Tagged: Ray Allen

Believe IT or Not

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The Boston Celtics are playing their best basketball since the days of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and (yes, even) Ray Allen. They currently sit second in the Eastern conference, tthree games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, with Kevin Love out with an injury and LeBron James logging more minutes than he should at age 32, and Brad Stevens is going to coach the Eastern Conference All-Stars for the first time in his career. Perhaps most impressive about what they have done is that they are winning games with regularity in spite of their significant lack of health, with the longest tenured current Celtic Avery Bradley and 2016 free agent acquisition Al Horford both missing extended periods due to injury.

The success of the Celtics two and a half years removed from being in the draft lottery themselves (as opposed to living vicariously though the Brooklyn Nets’ miserable season) to being a top-five team in the NBA, despite Danny Ainge’s inability to find suitors in this decade’s version of the Allen and Garnett trades that the fan base so desperately wanted, is a testament to the coaching staff and the smaller moves Ainge has been able to make, but the biggest story for the Celtics has been the NBA’s smallest blossoming superstar.

Isaiah Thomas stands 5’9″, two inches shorter than I am, and my always unrealistic dream of playing on a school basketball team, let alone in the NBA ended around sixth grade when I realized I’d never be tall enough to make up for my inherent lack of skill. Despite a good college career (two time 1st Team All-Pac-10, two time Pac-10 Tournament MVP at Washington), Thomas was overlooked by NBA teams for his height, and he was taken with the 60th and final pick of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings.

What is amazing about players taken in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft is that the ones that make it as stars, make it with a vengeance. Draymond Green fell to the second round, is now the NBA’s best defender, the most polarizing player on the NBA’s best team, and has developed this revisionist history around his draft status where several teams claim they were about to take him even though they all had a chance at him. Manu Ginobili being selected by the San Antonio Spurs with the 57th overall pick in 1999 and forging a Hall of Fame career out of obscurity in Argentina is an even greater component to the mystique and the greatness of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs than lucking into Tim Duncan at #1 in 1997.

In Isaiah’s case, though, the Kings do not get the credit for finding a diamond in the rough of a superstar because they let him go before his full potential was realized–same goes for the Phoenix Suns–but the chip on his shoulder is just as big as Draymond’s. Thanks to another great trade by Danny Ainge (a three team trade with Phoenix and Detroit where the Celtics gave away Marcus Thornton, Tayshaun Prince, and a late 2016 1st round pick, and came away with Gigi Datome, Jonas Jerebko, and IT), Thomas arrived in Boston at the 2015 trade deadline.

The Boston teams are in the midst of an under-six-feet renaissance between Julian Edelman (5’10”), Dion Lewis (5’8″), Malcolm Butler (5’11”), Danny Amendola (5’11”), Dustin Pedroia (5’9″), Mookie Betts (5’9″), Andrew Benintendi (5’10”), Jackie Bradley Jr. (5’10”), Brad Marchand (5’9″), and Torey Krug (5’9″), but Isaiah Thomas is the ultimate example because of the emphasis on height in who plays basketball at the professional level. While the Red Sox and Patriots gain acclaim for taking a chance on shorter outfield prospects and surrounding Tom Brady with a bunch of quick and shifty little guys, the Celtics have turned into a borderline contender built around a little guy in a big guy’s sport. This is almost unprecedented.

My two favorite basketball players who never played for the Celtics are Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. I have written plenty about Duncan over the years, given that he was an active player this time last year, and he and Pop have been the Brady and Belichick of basketball. I wanted to write my ode to AI in September when he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in September, but it was my last college semester, I was working full time, and my buddy Murf’s bachelor party was that same weekend. Life got in the way, but I am here now.

I attended my first Celtics game in 2001, weeks after Rick Pitino skipped town. The Philadelphia 76ers were in town in a year when they eventually reached the Finals and Iverson was the MVP. To this day, I believe he is the best athlete I have ever seen in person (Honorable mentions Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The interesting thing is that Malkin actually stands out more than Crosby in person because of his size.). By my memory, he systematically picked apart a Celtics team that had Pierce and Antoine Walker and was finally showing signs of a competitive pulse at the start of the Jim O’Brien Era almost entirely by himself. It was amazing.

Iverson was officially listed at 6’0″, but even as a kid, I never really believed that number. AI was fearless and played like he was six inches taller than his actual height, making him one of the most intimidating people in the history of the NBA. He played hard and lived hard, and his career ended much more abruptly than many of his contemporaries as a result, but in his heyday, there were few players more compelling for someone flipping through the channels and stopping on a neutral site basketball game.

