The Question of Burning Out/Fading Away: The Boston Celtics Conundrum

(Note: This was written on Tuesday the 18th, by which time sources had reported the Clippers walking away from trade talks and Danny Ainge himself declared the trade “dead.” But as far as I know, an hour after publication the trade may end up happening, rendering this article useless. But, you know…whatever.)

Well…How Did We Get Here?

The first thing that should be addressed is that this past Celtics season was pretty much a colossal disappointment. Kevin Garnett (14.8ppg/7.8rpg) and Paul Pierce (18.6ppg/.436 FG%) valiantly led the team as their age really started to show. Injuries knocked out Jared Sullinger, Leandro Barbosa, Avery Bradley, and most importantly, Rajon Rondo for long stretches of time. Highly publicized offseason acquisitions Jason Terry and Courtney Lee were both busts their first season, the former never turning into the 4th quarter closer they so desperately needed and the latter so far into Doc Rivers’ doghouse that he only played a total of 39 minutes in the series against the Knicks, despite the price they paid for him. And Doc Rivers, the second-longest tenured coach in the NBA with nine years in Boston and the great instiller of ubuntu, couldn’t use his magic on the Celtics this year, unable to fulfill on the mantra that Celtics fans have been muttering to themselves for the last 3 seasons: all they need is to get to the playoffs, and then they’ll be fine, their experience will carry them. This year, the mantra didn’t take.

There were some bright spots of last season. boston celticsGarnett still remained a fantastic defensive presence. Pierce, in Rondo’s absence, somehow started posting near triple-double games at an alarming rate. Jeff Green transformed himself from meek 7th man to one-man wrecking crew. And, of course, there was Shavlik “Shavalanche” Randolph, rebounding savant and cuddly bench presence.

And then things got bad….

But any remaining good vibes dissipated almost immediately at the start of the offseason. Doc refused to confirm his return next season. There was much muttering that Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett might hang it up, the overall sentiment that neither would play without the other.

Which led to the rumor that spread like wildfire in the last two weeks: that the Los Angeles Clippers were not only looking to acquire the services of Pierce and Garnett, but trade for Doc Rivers as well.

There’s a good chance, obviously, that the trade won’t go down at all. First of all, the bounty that the Celtics would receive is pretty grim. DeAndre Jordan, who even with the best dunk of the year still didn’t turn into the potential All-Star that he really should be, with only 8.8 ppg and barely seeing the floor in the Grizzlies-Clippers series (though that’s frankly more indicative of Vinny Del Negro’s coaching than anything else), and only one first-round pick. Despite Boston’s protests, Clippers demanded that Eric Bledsoe be withheld from the deal, the Celtics only relenting when the Clippers offered to take either Lee or Terry’s contract in return.

boston celticsIs it really worth trading away the only remaining members of the Big Three and the coach who led them to the Finals? Not just KG, who transformed himself from the one-man bandleader in Minnesota to a bonafide team player in Boston, but Paul Pierce, who’s been in a Celtics uniform since I was 6 years old and deserves to retire in Boston if that’s what he wants?  The answer is trickier than we’d like.

Searching for the high note to go out on…

But even if the trade doesn’t go down, can the Celtics ever return to the way things were, and would fans even want that? Can Doc, after so much waffling and allowing himself to be courted, really return to a team that seems destined to enter a rebuilding period? Will KG and Pierce really give it another go after such a letdown of a season, hoping to reclaim one more year of glory to put a cap on two fantastic careers?

And this is what, as much as it pains me, makes the potential move so damn understandable. doc-riversDoc, after a few years of pondering retirement, has already said he is reluctant to helm a team with no expectations of contention. Garnett lives in Los Angeles and Pierce is from Oakland. Why not jump ship to an increasingly dangerous team, a franchise, for the first time in its history, finding success? For the Clippers, of course, it’s a no-brainer. They can cleanse themselves of the memory of Vinny Del Negro. Blake Griffin gets to learn from KG. Chris Paul finally gets a coach committed to his success, and two incredibly intelligent hardworking former stars, absolutely willing to put aside their personal pride in search of another ring. And, if possible, they get to keep Bledsoe until they’re sure that Paul will stick around, before trading him for one more piece needed for a deep postseason run.

