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Conspiracy theory: why aren't the D-Leaguers playing?

Put on your tin foil hats.

Nick Laham/Getty Images

Once in a while, things just don't make sense like when Jordan Crawford was the Celtics' best player in Brad Stevens' rookie head coaching year or whenever Boston plays in the gray pajamas.  There has to be an ulterior motive, right?  With the trade deadline looming and the rotation in flux, CelticsBlog will start looking at some of the interesting decisions the team makes over the next five weeks.  Fair warning: most of this is based on gut feelings and reading between the lines.  For all intents and purposes, these are just the musings of two bloggers/armchair GMs/fans.

BILL SY: With how well the 2015 draft class is doing in the D-League, why aren't R.J. Hunter, Terry Rozier, and Jordan Mickey playing for the big club? My theory is that again, Ainge might be trying to build up their trade value and having them play in actual NBA games might hurt that.

SEAN PENNEY: Mickey has been impressive in the D-League, but there is simply too much depth in this front court to allow him to get significant minutes. The upcoming trade deadline could help clear a path for him, but until then he needs the game experience that the D-League allows him to receive.

BILL SY: I get that and that seems to be the party line, but the Celtics have had stretches where rebounding and rim protection have been big issues that none of the five (six, if you include Jonas Jerebko) big rotational big men have solved. No doubt minutes up in Maine will help his development, but if we're truly in win now mode, couldn't Mickey help immediately or am I fooling myself with these triple double games in the D-League? I mean, he was Player of the Month!

SEAN PENNEY: Winning the Player of the Month award is an accomplishment for a young player like Mickey, but we have to be careful not to overate D-League stats. Seth Curry looked as dominant as his MVP award-winning brother when he faced D-League competition last year, but can now barely crack the rotation of a dysfunctional Kings team. We've seen James Young light it up in Maine before, only to waste away on the bench when he was recalled to Boston. Mickey is certainly showing his potential, but he's still a bit raw. The Celtics could certainly use his rebounding and rim protecting talents, but let him polish up other aspects of his game a bit more before he's unleashed.

BILL SY: The jump between the D-League and the NBA to me has always been about confidence. In a recent interview, Young basically alluded to that. I don't think there would be any harm in getting Mickey some minutes in the bigs. It hasn't hurt Hunter.

SEAN PENNEY: Hunter should be able to crack the rotation on a more consistent basis given the team's general lack of outside shooting, but who is he taking minutes from? It won't be Avery Bradley. Turner perhaps, but the C's like his versatility and ability to create his own offense.

Unless injuries or trades clear a path, it will be hard for any of these rookies to get big minutes.

BILL SY: Hunter is the perfect example of a rookie filing in a need. With how much Stevens has praised Mickey in the past and the present, shouldn't he get his shot? Unless, of course, there's a trade cooking. Lee was a DNP-CD against the Nets...

SEAN PENNEY: Lee isn't expected to be part of the future and I get the feeling they are holding onto his expiring contract to use as a potential trade chip if a star becomes available mid-season. Don't be surprised if he's not on the roster in about a month. Johnson's contract is also an appealing trade chip, but he's more likely to be moved in the offseason. Sully and Zeller are both impending restricted free agents that could be moved by the deadline if the team decides they won't be bringing them back next year. At least one of those guys will likely be gone by the deadline in order to free up a role for Mickey.

BILL SY: But even looking further down the road, with all the draft picks on the horizon, do you think all the rookies plus Young make it back to Boston next season?

SEAN PENNEY: Ideally we will package some of these picks together to move up in the draft or to acquire a superstar because they can't possibly hope to keep all of them. Eventually you are going to run out of roster spots. Potentially departing players on expiring contracts (Sully, Lee, Amir) could open up a few spots, but we also have to be cautious about becoming too dependent on youth if we hope to avoid taking a step back in the rebuilding process. Our trio of rookies (as well as Young) haven't had much court time yet in their brief careers, but they each carry too much upside to cut bait with simply because we ran out of roster spots.

BILL SY: You think Avery Bradley is safe?

SEAN PENNEY: I can't see Bradley going anywhere because Ainge loves him. He's an elite perimeter defender with an improving offensive game. He'll never be a star, but don't see how they can trade him unless it's part of a package that gets them a star. He's not a guy you move just to pile up more assets and free up minutes for younger players.

BILL SY: Well, I guess the bigger umbrella question is when do Stevens and Ainge think this team can realistically contend?  Keeping talent down in the D-League is nice when you can afford to do that (like when Bradley spent his rookie season in Maine), but at some point, we need to get the kids some run.

SEAN PENNEY: That depends on your definition of contention. Contend for a title? We aren't there yet and likely won't get there without a star. But in order to help lure a star to come here, we have to at least contend for a playoff spot. Not an 8th seed that gets swept in the first round either. Winning even just one round in the playoffs could convince a star (free agent or one angling to be traded) that they can put this team over the top. Letting the kids play is great if you are rebuilding and not concerned with your record this season, but after last year's unexpected playoff berth we need to aim at taking a step forward, not back. While our three rookies all have some upside, they aren't likely to see big minutes until they prove they are ready for it. Until then, getting some run in the D-League will help keep them sharp for when they are eventually called upon.

BILL SY: And this is where Danny needs to make up his mind and soon.  Can Boston realistically be a destination for big time free agents or are we in it for the long haul with this rebuild?  If it's the latter, I say play the kids.  You look at the development of young players around the league and it's not until that third or fourth year of their rookie contract can you really see if a young guy has "it" or not.  The D-League may keep them sharp, but it's still the D-League.  I understand the hesitation to throw these guys into the deep end with LeBron and KD and Curry, but I also don't want them cruising through their rookie season down in Maine.

For example, in their loss to the Knicks last night, the Celtics erased a halftime deficit by going small with Smart in and Olynyk out.  That effort could have been aided with another mobile big that can defend, rebound, and play in the pick-and-roll.  Sullinger had his moments, but you have to wonder how well Jordan Mickey would have responded in a similar position.  With several small ball teams upcoming on the schedule, could Mickey get a call up?

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