During a dizzying summer in Boston sports, one of the most jarring images of change was the sight of former Celtics greats Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett sitting down for their introductory press conference as Brooklyn Nets. Pierce wore a gray tie, Garnett a black one, colors that evoked those of their new team. During his 15 years in the National Basketball Association, Pierce had never worn anything but Celtics green.
In June, the Celtics jettisoned their two superstars to Brooklyn and their head coach, Doc Rivers, to the Los Angeles Clippers in a pair of deals centered on securing draft picks for the team’s future. Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca admitted on media day on September 30 that the team was a work in progress. “We have to be patient,” he said. “It’s hard. It takes time to build young assets.”
Pagliuca added that the Celtics are in much better shape than a decade ago. In 2002, he and his fellow co-owners purchased a team that was somehow both competitive and middling. With Pierce and Antoine Walker as the team’s best players, Boston made a surprising run to the Eastern Conference Finals in the 2001-02 season. Outside of that burst, the team wasn’t a threat to contend for the NBA championship for years. After Walker’s departure, Pierce was the team’s lone superstar. And when he largely sat with injuries in the dog days of the 2006-07 season, the Celtics lost 18 games in a row.
Rajon Rondo is that lone man now. Although the prickly Celtics point guard (who is out until at least December while recovering from knee surgery) has made four consecutive All-Star games as one of the best players in the league, his supporting cast is greatly diminished. In trading Pierce, Garnett, and Jason Terry, the Celtics received forwards Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries, the latter of whom is best known for his brief marriage to Kim Kardashian, as well as Kris Joseph (whom they quickly jettisoned), veteran Keith Bogans, and young former Providence star MarShon Brooks. These are not big names, but the key to the deal for Boston was adding three first-round draft picks to a fourth they received for Rivers. The Celtics are well positioned for the future.
But what about this season? Why should Celtics fans divert their ever-divided attention toward a team that shouldn’t be very good? Is the recent commercial success of the team — Forbes ranks the Celtics as the fourth most valuable franchise in the NBA — predicated more on their jersey sales or on the team’s recently departed star players?
The Garnett-Pierce Celtics could win on muscle memory. Paired with Rondo and a solid supporting cast, the team averaged 55 wins in the five full seasons they played together (the 2011-12 season was shortened due to a lockout, but the Celtics made the Eastern Conference Finals). In early October, the LVH-Las Vegas Hotel & Casino listed Boston’s over/under for wins at 27.5.
In late September, team president Rich Gotham said on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Toucher & Rich radio show that he hoped fans would enjoy the game experience even if the team wasn’t winning. Early returns suggest that the wins will be harder to come by. Under new coach Brad Stevens, the Celtics lost their first three pre-season games.
“We’re still trying to understand each other,” 22-year-old Celtics guard Avery Bradley said after the third loss. Added Wallace: “We don’t have the guys that can just dominate and take over the game. We’ve got to play with five people.”
But that last statement suggests a bright side, however small. With a collection of young players and low expectations, it will be easy to root for the Celtics if they overachieve. Like the Red Sox of this season, the Celtics aren’t blessed with transcendent talent. If Stevens, who has said all the right things since moving to Boston from a successful gig at Indiana’s Butler University, can get this team into the playoffs, it will be an accomplishment. Anything else is a bonus.
There are other reasons to be optimistic. Next year’s NBA draft is stocked with talent, and the Celtics still have two first-round picks. Stevens has said the team plans to play a more up-tempo style. With Rondo leading the break, that will be fun to watch.
There’s also a certain kind of honor in not doing things the easy way. The last rebuild was a rousing success — Boston won the 2008 NBA championship, after all — but there was also a mercenary quality to trading for Garnett and Ray Allen, two established stars. Now the Celtics can rebuild in-house. How fun will it be to watch a team built around Rondo, Bradley, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, and future draft picks get better and better?
How fun will it be if they eventually win it all?