at least internally.

But what does happen every year on the 15th is an undeniable ripple effect that impacts the entire league. Even if a given GM doesn't have any additional guys available for deals today, he certainly knows another decision-maker, just one phone call away, who does. All those trades that were on the table weeks ago but not finalized because "We're just one guy away" from finding a balanced deal? Those trades can happen now if that "one guy" becomes available on the 15th. And once one deal happens for one team, another possibility comes into focus for another team, and... voila. The dominoes start falling.

It's hard to say exactly when or exactly how this phenomenon might affect the Celtics. But we have to consider the possibility that it will. After all, Ainge and the C's are running out of time to make a decision on the future of Rajon Rondo, and this two-month period is really their last chance to do something before free agency hits and all hell breaks loose. Ainge has a lot of assets at his disposal to rebuild with, but none is more valuable than a four-time (perhaps five by the time the trade deadline hits, but that's another discussion for another day) NBA All-Star in the prime of his career. He's got to make a decision. He's either got to commit to building around Rondo, or deal him now and reconstruct a roster with whatever he gets back.

The problem is this: That's a really, really hard decision to make without a good grasp on the state of your team. How good are the Celtics? Are they trade deadline buyers or sellers? If they're headed for the fourth or fifth-worst record in the NBA like they were last year, they should almost certainly be looking to dump salary and start over again, but if they're headed for a possible playoff berth, they'll need to reconsider that notion.

So? Let's talk about it. How good is this team?

The Celtics' current won/lost record places them 10th in the Eastern Conference at 7-14. They're 2 1/2 games behind Brooklyn for the No. 8 seed in the playoffs. On paper, that doesn't look like a great position to be in, but there are a lot of complicating factors worth taking into consideration here. Namely:

  1. The schedule hasn't been friendly so far. November was absolutely brutal, including matchups with Memphis, Portland, all three Texas teams and arguably the three toughest opponents in the East (Toronto, Cleveland and Chicago twice).
  2. It's not surprising that the team has underperformed in its first 21 games - young teams tend to. As key players like Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger get more experience under their belts, they're likely to show improvement in the latter part of the season.
  3. Close games. The C's have lost a lot of them. That might be in large part because they don't know how to execute and close out wins, but it also might be a little bit of bad luck that will even out over the team's next 61 contests.

Anyway. The won/lost record for the C's isn't great, but there are other ways to dissect this question. Let's look at it this way:

  • The Eastern Conference features five teams - Toronto, Cleveland, Chicago, Atlanta and Washington - that are clearly a cut above everyone else. Barring something crazy happening, they're playoff-bound.
  • There are also four squads - Charlotte, New York, Detroit and Philadelphia - that really stink. Let's count them out.
  • That leaves six teams - Boston, Milwaukee, Indiana, Brooklyn, Miami and Orlando. Six clubs, three playoff spots left to be decided.

I would argue that at this juncture, it's hard to determine who's better than whom among that mediocre East group. The Heat have the best offense; the Pacers the best defense. The Bucks are the best team in the standings right now (holy cow - they're .500!). When you ask the advanced metrics, how do the six stack up?

According to the "Simple Rating System" devised by basketball-reference, which takes into account offense, defense and strength of schedule, the Celtics are actually the best of the six. No joke! Here's the breakdown, with efficiency numbers measured in points per 100 possessions and SRS rating team quality, with 0 representing league average and -11 representing the Sixers:


That's encouraging. And it's not rocket science to see where the number comes from - the Celtics are solid offensively, they're not the worst defensively and their schedule will get easier before it gets harder. (Seriously, check out December. A relative cakewalk.)

For another perspective, though, you can check out John Hollinger's playoff odds system, which simulates the rest of the season zillions of times and uses the simulation to project best-case and worst-case scenarios, along with a percentage chance that each team makes the playoffs. According to Hollinger, the Celtics are hanging onto a playoff spot for dear life, with the final three spots in the East most likely going to the Bucks, Magic and just barely Celtics, though Brooklyn's nipping at their heels:




I'm not here to defend either side of this debate. Maybe the Celtics are a playoff team; maybe they're not. It's a really difficult borderline call, and there's still three quarters of the season to go, and frankly, it's really difficult to make a judgment either way when all six teams here are pretty bad, and thus pretty unpredictable. A lot of weird stuff can happen.

All I know is this - these next two months are going to be crucial. I don't expect the Celtics to make a torrid run at the No. 1 spot in the East, and I don't expect them to bottom out, either. More than likely, they're going to continue at the mediocre clip that they're on, and Ainge is going to have to make a brutally difficult choice about the future of the franchise based on that. There are 30 games between now and the trade deadline, and the difference between .300 and .400 ball over 30 games is just three wins. Three streaky shooting nights, three schedule losses, three lucky bounces. Really, not much. But there's a whole lot riding on it.

If Ainge decides that his team is in long-term rebuilding mode, he'll need to scramble to make a move with Rondo, bring in the best possible assets and set in motion a plan to rebuild over the next few years. If he decides he's got a winner (of sorts), he'll need to fine-tune the roster for the playoffs and build a team that can fight into April (not to mention prove its mettle to Rondo come July).

This is pretty huge. The December and January dog days for a 7-14 team might not seem like that big a deal, but they're actually momentous for these Celtics. The next 30 games will have a huge impact on the direction of the franchise. I, for one, will certainly be watching with bated breath.