How Green Is The Valley

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What does true forward progress actually look like for Celtics fans?

In this, the wide stretch of time between the end of the “high action” free agency period and the beginning of the regular season, Celtics fans have largely turned their collective attention to hopeful speculation and tempered expectations. Sentences riddled with “might” and “could” and “hopefully” pop up in great numbers in articles and conversations about Boston’s 2014-2015 campaign. There are, with good reason, a number of situations to eagerly anticipate this season. Rajon Rondo’s return to pre-injury basketball wizard status, the development of Boston’s atypical frontcourt roster, and the role top-pick Marcus Smart will play this season have both die-hard and casual Celtics fans eyeing points of optimism before the season officially begins.

For the most part, this mentality is more or less justifiable. Brad Stevens was tapped as head coach due in large part to his reputation as a player development guru. Rondo is entering his contract year and has lots and lots of zeros for which to play, be it in Boston or elsewhere. Moreover, young players jockeying for playing time, and veterans hoping to get more than their namesake minimums in the future ought to make for a Celtics team with plenty of motivating factors on player-by-player levels.

There is, however, a catch.

As a team, the Boston Celtics have very little to play for this season. In the broadest sense, not a single player on the current roster can say all of the following:

- “My name has not been mentioned in any trade talk whatsoever.”
- “I am assured a spot on the team once the season begins.”
- “My current contract is generally considered to be fair and inline with similarly performing players.”
- “The 2014 draft did not yield a selection that might directly contribute to a decrease in my minutes or role on the team.”

The closest exceptions to these statements would be Avery Bradley, Brandon Bass, and Jeff Green. That said, I don’t think a deal for a clear-cut star would keep GM Danny Ainge from moving any or all of them in a second. Without putting too fine a point on the situation, the Boston Celtics are currently comprised of mostly rent-not-buy players who might very well have a lot more invested in improving their standings as NBA commodities and comparatively less in being part of the most storied franchise in professional basketball.

This is not to say that “playing to be more valuable” and “playing to win” are mutually exclusive. With the Cavs being the cosmically notable exception, no non-playoff team out of the Eastern Conference has made considerable strides this offseason. Unless Jabari Parker racks up a PER of 35 in his rookie year, the Bucks, Magic, Pistons, Knicks, and – to a slightly lesser extent – the Sixers have largely maintained a neutral level of firepower thus far. Current circumstances in mind, the Celtics have just as good a shot as anyone to make gains this year in terms of win total based purely on a highly motivated roster. Even sneaking into the playoffs, if the rosiest of scenarios being bandied about by fans and analysts come to fruition, might not be completely out of the realm of possibility.

There is, however, another catch.

No matter what happens this year – whether it’s good, bad, joyous, or tragic – the Boston Celtics are still in the throes of a massive rebuild. If it could be said that “the mountain” is consistent playoff appearances and contention for another NBA title, then this current iteration of the team is still in the valley. This, obviously, is broadly understood by even the most upbeat Celtics fans. “This is not what a winning team looks like.” And, as tough as it might be to accept, a repeat of last year’s struggles is probably more likely than a bolt-of-lightning ascension to post-season play. The road out of the valley is longer than a single season for most teams, and even the shrewd moves of Ainge, the coaching mindset of Stevens, or the majesty of the Celtics tradition is going to change that.

With that hearty dose of earnest pessimism in mind, one can only wonder about what potential indicators might serve to notify Celtics fans, so accustomed to epic playoff battles and slowly swaying banners, when the lowlands have been traversed and the slow climb upward has begun. For starters, a few non-indicators are worth noting.

The Celtics squeak into the playoffs this season.
With the conference as deplorable as it is, a playoff birth is really nothing about which a team can brag. Of course it’s an indication of improvement, and of course it’s a sign that high hopes in certain areas became realities. But the 8th seeded Atlanta Hawks were 38-44 last year. If that’s the kind of team that satiates fans and the Boston front office collectively, and if that’s the type of win output that says “we’re on our way back,” then standards have fallen in a major way.

Rondo has an All-Star season.
Even if #9 plays completely out of his mind this year, it still won’t be enough to pull the rest of the team along with him. No one doubts that a healthy Rondo is one of the top point guards in the league, and he’s in even more select company when it comes to making the people around him better. In a way, though, that’s the problem. A weekly triple-double from Rajon Rondo might have the adverse effect of inflating the abilities and progress of the younger players, making them both tougher to move in deals and harder to keep in terms of clearly sussing out “who’s getting better” and “who’s getting better looks thanks to Rondo.”

Boston has multiple players in the Rising Stars Challenge.
“Drafting quality college players with great potential” and “drafting quality college players with long, successful professional careers” are not the same thing. It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if Olynyk and Smart both made the roster this year, and it would no doubt be a great moment for the players and the organization. That being said, not only does such an accolade definitely not make them part of the long-term plan, but it might end up making an exit out of The Bay State more probable. Being a rising star does not make a player a certifiable one, and, in today’s NBA, no one wins without a handful of the latter.

To reiterate briefly, no one is saying that these aren’t positive things that wouldn’t be welcomed with open arms by Boston fans after last season. But not a single one of these three possibilities indicates a clear-cut change in direction from a team and franchise perspective. So, with these false indicators out of the way, what does true forward progress actually look like for Celtics fans?

The Celtics make a deal that sends multiple picks away.
The term “stockpiling” really wore itself out this summer. Do the Celtics have as many non-player assets as any GM or owner could hope to obtain? Without question. Unfortunately, all those arrows failed to find a target this summer, and the prospect of actually using all these picks in future drafts is a lot less exciting than using them as sweeteners in big trades for big names. Making numerous picks in numerous drafts is the essence of rebuilding, and until they start going out the door, the Celtics will be doing exactly that for years to come.

An ironclad starter signs with Boston as a free agent.
The Boston Celtics have never lured an immediate-impact, free agent in the prime of his career who ended up being better in Boston than he had been anywhere else. Never. To do so, even on a more modest scale, would be a very clear indication that the franchise has become the sort of place where high-level players feel they can start, play, win, and get paid in the process. Perhaps no other move would be a better indication of upward trajectory than this, though it clearly won’t be happening this year.

All the undesirable contracts are off the books.
Gerald Wallace being the ultimate example of this issue, the Celtics could stand to trim fat on the balance sheet in a few other places, as well. Brandon Bass’s contract isn’t necessarily toxic given his relatively consistent level of play, but it’s money that could certainly be better spent elsewhere. One could say the same for Jeff Green, Joel Anthony, and Marcus Thornton, too. With the roster set up as it is now, no contract that isn’t worth an extension or team option belongs on the books, and all four of these players, with the possible exception of a hyper-motivated Green, fit that profile.

To be clear about one final thing, this ought not to be considered a “lost season” in Boston. On the other hand, to anxiously confuse “success” and “progress” will only leave Celtics Nation feeling at best let down and at worse cheated. The annals of NBA history are littered with struggling teams that thought they could run before they could walk with a few quick pen strokes and big checks. This is a rebuild, and rebuilds take time. Danny Ainge knows it, Brad Stevens knows it, and the Celtics faithful should, too. Right now, the valley is wide, deep, and Celtic green. But the way out is there, and – with patience and smart maneuvering – the mountain won’t be too far off when it happens.

(Photo Credit: ESPN/NBAE/Getty Images)

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