Is it May 20, 2014, yet?
That’s when the Ping-Pong balls will dance, holding the fate of the NBA’s worst teams, some of whom may be thinking about losing their way to the top, to a supposed savior like Andrew Wiggins.
Given the option, most Celtics fans may prefer to skip ahead to the 2014 NBA draft lottery, pausing only perhaps to witness the emotional reunions when Doc Rivers (now with the Los Angeles Clippers) and Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett (both in Brooklyn) return to Boston.
But, alas, no fast-forward button exists. The Boston Three Party is over and Year One of the Big Dig-esque rebuild officially will begin Wednesday when the Celtics open the regular season against the Raptors in Toronto.
These Celtics are greener than their uniforms, starting with 37-year-old Brad Stevens, the NBA’s youngest coach, formerly of Butler. The rookie coach said he doesn’t believe in “rebuilding” because “every year you’re building something.” Still, with Pierce and Garnett departed in a blockbuster trade to Brooklyn, Stevens doesn’t have much elite talent to work with.
Rajon Rondo is still on the roster, but the four-time All-Star point guard and last man standing from the 2008 championship team will be on the sideline for a while — maybe until December — as he recovers from February knee surgery.
Even when Rondo returns, it’s unclear whether he’ll be his old self. Regardless, the Celtics are without him for now, which doesn’t bode well for a young team heading into a brutal November, which features 18 games in 30 days and six back-to-back sets.
“Without Rondo on the floor making the game easier for everyone both offensively and defensively, who else has the ability to create shots for anyone or make a shot in the last three minutes of a game?” an Eastern Conference scout said.
“Rondo has the ability to elevate the game of everyone else, but without him, the roster is made up of backups and marginal starters.”
Debatable draft talent
The over/under for the Celtics’ win total is 27½, according to Bovada Sportsbook in Las Vegas. Which is to say, expectations aren’t high. The Celtics didn’t do much to raise those expectations with a 2-6 preseason, either. They haven’t missed the playoffs since 2006-07, but that streak may be in danger.
Then again, several NBA observers say the Celtics have a slim chance in the Eastern Conference, considering that Milwaukee earned the No. 8 seed last year with a 38-44 record.
A Western Conference scout said, “In terms of comparing their roster with other teams in the Eastern Conference, the only team I can say that they are absolutely better than on paper is Philadelphia.”
The 76ers are an apt comparison. They too are young, with a rookie coach (Brett Brown), but they also smashed the Celtics, 97-85, in a preseason game in Delaware, which raised concerns that perhaps the Celtics are the worst team in the NBA.
The silver lining to that possibility is that the 2014 draft should be one of the best in years, featuring Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Julius Randle.
“If there was ever a draft to tank for, this might be the one,” said a league source. “The hype regarding some of the top players is justified, and while there might not be a franchise changer, having multiple All-Stars emerge from this draft is certainly feasible.”
In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said he has heard from many Celtics fans who told him that they don’t want to win too many games this season — all in the name of landing a top pick.
But without naming names, Ainge cast doubt as to whether any of the prospects even would be worth tanking for. This is not like the 1996-97 season, when Tim Duncan was available. The Celtics won just 15 games that season and were hopeful of landing Duncan in the 1997 draft. That didn’t work out, obviously, and several scouts said Boston should remember that.
A Western Conference scout agreed with Ainge’s notion that next year’s prospects aren’t on the same level as Duncan, a two-time NBA MVP and future Hall of Famer.
“I love Wiggins and Randle as cornerstone, franchise players,” the scout said, “but they will need to have pieces around them to win at a high level right away. As good as these two are, do not kid yourself into thinking they are LeBron James.”
However, an Eastern Conference scout said Wiggins, an athletic, 6-foot-8-inch Kansas freshman, is a “special talent” who would have been drafted first overall in 2013.
“I don’t want to say he has the shoulders yet to take on the world like [James],” the scout said, “but he will be a multiple All-Star and is good for 18-20 wins immediately after he is taken No. 1 in 2014.”
The scout also said it’s not as though the Celtics will have to intentionally lose games this season anyway.
“ ‘Tanking’ will not happen,” the scout said. “They will compete to a certain level in a game, but you have to have talent to win in the NBA, and when it is all said and done, their talent level is not obviously what it used to be to finish a game.
“Add up what they lost with points, rebounds, assists, steals, and playoff wins. Then compare that to what they have on their current roster. The numbers will be jaw dropping.”
Some things to like
Outside of whether Stevens succeeds at the NBA level, perhaps the most intriguing questions this season are how Rondo will play when he returns, and whether the Celtics will try to move him.
Ainge recently said he “absolutely” views Rondo as the centerpiece of the team’s future, and several scouts said it would be more beneficial for the Celtics to keep Rondo than trade him.
“I would keep Rondo unless they get multiple draft picks and a nice young player because he is the only true asset they have left on this team,” a Western Conference scout said.
It is also a key season for versatile forward Jeff Green, a former lottery pick. He has shown flashes of dominance but never much consistency. After a so-so preseason, it’s unclear whether Green will be any better this season.
“I love Jeff Green and think he is a nice piece to an NBA championship puzzle,” another Western Conference scout said. “I do not view him as a first option on a good team, but he has every opportunity to prove people wrong this season.”
There are logjams at shooting guard and power forward. The one true center (Vitor Faverani) is a rookie from Brazil. The one healthy point guard (Phil Pressey) was undrafted out of Missouri and is just 5-11. So, yes, there are issues aplenty.
But the Celtics do have a promising rookie in 7-footer Kelly Olynyk. Scouts also have raved about Stevens and veteran assistant coach Ron Adams.
“You talk about a coach who has seen everything and has been a part of a major rebuild project in Oklahoma City already,” a Western Conference scout said. “He has what it takes to be a sounding board and a barometer for Brad.”
Adams said Stevens has all the tools to be successful: a measured personality, he relates well with players, and he is humble, smart, and process-orientated.
“Having said that, is this new to him? Yes, this is new,” said Adams. “His head is spinning every day. But he’ll figure it out.”
Buzzword is ‘patience’
In an effort to stay under the luxury-tax line, the Celtics almost certainly will not add any players during the season, as they’re already at 14 guaranteed contracts.
The Celtics have nine first-round draft picks over the next five years, and Stevens is on a six-year contract, so they are no doubt building for the future.
For the present, Ainge has asked for realistic expectations from the fans, and “patience” is a word you’ll hear a lot from the players.
“It’s probably one of the top words in our vocabulary going through the season,” Green said. “We have patience. I think people outside of our circle need to have patience — fans, media. I mean, you can’t get perfection overnight.”
Stevens is ultra-competitive. He also believes heavily in the idea of “process.”
And when the Celtics lose, it will eat at Stevens, at least initially, but he will turn his focus to the big picture — and there, the rookie coach knows he must be patient, too.
“Yeah,” he said with a slight smile. “That’s hard.”
A rebuild is always hard, but there is always the hope of better days ahead, though no one is ever quite sure when those days will arrive.
The Celtics hope they arrive soon, but they’re being patient, because it could take a while.