AI never won a title, and was labeled as a selfish player. Some of that was fair, but also a lot of that was the lack of quality talent that surrounded him in his prime. Unlike other elite point guards of his era like John Stockton, Gary Payton, and Steve Nash, AI never had a Karl Malone, or a Shawn Kemp, or a Dirk Nowitzki, or even an Amar’e Stoudemire to give the ball to. AI had Keith Van Horn and a past-his-prime Dikembe Mutombo. Iverson tried to do everything on offense by himself because that really was the best option in most years. This is the thing that has me worried about IT in Boston, but also not really. Sure, Al Horford is not the elite offensive threat that Karl Malone is. Sure, Kelly Olynyk is the victim of early Dirk comparisons. Sure, Jaylen Brown is an unproven rookie with some trouble finishing at the rim. But the Celtics are still building. Isaiah already does not have to do it all himself, even if he is consistently lighting it up in the fourth quarter, but they are still getting better.

What I really like about Isaiah Thomas the more I have learned about him is his self-awareness. In listening to recent podcasts where his sat down with Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer and Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, he has it all in perspective. He was the last pick in the draft. He was 27 and on his third team by the time he became an All-Star, and he’s just now getting recognized as a legitimate superstar at 28. It’s like an actor or musician who did not achieve success or fame until after he or she learned how to be an adult. In the NBA, we are at the point where we are surprised when someone drafted as a teenager like Kevin Garnett or LeBron James turns into a well-adjusted human being. Isaiah spent his basketball career being doubted, being overlooked, and has proven people wrong at every turn, so now that he’s arrived, he’s not about to let it get to his head.

This week, Thomas broke a 45 year old Celtics franchise record set by the great John Havlicek of 40 consecutive games scoring 20 points or more, with game 41 being Boston’s last-minute loss to the Chicago Bulls the other night. IT is making his way into the history books in the NBA’s most storied franchise, but this story is still in its early stages. 

One Giant Leap in the Right Direction

You’re not supposed to trade your two best players to title contenders and get better. That shouldn’t work in any sport, but it did for the 2014-15 Boston Celtics. They sent Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks, and Jeff Green to the Memphis Grizzlies, and then made a run at the postseason. They did not advance beyond their first round opponent. LeBron James’ and Kyrie Irving’s reboot of The Cleveland Show is too talented to let that happen, but there is a lot to be excited about for the future of a team that already has 17 championship banners in the rafters of TD Garden, by far the most by one team in one city in basketball. They got swept, but it does not feel nearly as bad as when the C’s lost to the New York Knicks in 2013, which was the inspiration for the first real sports post I made on this blog nearly two years ago, the last time we saw Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Doc Rivers as Celtics, and certainly not as devastating as the so-close-yet-so-far ending to the 2010 NBA Finals against the Lakers. They had no chance this year. That’s how it’s supposed to be. Cleveland is so good that losing to anyone other than the San Antonio Spurs or the Golden State Warriors (and even then, it would still mean they were in the NBA Finals) would be considered a choke job for the ages. It’s okay that the Celtics not a real contender yet, because the franchise still has so much upside. Let’s take a moment now to appreciate how far they’ve come in such a short period of time.

In December, Danny Ainge traded Rondo, the last remaining player from the 2008 championship team and the 2010 team that made it to a seventh game at Staples Center before bowing out to the Los Angeles Lakers, to the Dallas Mavericks for Jameer Nelson, Brandan Wright, and Jae Crowder what will inevitably be a late 1st round draft pick (because Dallas always makes the playoffs!), and by the trade deadline, all that remained on in Boston’s possession was Crowder and the pick. Doc Rivers is now coaching the Los Angeles Clippers. Paul Pierce is lighting it up in the playoffs for the Washington Wizards. Kevin Garnett went home to the Minnesota Timberwolves to presumably be the Whiplash-esque mentor to 20 year old budding superstar Andrew Wiggins. Glen “Big Baby” Davis is playing meaningful minutes for Doc in LA on what might be the worst bench of any playoff team. Kendrick Perkins is riding the pine in Cleveland (unless he’s going after Jae Crowder). Ray Allen is out of basketball. Brian Scalabrine and Leon Powe are back with the C’s, but in front office or broadcasting capacities. It was a fun ride, but all rides end eventually.

Trading Rondo closed the book on that era of Celtics basketball. His trade to Dallas was supposed to make the Celtics sink further (they had a losing record with him as their starting point guard and captain), improve their standing for the 2015 NBA Draft, and help take the Mavs to the next level. It did none of those things. As it turned out, Crowder was a great fit for the Celtics, and responded really well to Brad Stevens’ coaching. He’s one of those hard working kids from Marquette, who in hindsight was underutilized by Dallas. Rondo, on the other hand, was a terrible fit for Dallas. On a team that plays best when the ball is moving constantly, like Rick Carlisle had the Mavericks doing before Rondo arrived, Rondo is a point guard who wants control, and who wants to be dribbling the ball for the majority of the possession. In an era where the smart teams place emphasis on three pointers and foul shots, Rondo is a bad three point shooter who does not drive to the hoop nearly enough out of fear of having to go to the foul line. He was a bad fit for Rick Carlisle’s offense, and he hasn’t played defense with any kind of consistency since 2012.