But even if the trade does fall apart, as sources have indicated, there’s still a huge chance that Doc and possibly Pierce and Garnett, walk away from the Celtics for good.

Giving Up The Car Keys

It makes too much sense, and that’s what sucks. As paltry as the return for Boston may be, it’s still better than nothing right? The Celtics free themselves of either Terry or Lee’s contract (getting Caron Butler’s expiring to balance things out) and get a first round pick. Plus DeAndre Jordan, who at the very least is a big body, something the Celtics sorely need. celticsIf the trade were to happen as posited the Celtics starting lineup next season would look something like:

PG: Rajon Rondo

SG: Avery Bradley

SF: Jeff Green

PF: Jared Sullinger/Brandon Bass

C: DeAndre Jordan

Throw in whichever of Lee/Terry doesn’t get traded, Randolph, Terrence Williams, their 16th pick, and possibly even Fab Melo, and you’ve got an okay team. Not a great team but also not a cellar-dweller, maybe even fighting for the 8th seed.

For better or for worse, all of Boston’s success will now hinge upon the play of Rajon Rondo. Rondo’s always been defined by his promise, but has never quite lived up to expectation, even if that’s not entirely his fault. For the first time, we will be able to see a Celtics team built entirely around the style of the electrifying point guard. Hopefully we’ll see running, and lots of it. He and Bradley should be a great defensive backcourt, Rondo the poacher and Bradley the lockdown.

The problem, unfortunately, are the personality clashes. Rondo has always been a bit of a mercurial figure. He’s full of quirks and weird mannerisms, a true eccentric.

He’s also known to have butted heads with the Big Three (possibly driving Jesus Shuttlesworth out) and often accused of putting his stats (namely his assist numbers) ahead of the success of the team. This is why losing Doc especially hurts. He and Rondo had already fought, finding a sort of balance within the clubhouse, Rondo publicly announcing that he’d rather play for Doc than anyone else. Rivers would be the perfect candidate to manage the transition of Rondo, The Big Three Sidekick to Rondo, Sitting in the Driver’s Seat.

To be sure, if Doc were to leave, it would be a difficult thing to replace him. It might be easy to throw in an established high-profile coach such as George Karl (love to see his run-and-gun with Rondo at the helm) or Lionel Hollins (D-FENSE. D-FENSE. D-FENSE.). But if you’re going to rebuild a team, you might as well find a younger coach who could be the next big thing, and possible long-term option. Brian Shaw seems to be meeting with every team in the league, but perhaps a more intriguing option might be mining the college coaching ranks.Brad Stevens How much would you love to see Avery running Shaka Smart of VCU’s “havoc” defense? Can’t you see Rondo and Brad Stevens of Butler chugging Vitamin Water and obsessing over video together? Hell, why not aim big, and go after Bill Self of Kansas?

But could an inexperienced coach handle the trouble that is almost sure to ensue? This is the problem of the Celtics situation. The trade on the table with the Clippers would bring an immense change to a franchise that has been pretty steady for the last five years. The problem is no outcome is perfect. Losing Pierce, Garnett, and Rivers would be gut-wrenching. Watching them struggle through one more season could be just as bad. The newfound optimist in me wants to believe that if they just hold on to the group, that the team all comes down with some weird amnesia that erases all the bad feelings of the last month, and that everyone stays healthy (the last is the most unlikely) they could make one more glorious run past the Knicks, Pacers and Heat to another Finals.

But that’s a slim, slim chance. There’s no easy answer to any of this. I’m looking forward to this season, but with a trepidation I haven’t felt in a while.

This is going to be rough.