Perhaps you haven’t noticed because you’re still basking in the afterglow of the Patriots’ Super Bowl win or wistfully anticipating the start of Red Sox spring training, a sign that there is an end to our current frozen misery and the tyrannical grip of winter. But the Boston Celtics, pushed to the corner of the sports attic after trading away Rajon Rondo, are just a game and a half outside of a playoff spot at the All-Star break.
At 20-31, the Celtics’ playoff contention is partially the result of the abysmal state of the lower rungs of the Eastern Conference and partly due to coach Brad Stevens wringing every ounce of competitive juice out of his team. Simply playing hard on a nightly basis is both a considerable advantage and a cause for coaching commendation in the NBA.
Chief architect of the Celtics restoration Danny Ainge faces a choice before Thursday’s trade deadline. Does he continue auctioning off veterans to add to his passel of draft picks and focus on the development of young players such as Marcus Smart and James Young, key parts of the Banner 18 blueprint? Or does he let Stevens continue to cajole the team toward an inevitable first-round playoff exit by playing placeholder veterans such as Marcus Thornton, Brandon Bass, and Tayshaun Prince?
Easy choice. The purpose of this season for the Celtics was never to make the playoffs at all costs. It was to identify the players that would be a part of — to co-opt a term from Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington — the Next Great Celtics team. Making the playoffs as the seventh or eighth seed won’t benefit anyone other than owners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca, if it’s done with fungible, soon-to-be free agent veterans leading the way. The Celtics need to keep their eye on the ball, and that’s bringing a bona fide title contender back to Causeway Street.
Before anyone brings up the dreaded T-word (tanking), prioritizing the development of young players such as Smart, Young, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Zeller, and Jae Crowder is not the same as tanking, which implies not trying to win or giving less than maximum effort for the benefit of a draft pick.
Why is it when every summer baseball teams make the decision to jettison veterans and groom young players that folks aren’t immediately offended and excoriating those teams for tanking?
If the Celtics make the playoffs with the young bucks and young veterans Avery Bradley and Evan Turner leading the way, that’s progress on the parquet. Sign me up.
But drifting into the NBA purgatory that is the seventh or eighth-seed in the JV East isn’t advisable if it requires playing veterans with one sneaker out the door major minutes over the final 31 games. That’s finding a rotary on the road back to championship relevance.
It was advisable not to get overly excited about the Celtics’ last-second victory over the Eastern standard Atlanta Hawks in the final game before the All-Star hiatus. Prince, who has an expiring contract and turns 35 on Feb. 28, played 27 minutes and was a plus-11. Thornton, another rent-a-vet, played 25 minutes and poured in 14 points.
Meanwhile, Young played 17 minutes. Crowder played 16. Zeller played 17. Smart played 26 minutes, but he was 3 of 12 from the field and a minus-11.
Among Ainge’s gilded youth only Sullinger, who had 17 points and 15 rebounds, was a significant factor in the victory.
Since Prince arrived via the Jeff Green deal, he has averaged 22 minutes per contest in nine games. Young, the 17th overall pick in the 2014 draft from John Calipari’s NBA finishing school, has played 20 minutes in a game just once this season in 17 games.
That’s due in part to Young playing defense like he is a tourist circling unfamiliar Boston streets in vain.
But Stevens knew when he signed a six-year deal to replace Doc Rivers that on-court growing pains were part of the gig. That’s why you hire a college coach of Stevens’s repute, his ability to nurture young players and coax improvement out of them.
Stevens is the right man for the Celtics job. In less than two full seasons, he has earned the respect of his peers. He is one of the Celtics’ best assets at this point — smart, driven, creative, detail-oriented, and capable of getting his players to play cohesively to exceed their individual talent.
But in six seasons at Butler he lost a total of 49 games. He has lost 88 games as Celtics coach, including 57 last season. That’s coaching culture shock.
Grousbeck told this reporter that Stevens would light himself on fire to win any portion of a game. That’s great, but inveterate competitiveness can’t cloud Stevens’s commitment to the long-term vision on a nightly basis.
Maybe, Stevens is simply too good a coach for his own good. The Celtics have the same assist-to-turnover ratio as the San Antonio Spurs this season (1.71), and their pace factor (the number of possessions per 48 minutes) is fourth in the league (98.49), behind Golden State, Phoenix, and Houston.
Offense isn’t a problem. The temptation to play veterans on the defensive end is obvious. The Celtics are allowing the sixth-most points per game in the league (102.3).
The team has obviously made a commitment to playing Smart, who is averaging 34.5 minutes per game in February. The same commitment should be shown to Young and other young players in lieu of pending free agents such as Thornton and Bass.
Those guys won’t be here when the Celtics are back to banner-hanging.
The bright lights of the playoffs are alluring, but for there to be light at the end of the post-new Big Three rebuilding tunnel, the Celtics have to stay on track with their plan.
The focus should be on the big picture, not the playoff picture.