Six years ago, the Boston Celtics opened what was supposed to be a three-year championship window after the acquisitions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Along with Paul Pierce, the new “Big Three” won one title and could have won two more if they had remained healthy.
Like NASA getting extended use out of an aging Mars Rover, the Celtics trudged along as contenders for a few more years. The three-year window was open for a fourth year. Then a fifth. But the inevitable finally struck last season. The most difficult season since the Garnett trade ended with injuries and great disappointment.
When that last Jenga block holding up the tenuous Celtics infrastructure – Doc Rivers – was pulled from the stack and sent to the Los Angeles Clippers, the entire thing came crashing down. Garnett, the man most responsible for breathing new life into the team, is now a Brooklyn Net. He took with him Pierce, a man some would call the greatest pure scorer in team history, and this generation’s iconic Celtic. Jason Terry departed, too.
The Celtics as we knew them are in ruins.
Now, the architects of this team need to inspect the pillars left behind and determine whether they are strong enough to support a rebuilt team, or if they, too, need to be torn down so a new team can be built from the ground up. Here are five things to watch for as the team tries to figure that out.
1. What kind of coach will Brad Stevens be? His college credentials from Butler are impeccable. The things he has said since joining the Celtics have been perfect. His actions over the summer seem to be coming straight from some kind of “this is how you earn immediate respect as a new NBA coach” handbook.
But Stevens hasn’t run a single practice. He hasn’t had to draw an out-of-bounds play in a tight game. He hasn’t been tested by a strong-willed veteran who may or may not be vying for the title of best point guard in the NBA. While Stevens has made all the right moves so far (including a very nice letter to former players inviting them to be around the team), we’ve yet to see how all of his college success translates to the NBA.
Stevens seems to be a very smart and observant individual, and he has assembled a fantastic and diverse staff of assistants. He and the Celtics are doing all they seemingly can to make this transition a smooth one.
As for Rajon Rondo, there has been this notion that he and Stevens are destined to butt heads because that’s somehow the sort of thing Rondo does. But he and Stevens have a common goal. It behooves both to do what they can to achieve it. The Stevens-Rondo relationship seems to be one of a gearhead to an engine he’s never seen before. Rondo works in mysterious ways, and getting under that hood to understand what makes him run is Stevens’ first step to success as an NBA coach. If they can start off on the right foot, then the rest will be a little easier. Still, dealing with men who make exorbitant amounts of money is different than dealing with kids at Butler constantly branded as underdogs.
Basketball is basketball, and Stevens will adjust to the speed and ability of the players as well as the structure of the game, timeouts and variations in the rules. But his adjustment to the NBA culture will be the biggest factor in whether he is successful.
2. What kind of player will Rajon Rondo be, not only coming off an ACL injury, but without any of the Big Three? Three things have never happened in Rondo’s NBA career. He has never had to come back from a major knee injury, been coached by someone other than Doc Rivers and led a team without Pierce or Garnett. This year, he’s doing all of that.
An easy knock on Rondo over the course of his career has been that he’s a product of Pierce, Garnett, and Allen. They, the critics would say, make it easy to rack up assists because they are all Hall of Famers who make more shots than most people. That’s fair in some ways, but it’s also fair to say that they continued to get opportunities to make those shots, even at their advanced ages, because of Rondo’s ability to find them in their sweet spots. So this season is going to be a bit of an answer to that debate.
It stands to reason that when the players around a player aren’t as good, that player won’t get as many assists because some guys just won’t finish as well. But can Rondo make this lesser talent better? Can he make Kelly Olynyk a Rookie of the Year candidate by constantly putting him in a position to score? Can he get Jeff Green into spots that allow him to make easy baskets? And can he do it after suffering a torn ACL? Granted, this wasn’t the catastrophic type of injury suffered by Derrick Rose (Rondo only suffered a partial tear of the ACL and had no other structural damage, while Rose tore multiple ligaments), but that doesn’t make the rehab any less intense.
The real question here is whether Rondo allows the ACL to fully heal, or if he finagles a comeback earlier than usual in an attempt to prove to the world that he can come back from a devastating injury faster than most humans. The latter seems like something Rondo would try to do. Rondo is the linchpin to the Celtics’ success this season. If he can come out healthy and on the same page with Stevens, he has the opportunity to lead this rag-tag bunch of Celtics further than most people would predict.
One thing to consider with Rondo: There’s a good chance this is the season that determines whether he is a Celtic for the long haul, or some other team’s point guard going into the 2014 playoffs. Rondo has one more year left on his deal after this season. A major success this season could earn him a big-time extension in Boston. A bust, though, could spell the end.
3. Can Jeff Green be a team’s primary scorer? Green found some success in Boston in his first season back from heart surgery. The encouraging thing is that he got better as the season wore on. His scoring average nearly doubled from February (9.3 ppg) to March (17.6 ppg). And his numbers as a starter (20.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.9 apg) were vastly superior to his numbers as a sub (10.9/3.4/1.2). But he still had Pierce around to help out (like in this sequence, which may be the best of this past season), which means the big question going into this season for Green is “Can this guy put up some of those same big numbers when the defense is geared to stop him?”