When the Celtics traded Jeff Green to Memphis, they got aging veteran Tayshaun Prince in return. The Celtics were able to get more out of Prince than Memphis was, and flipped him at the trade deadline to the Detroit Pistons for Jonas Jerebko and Luigi Datome.This is the second time the Celtics have traded away Jeff Green. The first time was after they drafted him with the #5 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, and sent him to Seattle (back when Seattle had a team) as one of the pieces that ultimately brought back Ray Allen and Big Baby. History shows us that good things happen when the Celtics trade Jeff Green.

The Celtics are not a contender, and it is not a great place to be in the NBA, if you’re always making the playoffs but never getting anywhere. They have the GM. They have the coach. They have the draft picks. They have the role players. They just need a superstar or two. I didn’t like the taking season. It was mentally exhausting to root for your hometown team to lose to improve draft standing. The Celtics failed to win 30 games in the 2013-14 season, but only landed the #6 pick. The C’s aren’t good at taking. Winning franchises shouldn’t be. Players have too much pride, coaches are too competitive, and even after all the losses, you’re still unlikely to get the ping pong balls to fall in your favor. They could’t get Tim Duncan that way in 1997. They couldn’t get Kevin Durant that way in 2007, and they couldn’t get Andrew Wiggins that way in 2014.

I don;t think the Celtics will be in #8 seed purgatory (or #7 seed purgatory, for that matter. Being the 8th best team would have given them a more competitive opponent in the form of the Atlanta Hawks.) for long, though. The difference between the #11 pick and the #16 pick or whatever, isn’t that great, so making the playoffs doesn’t hurt them in the draft as much as some people think. Getting swept by Cleveland was also a great learning opportunity for Brad Stevens, who coached two Butler University teams to the NCAA National Championship Game, but is younger than Tim Duncan and got his first taste of the NBA playoffs this spring. It’s part of the learning experience for Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder, as they had to guard playoff mode Kyrie Irving and LeBron James.

This is a young team. Marcus Smart is 21. Kelly Olynyk is 24. Jae Crowder is 24. Jared Sullinger is 23. Tyler Zeller is 25. Isaiah Thomas (acquired from the Phoenix Suns at the trade deadline) is 26. Evan Turner is 26. James Young is 19. Even Avery Bradley, who is the longest tenured member of the Celtics, will not turn 25 until November, and was still in high school the last time the Celtics won a title. Maybe LeMarcus Aldridge signs with Boston this summer. Maybe one of the many free agent rim protectors lands here. Maybe they package up some of this talent to get a fully formed superstar. There are still a lot of possibilities, but the step forward the Celtics took this season is encouraging. I would take that over what is going on in Philadelphia or Sacramento every day of the week.

The Past Is the Past

Boston Celtics Logo

An era of great basketball ended this week. Remember the 2008 Boston Celtics? That was the team that got me back into the NBA and following that league more closely than I ever had before. These days, the Celtics have a much different look, and they’re not a relevant player in the championship discussion the way they were for six straight years. Doc Rivers is now coaching Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in Los Angeles. Kevin Garnett is the veteran leader on a Brooklyn team trying to stay in the playoff picture. Paul Pierce is the veteran presence sent to Washington to teach young stars John Wall and Bradley Beal how to be winners, and is a key part of one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. Ray Allen is currently unsigned, but not retired, waiting for a title contender in need of his outside shot off the bench. Kendrick Perkins has been playing with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City since the Celtics traded him for Jeff Green in the spring of 2011. With the trade that sent Celtics’ captain Rajon Rondo to Dallas earlier this week, the last piece of the starting five that never lost a series, and the last player left from the 2008 championship squad (although Leon Powe has returned to the Celtics to join he front office, and Brian Scalabrine now works as a team broadcaster) has finally left Boston. That era in Celtics basketball is officially over, and it is time to move on. The 2008 Celtics certainly have.

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The trade sent Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks for Jameer Nelson, Jae Crowder, and Brandan Wright, as well as a future 1st and 2nd round draft pick. This season, it makes the Mavs better, adding a very good playmaking point guard to a team that already has Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis, and Tyson Chandler. For the Celtics, it completes the process of going young, and gives more power to second year head coach Brad Stevens.The longest tenured Celtics player is now Avery Bradley, a fifth year guard out of the University of Texas, who was drafted by the Celtics in the summer of 2010, just days after the C’s fell to the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games. Rondo’s skill set is at its best when he has great players around him. He played his best basketball when he was passing to KG, Pierce, and Allen: three players who will most definitely find themselves in the Basketball Hall of Fame as soon as they are eligible. With the exception of newcomer center Tyler Zeller, Rondo was not able to do much to elevate the play of his current Celtics teammates, and he is not enough of a scoring force in his own right to make the team competitive right now. Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger are young and talented, and have plenty of upside, but they are nowhere what Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were in 2008, and they’re nowhere near Dirk or Chandler in 2014. A change of scenery will be good for him, and so will playing for a real championship contender for the first time since the C’s went toe-to-toe with the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals and were still the greatest obstacle standing between LeBron James and a championship ring.

