What we know about the Celtics 60 percent into this transition season is that they are still a team of moving parts and uncertainties.
Rajon Rondo is hardly the player he is going to be in April, but his return has given the organization some stability and peace of mind considering the upheaval in the first few months. We know that Avery Bradley, when healthy, is an intriguing option at shooting guard and is a much-improved shooter. And we know that Jared Sullinger is turning into a more dependable player in the paint who has a tremendous upside if he continues to work on his body as well as his game.
The Celtics began the season winning 12 of their first 26 games and were firmly in the playoff race in a weak Eastern Conference in mid-December. Team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge sought to rid the organization of the additional two years of Courtney Lee’s contract and exchanged him for Jerryd Bayless. Jordan Crawford was playing so well as the team’s de facto point guard that Ainge capitalized on his market value and was able to get a potential first-round pick for a player who could have been a restricted free agent this summer.
The losses of Lee and Crawford, two of the team’s more reliable scorers, crippled the club offensively. Bayless, trying to make an impression as an unrestricted free agent this summer, has been pressed into point guard duty even though his most comfortable position is a scorer off the bench. The presence of Rondo more consistently could give Bayless a window to turn into that Eddie House-type player the Celtics need. In 11 games, Bayless is shooting just 38 percent from the field and 20 percent from the 3-point line and it appears as if he is pressing, knowing this could be an opportunity to cash in on a multiyear contract.
Kelly Olynyk has experienced a predictable up-and-down rookie season. After scoring 25 points Jan. 17 against the Lakers, Olynyk hasn’t scored in double figures since and scored 1 point in eight minutes Sunday against the Magic. After a masterful performance in the Orlando Summer League, Olynyk was a trendy Rookie of the Year pick, but he still has to find a comfortable position and improve his interior defense. That will come with time; Olynyk will become a reliable rotation player in coming years.
Perhaps the biggest mystery of this club is Jeff Green, who is leading the team in scoring but has disappeared in some key stretches this season. He tantalizes fans with games such as his 39-point performance last month against the Wizards, when he takes command of the offense and becomes the team’s primary scoring option. The problem is Green doesn’t do this often enough, and if there was going to be a year in which Green asserted himself and emerged as a top 25 player, this would be it. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are no longer here to command the ball, and the Celtics are among the league’s worst scoring offenses.
Since that brilliant performance against the Wizards, Green is 20 for 69 from the field (28.9 percent) and averaging 12.8 points. When the Celtics needed offense in the final minutes Sunday, they depended on Bradley and Rondo, with Green an afterthought. Green is 27, already in his sixth NBA season (he missed a year because of surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm), and came to Boston with a reputation of being maddeningly inconsistent. A scout said upon his arrival two years ago that he had the potential to be an All-Star but wouldn’t display that talent often enough to become an All-Star.
The Celtics have to figure out where Green stands in their future plans. He has two additional years on his contract but has not adjusted well to his opportunity to be the best player on a below average team. While this has been tabbed a transition year by Ainge, this was the time Green was supposed to become a more consistent option with Pierce and Garnett gone.
He has 33 games left to show his good side, but the question is whether he is capable and whether the Celtics are content enough with Green to keep him as a second or third option when their refurbishing is over.
The biggest surprises approaching the All-Star break are the play of Brandon Bass and Kris Humphries. Bass was bandied about in trade talks in December but has kept his head down and continued to work, becoming a Brad Stevens favorite. Bass is signed through next year and is one of the league’s best midrange shooting power forwards, one with no fear around the basket. He is in a difficult position because the Celtics obviously could upgrade at his position, but Bass has proven valuable as a starter or reserve. He is the type of player winning teams covet, but he also would continue to fit well in this transition period. Bass has played well overall as a Celtic, but one always gets the impression that he won’t be here all that much longer.
Humphries is earning $12 million this season and would be a great aid to a contending team because of his production and professionalism. And if Ainge receives an attractive offer for Humphries in the next two weeks, he would move the forward/center. But Humphries has said repeatedly that he wants to be part of the team’s future, so he should be considered as an option to bring back this summer. The Celtics have lacked tough guys since the departure of Kendrick Perkins, and Humphries’s biggest asset is his fearlessness. He’s not afraid to get dunked on or his shot blocked, he returns relentlessly.
The Celtics are five games behind the Charlotte Bobcats for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot and the schedule eventually will get softer while Rondo will get stronger. The focus of the club should not be making some last-gasp effort for the eighth seed, but rather to use the final 33 games to answer some of those lingering questions. That makes the rest of the season rather intriguing.