SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 30, 2013

Matt Jenkins column: Celtics face long road, but there is hope


The Salem News

---- — On Pro Basketball

Matt Jenkins

Could life get any better for a Boston sports fan right now?

The Red Sox, just one win away from their third World Series title in the last 10 years, need no introduction. Interest was clearly waning after last year’s catastrophe, but they won the fans back, in short, by winning games.

The longer story includes words and Twitter hashtags like heart, character, chemistry, beards and #highfivecity. Of course, that version of this tale has been oft-repeated this October.

The Patriots haven’t hidden in the shadows, but their skeleton-crew, 6-2 record likely would have been bigger news in other years. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady remain, so obviously the Pats are still grabbing some headlines.

Despite injuries to key players like Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, Shane Vereen, Vince Wilfork, Jerrod Mayo, Aqib Talib, Amendola again, Sebastian Vollmer, and most likely Amendola again at some point, New England is still finding a way to win. In the AFC, they may not carry the hype of the Denver Broncos or the surprise of the Kansas City Chiefs, but no team will look forward to matching up with a Belichick and Brady-led group come playoff time.

While looking ahead to playoff time, let’s move on to the next hometown team expected to stretch its campaign well after the final regular season whistle has blown. The Bruins have as much talent and promise as any team in the National Hockey League. They were just two wins short of hoisting the Stanley Cup last spring, and some would say all they did in the offseason was get better. In July the Bruins made a key acquisition by signing 16-year veteran Jerome Iginla, and this time when Bruins fans woke up in the morning he was really on the roster.

And then there are the Celtics ... cue the Debbie Downer music.

The Boston Celtics will unceremoniously begin their 2013-14 season opposite Game 6 of the World Series tonight on the road against the Toronto Raptors. Many of this year’s games will be hard to watch, with a rotation consisting of players like Jordan Crawford, Marshon Brooks, Courtney Lee and Kris Humphries. Overall though, the Celtics story is one of many interesting angles in an NBA season where there is a clear divide between teams aiming for a championship and those angling for a good draft position.

The Celtics have almost no expectations around here other than to be bad — and that’s the best case scenario. In the NBA world of bouncing balls and celebrity courtside seats, nothing is worse than being decent. Decent gets you a 7- or 8-seed in the playoffs, a first-round exit, and a middle-of-the-road draft choice.

See you next year, when we’ll do this dance all over again.

That’s why Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge finally pulled the trigger on a move to get younger — and hopefully better, eventually — instead of toiling in NBA mediocrity for a few more years. Out the door went Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, headed to Brooklyn to give the Nets a puncher’s chance in the Eastern Conference.

Garnett and Pierce teamed with Ray Allen to form the new Big Three several years ago, and that trio brought the Larry O’Brien trophy back to Boston in 2008. They advanced to the finals in 2010 again, but lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games.

This summer’s trade with Brooklyn was an emotional moment for many fans, but the right move. Pierce and Garnett get another shot at a title, and the Celts (fingers crossed) sink well below the surface to dwell with the bottom-feeders.

Of course, Ainge didn’t unload everything. Coach Doc Rivers, much like his star players, moved on too, jumping across the country to coach Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers. That left the coaching void that was filled by former Butler University coach Brad Stevens.

It seems like a minor move, a formality really, considering the roster shakeup, but the hiring of Stevens and signing him to a six-year deal was pure genius. Just 37 years old, Stevens is a student of the game, devoted to analytics. He possesses a calm demeanor on the sidelines — something that separates him from other college-turned-pro coaches (think Pitino, Rick) that failed miserably.

He also developed a reputation for getting the most out of his players while at Butler, taking the unheralded Bulldogs to the national final in 2010 and 2011. If all goes well, that will be something he can accomplish at the professional level with point guard Rajon Rondo, an extremely rare talent whose maturity has come into question on more than one occasion.

Rondo’s presence on this Celtics team is one of the great questions. He’s coming off a torn ACL and if he comes back too soon, the Celtics will certainly rise up the standings and possibly out of the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery, which is considered to include more talent than any of the last 10 years.

It seems like there are only two ways to get better in the NBA: make a huge splash in free agency (which has been hard for Boston to do) or rebuild through the draft. A team needs to hit on a couple of high draft picks, or accumulate enough assets in those drafts, to pull off a trade that lands a game-changing superstar.

No matter how they do it, the Celtics have a long road ahead. But they’ll get there.

Someday, Pierce will walk through that door again. He’ll sign a one-day contract to retire a Celtic, then sit back and wait for his number 34 to be raised to the rafters ... hopefully, right next to Banner 18.

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Matt Jenkins is a staff writer at the Salem News. He can be reached by phone at 978-338-2648, by e-mail at mjenkins@salemnews.com, or follow him on Twitter @MattJenkins_SN.