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Now is the time to look back on Rondo’s time in Boston. In eight and a half seasons with the Celtics, he was one of the most exciting players in the NBA, as well as one of the most enigmatic. He was a tough competitor, and one of the most intelligent players in the game, but he often seemed bored by the regular season. Bill Simmons wrote of the difference between “Basic Cable Rondo” and “National TV Rondo.” He could have a very average or bad game on a Tuesday night in Milwaukee against an unproven point guard, and be able to flip a switch and transform into a completely different, dialed in player if the game was on ABC and Chris Paul or Steve Nash or Tony Parker was in town. He was an elite passer, but a bad jump shooter. Eventually, his paranoia about shooting from the free throw line limited his drives to the hoop, which were often Boston’s best chance at two points. When he was good, though, he was great. in 2010, 2011, and 2012, he was Boston’s best player in the playoffs. It was in those years that he stopped being the little brother to the New Big Three, and we instead started referring to KG, Pierce, Allen, and Rondo as “The Big Four.” He played through pain, and any frustration fans may have had with the low points of his game was wiped away by how dominant he was in the biggest games of the year. His contract was up at the end of the season, but while it would be nice to see #9 only wear a Celtics uniform for his NBA career, the Celtics should be focused on developing the young talent on their roster rather than maximizing Rondo’s window as a star in this league. Last year, the Celtics needed to evaluate where they were as an organization and they needed to ease Rondo back in his recovery from knee surgery. This season, Rondo has played full time, and they have added guards who were drafted in the first round, and the record was more or less the same as it was a year ago. It was time to move on. It would not surprise me, now that Rondo has been moved, that other veteran players Jeff Green, Brandon Bass, and Gerald Wallace get traded before the end of the 2014-15 season.

One thing that has stuck out to me with the Celtics this season has been how well the rest of the team plays without him. Their biggest win of the season came in a game he did not play, that the Celtics beat Joakim Noah and the Chicago Bulls in Chicago. In another game, Rondo barely played in crunch time down in Washington when rookie point guard Marcus Smart led a comeback against Paul Pierce and the Wizards, only to fall in double overtime against a far superior opponent. Smart was drafted out of Oklahoma State this summer with the sixth overall pick, and whether the Celtics were willing to admit it or not, was intended to be Rondo’s successor.

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Kelly Olynyk, who has had his share of struggles since being drafted #13 overall out of Gonzaga in 2013, has really started to come into his own, and has turned into a scorer off the bench. It’s no coincidence, in my opinion, that Olynyk has played better since being removed from the starting lineup. As a reserve, he’s had more playing time with other point guards Evan Turner, Marcus Smart, and Phil Pressey, and he’s developed better chemistry with them than he ever had with Rondo. When Olynyk was drafted, optimistic Celtics fans hoped he had a chance, as a skinny, awkward looking white guy, to be the next Dirk or the next Larry Bird (the two most famous skinny, awkward looking white guys in the history of basketball, and I realize that;s very wishful thinking), and he’s finally living up to that pipe dream a little bit, having his first 30 point game in his NBA career last week. Some of these kids might even be the foundation of the next great Celtics team, but that’s still a few years away.

Playing with better players is not the only reason I think Rajon Rondo will thrive in Dallas. The Mavericks are a very good team in a conference of very good teams, which means that the regular season is basically already the playoffs if you’re in the Western Conference. If there was ever a situation that would allow a team to get “National TV Rondo” night in and night out, this is it. There’s Chris Paul in Los Angeles, Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas in Phoenix, Ty Lawson in Denver, Steph Curry in Golden State, Damian Lillard in Portland, Tony Parker in San Antonio, Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, Dante Exum in Utah, Mike Conley, Jr. in Memphis, and Jrue Holiday in New Orleans. There is an abundance of good point guards in the NBA (I mean, the Celtics had three on their roster after trading Rondo even if Jameer Nelson didn’t come to Boston in that deal), and that is most apparent in the West. He will not be able to check out mentally or take any nights off. He has his work cut out for him, and it should be a fun thing to watch.

The Celtics now find themselves rebuilding with a great college coach and the champions of years past are not walking though that door. As Celtics fans, we’ve seen this movie before, but it doesn’t seem that bad. Brad Stevens seems to be more comfortable in the NBA than Rick Pitino did, and he’s not hung up on the possibility of drafting a franchise changing player with the #1 overall pick like the C’s were banking on with some guy named Tim Duncan in 1997. It doesn’t happen overnight, but the Celtics seem to be heading in the right direction long term. Danny Ainge knows what he’s doing, and he’s built the Celtics into a winner before. They are young, they play hard, and the best basketball for the players on that team is still in the future. What Rondo did in Boston was great, but like Doc, KG, Pierce, Allen, and Perk before him, it’s time for something new.

