Seven games back of the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference with 22 to play is pretty much an impossible distance to overcome, so to the lottery the Celtics head in June, making the next few months in Boston fascinating.
It’s been a true transition season for the Celtics. New coach Brad Stevens never has had a consistent lineup. Rajon Rondo missed the first 2½ months and Avery Bradley, in what was expected to be a pivotal season, has been oft-injured again, giving the Celtics another issue to ponder this summer.
Bradley is a restricted free agent and the Celtics have the right to match any offer for the defensive-minded guard but the question is his market value. Is Bradley a blossoming guard who has had bad luck with injuries, or a player prone to constant ailments whose body may not be equipped for his style of play?
Bradley is expected to have his sprained ankle examined this week, an injury that has caused him to miss 14 of the past 17 games and valuable bonding time with Rondo, who is beginning to return to vintage form. Bradley will have a handful of games to make a positive impression on Celtics management as well as other teams.
Gerald Wallace will miss the rest of the season after suffering a torn meniscus and that injury is important to the Celtics, and not simply because his absence leaves the team shorthanded for the final six weeks. Wallace has two years and $20 million left on his contract, and while the Celtics could waive him and spread his salary over several years, they would love to trade him this summer and his health could be critical to that deal.
Wallace’s leadership will be missed because he was the voice of reason in the locker room, unafraid to criticize his teammates or himself about the Celtics’ topsy-turvy season. The acquisition of Wallace and Kris Humphries has worked out as well as can be expected — both fit into Stevens’s system without much complaint, even knowing the Celtics were in total rebuilding mode.
“You’re always worried about going into surgery,” Wallace said. “Especially on my knee at this stage of my career, it’s a concern. I think the main thing is making sure I’ll get my full strength and be prepared to finish my career on a healthy knee.”
Wallace’s injury is unfortunate but it does open up opportunities for players such as Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, and Chris Johnson to get more playing time and the final 22 games are strictly about development, especially with the inconsistent but skilled Olynyk, who may return from a sprained left big toe Wednesday against the Golden State Warriors.
Team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge realizes he is leaving his team in a pinch with a thin roster. Johnson and Chris Babb are D-League products while Vitor Faverani may not play again this season because of a sore left knee.
And Ainge isn’t touching Keith Bogans’s roster spot because of the two more nonguaranteed years at $5-plus million that could be used in a trade, so the Celtics will move on with their patchwork roster facing a treacherous schedule.
“For right now we’re hurting but I see those guys [Bradley, Olynyk] coming back in a short window, anyway,” Ainge said. “I’ve seen a lot of positives. I’ve seen a lot of individual positives. I’ve seen a lot of positives within each game; well, through most of the games through the course of the year. Our problem is just consistency, forming minutes of that intensity, but I’ve seen a lot of positive individual performances. Consistency has been the reason why we are where we are.”
What Ainge and Stevens have to do is ensure this young roster avoids getting discouraged by the expected slew of losses in this difficult stretch. While it will help the Celtics’ quest for a top-three draft pick, management doesn’t want such a young team to become accustomed to losing.
“I’m always worried about that, but things don’t always go your way,” Ainge said. “I’d like to see how guys respond and how guys play in the face of the adversity that’s in front of us right now.”
Those responses will be interesting as the season winds down. The Celtics’ best hope is for their younger core to grow and progress despite the losing and for Rondo to assert himself as a leader and elite point guard. These final 22 games may be the toughest Stevens ever has coached because there is nothing tangible to play for besides pride and long-term growth.