When it comes to their backcourt, it seems as though the Boston Celtics are always waiting for something.
From Ray Allen to Avery Bradley to Rajon Rondo, key guards with nagging or debilitating injuries have just kept delaying the Celtics’ plans over the last several seasons. Doc Rivers and Brad Stevens became adept at giving medical reports — or, more often, pleading ignorant of all health-related news whatsoever — against the lingering backdrop of hope that one day, eventually, the team’s backcourt would be whole.
The unit never really got back to full strength in Rivers’ final two seasons in Boston and it’s worth wondering whether it will ever get that way in Stevens’ first. In Rondo’s third game back from a torn right ACL, Bradley suffered a sprained ankle, leaving in the second quarter of Tuesdays loss to the Miami Heat. Bradley could be out another few weeks, according to the latest reports, putting this Celtics season another step closer to oblivion.
The heady days of the Celtics owning first place in an underwhelming Atlantic Division are over. The rest of the Eastern Conference has proven to be just as awful as anticipated, but the Celtics haven’t been consistently average enough to rise above the muck. The backcourt has been something of an experiment all season, just trying to tread water until the return of Rondo. Ironically, now that Rondo has returned, Boston’s backcourt is in worse shambles than before.
Jerryd Bayless could be out another week with a sprained left big toe. Bradley’s absence is indefinite. Rondo is already operating under a strict minutes limit as he works his way back into game shape. Undrafted rookie Phil Pressey is manning the bulk of the backup minutes at point guard. Keith Bogans has left the team.
The options for Stevens and team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge are narrow, particularly given the uncertain nature of their goals. Stevens says he is focused only on winning and he’s probably telling the truth, but Ainge has played coy, as usual. Within minutes of Bradley’s injury on Tuesday, the Celtics announced they had added guard Vander Blue from the Delaware 87ers of the D-League. Meanwhile, recent D-League All-Star Chris Johnson was having a career game for the Celtics against the Miami Heat.
Is this what the Celtics’ season has come to? A hobbled Rondo playing a supporting role to the onetime MVP of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers?
Johnson and Blue’s signings do not signal, by themselves, that the full-on tankjob is underway, as some have suggested. Like every team, the Celtics have long filled out their roster with players on 10-day contracts to weather short-term midseason injuries. Shavlik Randolph, Terrence Williams and Chris Johnson (the center from LSU, not the guard out of Dayton currently with the team) were not symbols of the Celtics giving up on seasons past; Johnson and Blue aren’t now.
The difference this time is that these Celtics have less buffer to compensate for those players’ shortcomings or to keep them in limited roles. Whereas Rivers’ teams could count on Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to pick up the slack, this season’s squad is running out of candidates to pick up the slack. “Next man up” only works so long as there is another man to step up.
There’s also the backdrop of Andrew Wiggins and the stacked 2014 NBA draft, which has everyone sniffing for clues as to which teams are intentionally throwing in the towel. As a result, an innocent 10-day signing that would get passed over any other year is construed as proof a team is riggin’ for Wiggins.
The East being the East, the Celtics are not dead yet. They’re only 3.5 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot despite being 15 games below .500 and losing 15 of their last 17 games. Any fan who declares this season a lost cause — either out of frustration or satisfaction — and turns his attention to scouting the draft class, is getting ahead of himself.
Yet that doesn’t mean irrational exuberance is a fair alternative, either. Much of the optimism (or pessimism) over the Celtics sneaking into the playoffs, which was an opinion more than a few observers expressed prior to the season, assumed a couple of things. One was that the team could remain respectable until Rondo came back and played like he has in the past. Another was that the roster, once Rondo returned and got his legs under him, would be mostly healthy.
The first part sort of happened, if only because the East failed to run away from a mediocre Celtics club in the first 2 1/2 months of the season. The second is off to a poor start, and the guards aren’t the only group that bears watching.
Bradley and Bayless are already out. Jared Sullinger has played through pain all season. Brandon Bass went down after a scary-looking collision Tuesday. And persistent trade rumors involving Jeff Green refuse to let up.
Through it all, the Celtics can only play on with what they have and wait for somebody to get healthy — or for the next player to go down. It’s a game they have gotten used to playing. Except this time around, the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t as bright.