The Rondo Problem

A few times a year, rumors start to swirl about the possibility of the Boston Celtics trading star point guard (and team captain as 2014) Rajon Rondo. This has been going on since 2009, but really it was going on before that, but Rondo wasn’t the center of trade talks. Before the trades for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007, no player on the Celtics’ roster was safe, with the possible exception of Paul Pierce. Then Minnesota Timberwolves general manager (and current Houston Rockets head coach, and forever a Celtics legend) Kevin McHale was interested in Rondo, but the deal for Kevin Garnett was centered around Al Jefferson and Gerald Green, and Celtics GM Danny Ainge was able to talk his former teammate into another young point guard in Sebastian Telfair, but he was rumored to be traded even back then. Rajon Rondo is the last player left from the 2007 Celtics team that failed in their attempt to tank for Kevin Durant or Greg Oden, and he’s also the last remaining Celtics player from the 2008 squad that took the NBA by storm and beat the Los Angeles Lakers in what felt like a six game sweep. He’s constantly rumored in trades, and nothing has changed that, but with Rondo expected to hit free agency in the summer of 2015, the rumors are really heating up this time. Something might actually happen. It’s been reported that he wants out, and won’t re-sign with the Celtics, but Rondo and his agent have also reportedly denied that report, so really it’s anyone’s guess at this point. Rondo probably doesn’t know, Danny Ainge probably doesn’t know, Wyc Grousbeck probably doesn’t know, and I certainly don’t know, but that’s what the Internet is for. Time to speculate!

The problem with trading Rajon Rondo is the question of what the Celtics would be able to get in return. When healthy, Rondo is an All-Star point guard in an era when there are a ton of good point guards. Derrick Rose. Deron Williams. Chris Paul. Russell Westbrook. Steph Curry. Tony Parker. Kyle Lowry. Ricky Rubio. Ty Lawson. Kyrie Irving. Goran Dragic. Trey Burke. And the list goes on. Even on the Celtics, there is a surplus at the position with second year PG Phil Pressey, and the 2014 #6 overall draft pick, Marcus Smart from Oklahoma State. The abundance of point guard talent has been crushing Rondo’s trade value. The C’s were unable to get a deal done for Kevin Love in part because their best asset was Rondo, and Rondo wasn’t enough of a draw by himself the way Cleveland could tempt Love with the chance to play with both Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, but also because they couldn’t include Rondo in a trade for Love because Minnesota already has a point guard in Ricky Rubio, and without another All-Star on the roster, there is no way Love would sign to stay in Boston for the long haul. The teams with assets the Celtics want don’t need an All-Star point guard, and the teams that want a point guard of Rondo’s caliber do not have assets the Celtics want, so it would seem that the best course of action would be to keep Rondo in Boston, but it’s not so simple.

Rajon Rondo is incredibly talented, but also incredibly frustrating. He is an elite passer, and his ability to make plays is incredible. Rondo is a pure point guard, much like Bob Cousy, Steve Nash, or John Stockton. What made those players great was their ability to make the players around them better, but I don’t always see that with Rondo. Before his knee injury, it looked like he had managed to turn the assist, an inherently selfless stat as it’s literally the number of time you pass it to the guy who gets credit for the points, into an unselfish one. He was racking up a lot of double-doubles by routinely racking up double digit assist games, but it seemed like he was making the play that would more likely earn him an assist than the one that was the best basketball play for the team at the time, making a low-percentage pass when he had a high-percentage lane to the basket, and the Celtics offense became stagnant as Rondo would let the shot clock drain before passing it with so little time that the recipient of the ball had no choice but to shoot it rather than move the ball around and develop and open scoring opportunity, and have someone else get credit for the assist. It made the Celtics one dimensional on offense…and that was when they still had Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett at their disposal.

When Rondo has his head in the game, he can be truly brilliant, but sometimes it takes the C’s having their backs against the wall in a playoff series for brilliant Rondo to show himself. He’s not exactly known as someone who is easy to get along with either. Many have speculated that both Ray Allen and Doc Rivers left Boston when they did because they couldn’t stand working with Rondo anymore. You don’t have to be the nicest guy in the world to be a winner. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are perfect examples of that in basketball, and I could rattle off a dozen other names in other sports to prove my point, but the difference between Rondo and someone like MJ or Kobe is that those guys were the best in the NBA at the height of their demanding nature towards their teammates, and Rondo is a very talented point guard who is not a very good shooter in a game where any team whose best player fits that description cannot win a title.

