There's something profoundly poetic about the Celtics facing the Hawks on Friday and the Timberwolves today. Since becoming head coach, Brad Stevens has been enamored with the San Antonio Spurs and Mike Budenholzer and the Hawks have best replicated that system and won 60 games last season. Tonight, Kevin Garnett is back in town. He was the final piece in Boston's Big Three that hung a banner in 2008. Danny Ainge's success spurned copycat GM's around the league to try and assemble other superstar super teams to win a championship.
Sandwiched between these two games has been a malaise of frustration and uncertainty. After the Hawks walked out of the Garden with a 109-101 victory, the Celtics fell to 14-13 for the season and losers of their last three. The loss left many--particularly Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas--looking for more "swagger...passion...and excitement" and a "sense of urgency" from their teammates. Over the weekend, there have been rumblings out of a pair of practices that Stevens might tinker with the lineups and rotations to jump start the team.
However, this might all be coach speak and empty threats. After an impressive stretch of 5-2 basketball with wins in Miami, Charlotte, and at home against Chicago (and losses to Golden State and San Antonio), the Celtics have sputtered. As Paul Flannery calls them in his Sunday Shootaround, the Celtics are "a good but not great team that's a pain in the neck to play against, but with a much thinner margin of error than most of their competitors" and against the conference's elite, Boston has put up two consecutive stinkers against the Cavaliers and Hawks. They're a young team that has been consistently inconsistent. They've won games as underdogs on the road and lost games as the favorite at home.
Right now, the Celtics season might be in neutral only a game over .500 and #10 in the East, but the bigger concern for me is that the franchise sits idle for longer than it should. As Flannery points out, judging the rebuild in Year 3 isn't exactly fair; Ainge hasn't had a chance to cash in on the draft picks that he's accumulated over the last two years spent tearing everything down. He hired the right coach for the job and it's admirable what this team has done since last season's trade deadline. With the fifth youngest roster in the league, Stevens has been able to coach his team to be more than competitive despite massive turnover and inexperience.
So far, 2015-2016 has been a season of crossroads. Every handful of games, there seems to be a monumental shiftin team strategy and personnel use. Some have been motivated by injury, others by good play. Coming out of training camp, the company line was that Thomas would be great off the bench surrounded by shooters and paired with Amir Johnson in the pick-and-roll. We've seen little of either. Jared Sullinger started the season as the fifth big in the rotation. He's now the team's most reliable front court player with Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Zeller, and David Lee having the occasional good game. James Young spent most of his rookie season in Maine, but has come on of late and could finally be adjusting to the pro game.
The team's latest skid has Brad Stevens in another moment of pause and potential change. On Sunday, he talked about maybe giving Terry Rozier some PT "for a little bit more speed and some ability to make plays" and playing Zeller more because "he runs to the rim and rolls to the rim." These might be off the cuff, throw away comments, but I do think that we're going to see some big changes to close out December.
For the past two seasons, Boston has been more of a deal incubator than a rebuilding team. Whether it was Jordan Crawford or Kris Humphries or Brandan Wright or Tayshaun Prince, the Celtics have played their vets. They've tried to win games with them while simultaneously showcasing them for future trades and for the most part, it's worked. Today, David Lee is the remaining survivor of the PP-KG blockbuster with Brooklyn (by way of Gerald Wallace). He's had mixed results as a Celtic, but even if he had regained his All Star form, it was more than likely that his stay in Boston was fleeting.
Ultimately, this is still a team in flux with a blueprint to win down the road and it might be time to think big picture. They can win games giving David Lee 15-20 minutes a night and starting the 28-year-old Amir Johnson, but this is still a roster with more than half their players on rookie contracts and a plethora of draft picks to use over the next three summers. Lee and Johnson might be our best bets for a December regular season game this year, but in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter?
At the beginning of the season, I bought into all the hype. The Celtics were analytical darlings. Everybody from FiveThirtyEight to Nylon Calculus had Boston ranked higher than expected; they credited Ainge for finding efficient players and were confident that they would be greater than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, games aren't played on paper. Players get the yips, opposing teams adjust, and plans go awry. But not all plans. This is still a team under construction and with that in mind, it be time to start seriously considering the future.
In other words: play the young guys.
For example, consider the current big man rotation. Forget that Zeller is in a contract year or that Jonas Jerebko has been mired in a slump for, well, the entire season. For Stevens, the bottom line should be how he wants this team to play moving forward, not how they can play today or even how they can best win today. Lee and Johnson are fine basketball players, but they're not exactly perfect fits for the pace-and-space, read-and-react system that Brad wants to run. Neither are particularly good outside shooters or can put the ball on the floor and create. Zeller and Jerebko, on the other hand, are quicker, more versatile, and able to shoot from the perimeter.
Ideally, every Celtic big would have Olynyk's skill set, but what he has in talent, Kelly lacks in confidence. In Boston's impressive seven-game stretch, Olynyk let it fly aggressively from the outside and more importantly, took advantage of his size on the inside and abused mismatches in the paint. Since then, he's looked tentative including a brutal stretch in the Atlanta loss that sparked the Hawks' comeback.
But this is where consistent playing time could help. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized this idea of the 10,000 Hours Rule, claiming that it takes that long to master anything. The rule may not exactly apply to the NBA and we can argue about the value of playing time for young players adjusting to the league (ahem, Byron Scott), but at some point, Brad Stevens needs to find out what he's got in his young guys. In the spirit of the time, do or do not, there is no try, right? I'd rather Olynyk or any young player make a mistake and learn from it rather than not play at all. With the amount of young talent already in the pipeline with likely more to come this summer, it's imperative that we find out who can play and who can't. Rozier and Jordan Mickey have been tearing up the D-League. Let's see how they do at the big club level.
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The Celtics aren't the Hawks and they're not the Timberwolves. When Budenholzer took over, he had established players in place on a team that was regularly in the second round of the playoffs. Atlanta was more of a retooling than a rebuilding. In Minnesota, Garnett is now mentoring two former #1's and a handful of lottery picks. It's a nice foundation for a team that hasn't been in the playoffs for eleven years. Could the Celtics tank for a chance to draft Ben Simmons? Frankly, I don't think Jae Crowder lets that happen.
The haters will say that Boston is in basketball Siberia: not good enough to contend and not bad enough to bring in top level talent. To me, the glass is half full. In addition to having one of the NBA's best coaches, the team is young and owns draft picks for teams already in or heading for the tank. It's just a matter of when they start capitalizing on it. That time is now.