What I would like to see, even more than signing him long term, is for the Celtics to trade Rondo for a good player at a different position, possibly a rim-protector, and move forward with Marcus “Wicked” Smart as the franchise point guard. The Celtics might be able to pull off the tandem point guard scheme that the San Antonio Spurs won a championship with this spring with Tony Parker and Patty Mills, but if Rondo is non-committal, I don’t mind seeing him leave if they C’s can get something of substance in return. I would love for the Celtics to strike a deal with the Indiana Pacers, who were the second best team in the Eastern Conference the last two seasons, but are a long shot for the playoffs this year after losing talented young guard Lance Stephenson in free agency to the Charlotte Hornets (yes, they’re the Hornets again!) and losing their best player, Paul George, for the season after he suffered a brutal leg break in an exhibition game this summer. The Pacers have something that I would love to see in a Celtics uniform, and that something is center Roy Hibbert. Hibbert, who was a star player at Georgetown in college, and has guest starred as himself on Parks and Recreation a couple of times, and he also happens to be a legit NBA center who could use a change of scenery. The Pacers have been good the past few years, but it looks as if the core of that team has reached its ceiling, and with the losses of George and Stephenson, now might be the best time for Larry Bird and Co. to retool and rebuild. Hibbert would make the Celtics better, and Rondo could be the complimentary piece to go with Paul George once he is healthy again. The Celtics would not be finished rebuilding, but being able to put Smart, Hibbert, Avery Bradley, and Jared Sullinger on the floor together would be a great start.

Time will tell if this latest batch of Rondo rumors are anything to believe, but this time next year, there is a very real chance that he will not be wearing a Celtics uniform, and if that’s the case, I hope the Celtics got something worthwhile in return.

No Love Lost

I spent all of the 2013-14 basketball season thinking the Boston Celtics were poised to make a big splash this summer. It was a strange season, the first since 2006-07 that the C’s weren’t a playoff team, let alone a legitimate championship contender, and I thought it wouldn’t be long before they would be back in the mix. Instead, they fell to #6 in the draft lottery, and did not have enough assets to acquire Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves, who was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers this week in exchange for 2014 #1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins and 2013 #1 overall pick Anthony Bennett. It might be a while before the Celtics can compete with Cleveland, Chicago, and the best teams of the West again, but it’s not all bad.

There were no fireworks this summer in the way that Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck had hoped for during the season, but there were quite a few mildly exciting things that happened for the team. First off, the Celtics unveiled a new alternate logo, pictured in the top left corner of this article.

The green and white reminds me of the older version of the leprechaun logo that the Celtics used in the Larry Bird Era, and isn’t as busy as the newer one that debuted around the same time the team hired Rick Pitino in the mid-90s. Here are the two logos side by side:

The new logo is a sleeker, cleaner take on the classic Lucky the Leprechaun design that was first drawn up by Red Auerbach’s brother. It looks a little a lot cartoonish, and I’m thinking of referring to it as the “Bugs Bunny Celtics Logo” in future blog posts, but many of the best logos in sports are shamelessly cartoonish. That’s another article for another day.

The other big uniform change the Celtics are making this year is that the road green jerseys will now say “BOSTON” instead of “CELTICS” like they did back in the 50s and early 60s.

Again, I’m a big fan of the change. The Celtics have the best uniforms in the NBA in my opinion, and the great thing about that organization is that if they ever want to retool their look, they can just borrow from the past. Many teams in all four sports continue to change their color schemes and completely overhaul their logos, but the Celtics will never need to do that. Their identity is secure.

Another exciting thing to happen off the court for the Celtics this summer was Brian Scalabrine’s homecoming announcement. While the parody of LeBron James’ Sports Illustrated article is funny enough in and of itself, the fact that White Mamba is returning to the Celtics is welcome news. Scal belongs in Boston. Even if he’s just a broadcaster (and filling the shoes of Celtics legend and color commentator Tommy “That is bogus!!!” Heinsohn during road games) for CSSNE, it’s great to see him as part of the Celtics family once again.

Scalabrine was a fan favorite during the New Big Three Era where he carved out a role as the big redheaded guy in the huddle and the last guy on the bench, draining threes in games that Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett had already put away. After the C’s devastating seven game defeat at the hands of the Lakers in 2010, Scal signed with the Chicago Bulls, joining former Celtics assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, who had been hired as Chicago’s new head coach. He played a couple more seasons in the same role he had in Boston, but in a show that starred Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah instead of Pierce, Allen, and KG. This past season, he served as an assistant coach under Mark Jackson for the Golden State Warriors, but was reassigned towards the end of the season. After another early playoff exit, the Warriors fired Jackson and overhauled the basketball operation for the new coach Steve Kerr.

When it became apparent that Scalabrine would be looking for work, and that the Celtics might not be able to accomplish as much as they were hoping this summer, the guys from the Toucher and Rich show on 98.5 The Sports Hub decided to write a song to raise awareness and get Danny Ainge’s attention. Whether that song helped the cause or not, Brian Scalabrine is a Celtic again, and the world is better for it.

As for the changes the Celtics have made on the court, I think they drafted as well as they could with the #6 and #17 picks, acquiring Marcus Smart from Oklahoma State and James Young from Kentucky. They also signed former #2 overall pick Evan Turner, who played for the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers last season. Those are three young players who still have plenty of upside. It will be interesting to see who stays in the Celtics’ long term plans among the “gluttony of guards” as Cedric Maxwell called on the night of the NBA Draft. Between Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley (who signed a four year deal this summer to stay in Boston), Smart, Young, Turner, and Phil Pressey, that’s a lot of small talent.

The Celtics still have Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, Jeff Green, and Brandon Bass coming back for forwards, as well. Sullinger showed us a lot in his second year, after being limited by a season ending back injury and the limited amount of minutes Doc Rivers gave to young players as a rookie. Olynyk had a strong finish to his rookie season, finding a bit of a scoring touch by season’s end, and hopefully he can build upon that in 2014-15. Head coach Brad Stevens has a better roster to work with than he did his first year with the Celtics, and now the questions surrounding the Celtics should be less about draft position and more about playoff position.

The Eastern Conference is not very good. There is a reason the Miami Heat represented the East in the NBA Finals four straight years, and it’s not just because of LeBron James. There are a couple of very good teams. The past couple years, it was the Heat and the Indiana Pacers, but with LeBron’s return to Cleveland, and Indiana’s loss of Lance Stephenson in free agency to the Charlotte Hornets (yes, they’re the Hornets again!) and the loss of Paul George to a devastating injury in a meaningless game, it’ll be different teams this time around, in all likelihood.

The Chicago Bulls look poised to take the East by storm, with a healthy Derrick Rose coming back, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in the form of Joakim Noah, and the signing of veteran star Pau Gasol. The Washington Wizards, having signed free agent ex-Celtics Kris Humphries and Paul Pierce to go with a pretty good young core headlined by John Wall and Bradley Beal, could be another legit contender from the East, but after that, it’s wide open…especially in the Atlantic Division.

The biggest thing to be excited about with the Celtics is the fact that they play in an absolutely terrible division. Here’s a quick recap of who the C’s are up against for 1st place in the Atlantic and an automatic playoff berth:

The Toronto Raptors finally broke through and made the playoffs last year, but lost to the Brooklyn Nets in the first round. They were the beneficiaries of being in a weak division in a year with six or seven highly intriguing draft prospects, so they won the division by default.

The Brooklyn Nets went all in for the 2013-14 season, but came up way short against Miami in Round 2, and lost their head coach (and perhaps the best player to wear a Nets uniform besides Dr. J), Jason Kidd, when he tried to usurp his own general manager before interviewing for the Milwaukee Bucks’ head coaching job when the position was still filled. Now Kevin Garnett is a year older, and Paul Pierce has taken his talents to the nation’s capital. What a mess

The New York Knicks are the New York Knicks, and not even Phil Jackson can change that. They’re going to keep trying to do their thing, and they’re going to hold out hope that the bright lights of New York and the mystique of Madison Square Garden and the star power of Carmelo Anthony will be enough to lure Kevin Durant to them. As always, they’re the Knicks, so they’ll find a way (or multiple ways) to mess that up.

The Philadelphia 76ers are blatantly tanking for a top five pick in the NBA Draft…again. This is their new thing: lose as much as possible, draft a guy who is hurt and won’t be able to play for a year (Nerlens Noel in 2013, Joel Embiid in 2014), lose some more, get another high pick, and repeat the process until the entire roster is loaded with potential. Wake me up when they start trying.

With Coach Stevens, and the assemblage of talent already on the roster, the Celtics have as good a chance as anyone to make the playoffs. Once they’re there, the probably won’t win it all, but they can at least make it interesting. In Adam Silver’s NBA, the playoffs have already become less formulaic than they were for 30 years under David Stern, and maybe, just maybe, anything is possible. ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! We’ll just have to wait and see what that anything will be.

Welcome Home

It finally happened. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce returned to Boston wearing different laundry. It was bittersweet, but mostly sweet, to see the reception they got from the crowd. It won’t be the last time they play in Boston, and they will certainly both get their numbers 5 and 34 raised to the TD Garden rafters when it’s all said and done, but the first one is always a shock, even though we knew for six months.

Here is KG’s tribute video, and here is Pierce’s. These are two players who meant so much to the Celtics they needed separate in-game tributes. Larry Bird retired when I was two, so these guys are the two best Celtics I ever remember watching. Pierce was in Boston for a decade before winning in 2008. KG was drafted by Kevin McHale in Minnesota, and was one of my favorite players even before he wore green. When they came together, along with Ray Allen, Doc Rivers, and Rajon Rondo, there was something special from the very first day. The Celtics had three aging veterans who were hungry to win, and they won. The 2008 Celtics were one of the best teams the NBA has ever seen. They played great defense, and played unselfish basketball on both ends of the floor. The became the biggest thing holding LeBron James back from winning titles, and were the toughest match for Kobe Bryant’s Lakers for a six year span.

Even in leaving Boston, Garnett and Pierce were selfless. When Ray Allen left, he joined the Celtics’ biggest rival in the Eastern Conference and gave them nothing in return. KG and Pierce agreed to be traded, and that trade is the foundation for the C’s rebuild. The Brooklyn Nets started off slow, have been hot lately, and could be a contender, but without KG and Pierce, the core of the team is flawed and expensive. When the Celtics start getting draft pics from Brooklyn, the Nets has the chance to be really bad. They are playing out the back nine of their careers in Brooklyn, but they will always be Celtics. Pierce’s pregame interview with Celtics play-by-play announcer Mike Gorman said a lot about what being a Celtics meant to him, and you can tell he still thinks of himself as a Celtic.

My favorite part of last night’s game was when they did the players introductions for the Nets and Kevin and Paul got their big ovations, but as soon as Nets head coach Jason Kidd was announced, the Garden crowd flipped the switch and loudly booed Kidd. Nostalgia is great, and as much as Celtics fans love Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, they still have that same amount of hate for longtime rival Kidd. That crowd got it. I hope the crowds at Celtics games continue to have that same level of passion as Danny Ainge works to make them a championship contender again. It can’t happen overnight, but they’re heading in the right direction thanks to #5 and #34.

Captain Ron(do)

He’s back. Rajon Rondo played in his first NBA game in about a year on Friday in the Boston Celtics’ home loss to their age old nemesis, Los Angeles Lakers. Before the game Rondo was announced as the team captain, just the fifteenth in franchise history and taking over after Paul Pierce, who had been at least co-captain since 2000, was traded to the Brooklyn Nets in June of 2013. With this great responsibility will come great expectations. The list of Celtics captains includes Hall of Famers Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Dominique Wilkins (though The Human Highlight Film only played one season in Boston and is in the Hall mostly for what he did as a member of the Atlanta Hawks), as well as a future Hall of Famer and the most popular Celtic since I’ve been following the basketball in Pierce. Rondo has some big shoes to fill, a lot of people to prove wrong, and a legacy of winning to uphold.

I would imagine that naming him captain takes him off the trade block, but the last two Celtics captains, Pierce and Antoine Walker both had their Celtics tenures end by getting traded (in fact, Walker was traded away twice). This shows that the Celtics are committed to building around Rondo, but it’s up to Rondo to be a foundation worth building around. Rondo’s strength as a player is his ability to get the ball to the open man, and make the guys around him better if he has his head in the game. With Pierce and Kevin Garnett down in Brooklyn, Rondo is the longest tenured Celtic and the last holdover from the 2008 team that took the basketball world by storm and beat the Lakers in six games to clinch the franchises 17th championship banner. His intensity can rub people the wrong way, including former Celtics head coach Doc Rivers and veteran superstar teammates like Ray Allen (and Pierce and KG to a lesser extent). By all accounts, he has bought into Brad Stevens’ system and admires his cerebral young coach. Perhaps they are a perfect match. Perhaps they “get” each other in a way that can transform Rondo from the guy I wanted out of town last year before he hurt his knee to the kind of guy who can lead a championship team. Stranger things have happened. Kobe Bryant is every but as abrasive as Rondo, but he’s also the kind of guy who will stand by his teammates as long as they’re giving it an honest effort, and he has five championship rings and two Finals MVPs to show for it. Kobe even offered up the comparison to himself when asked about Rondo having to weather a franchise rebuild. I’ve been hard on Rondo in the past, but the Celtics owe it to him and they owe it to Stevens to give their collaboration a chance.

Rondo only played 19 minutes and 25 seconds in his return to NBA action, but his presence was felt. He finished the game with eight points and four assists as he tried to shake the rust off. The other bright spot of the night for the Celtics was rookie center Kelly Olynyk. The 22 year old 13th overall pic scored a career high 25 points to go along with 8 assists in the game, and played 32 minutes and 49 seconds. I would love to see Rondo’s presence help Olynyk grow as a player and help him reach his full potential. It would be a great step in the right direction if Rondo develops chemistry with Olynyk, Sullinger, and Bradley, and Phil Pressey becomes a solid point guard off the bench.

Rondo’s presence is not enough to make the C’s a championship contender this season, and might not even be enough to make them a playoff team, either. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. The Celtics currently find themselves out of the playoff picture heading into the deepest NBA Draft in a decade. There’s Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins at Kansas (Paul Pierce’s alma mater), Jabari Parker at Duke, Julius Randle at Kentucky (Rajon Rondo’s alma mater), and the list goes on. The Celtics have a chance to add one of these blue chip prospects to a young core that is learning from one of the best teaching coaches in the business. Danny Ainge has plenty of options for making moves. Former Butler Bulldog Gordon Hayward is set to become a restricted free agent this summer, and reuniting with his old college coach seems appealing to all parties involved. The point is that the Celtics are well on their way to the future, and the next great Celtics team could arrive sooner than we thought when the C’s came up short against the New York Knicks last April. At least for now, Rondo is the man at the helm, and he and Coach Stevens are ready to steer this storied green ship.