Over the last two seasons, few teams have given the newly-crowned NBA champion Heat more problems than the Celtics. The C’s have won six of the eight regular season games meetings and took Miami to the brink of elimination in the conference finals. It was that playoff series that lingered in the back of people’s minds while the Heat took care of the Thunder in just five games to win the NBA championship.
The Pacers made Miami work. The Thunder made Miami sweat, but no team had the Heat on the edge of elimination like the Celtics did. It took a game for the ages from LeBron James in Game 6 – one that has not yet been fully absorbed by history. Or, as team president Danny Ainge out it in an appearance on The Big Show: “I don’t think it was anything we didn’t do as much as LeBron was really good.”
Make no mistake, the Heat are the heavy favorites for as long as LeBron plays on this level. If Derrick Rose had been healthy, the C’s likely would have never been in the conference finals. The Pacers have also made significant strides. Whoever gets Dwight Howard will instantly become a contender if he stays in the East. The Celtics would need a number of things to go right to remain in contention, but a case can be made that they have the best chance in the East of knocking off Miami if Kevin Garnett returns.
First, they have Rajon Rondo. As Russell Westbrook reinforced, penetrating point guards are the Heat’s main weakness defensively. Second, they have Garnett who had his way with their big men until Chris Bosh returned from his abdominal injury. Third, they have Paul Pierce, who is one of the few small forwards in the league who can even think of guarding James one-on-one or coming close to matching his production.
All that gives the Celtics a chance, but what they didn’t have were young legs, depth or scoring off the bench to help offset those terrifying Miami runs. Perhaps if they had Avery Bradley and Jeff Green, Doc Rivers would have had two strong options for defending James and Dwyane Wade. “If we had our 24 and 21 year old healthy, we could have been playing in the NBA finals right now,” Ainge said.
Suddenly it’s not just a question of keeping the core together because they’re still good enough to make the playoffs and help transition into the next era. It’s a question of whether they’re good enough to continue competing for a championship. Even if Garnett re-signs, however, the answer remains no. Not yet.
Green would be an important piece to the puzzle and could be the sixth-man scoring threat they so desperately need. Bradley should only continue to get better and his development was the biggest revelation of the 2011-12 season. JaJuan Johnson, E’Twaun Moore have had their baptism, now it’s time to see if they can play. None of this addressed the very serious issue of how to add depth to the front line. Brandon Bass and Garnett made for an effective, but undersized frontcourt that was always one injury away from catastrophe.
It’s possible that Ainge can find frontline help in the draft and there should be a number of intriguing big men available in the latter third of the first round. But if they decide to give this one more shot, their free agents options would be limited to exceptions and it may not be possible to stay under the luxury tax line, which would limit their options even further.
But they still have a chance, even in this new era and that’s enough of a reason to keep the core together.
THE D-LEAGUE AGREEMENT
The Celtics announced on Thursday that they have entered into a new working relationship with the Maine Red Claws, their D-league affiliate for the past two seasons. In what’s known as a hybrid affiliation, the Celtics will assume control of basketball operations and the costs associated with running the basketball side, while the local ownership will continue to run the off-the-court side. Unlike past seasons when they shared the team with the Bobcats, the Celtics are now the sole affiliate.
Four other teams – Houston, Brooklyn, Portland and New York – have already gone this route and it’s an important development for the D-League as it ever so slowly becomes a working minor league system.
Over the years the Celtics have made solid use of the D-League. Bradley showed a hint of what was to come with an exceptional assignment stint during his rookie season and they have not been shy about sending other young players to the league. They also found Greg Stiemsma, who caught Austin Ainge’s eye while Ainge was coaching the Red Claws.
One point: Other than the players on the Celtics’ 15-man roster who get sent down to the D-League, the rest of the roster is made up of free agents who can be signed by any team at any time. Consider the team’s roster like the 40-man set-up in baseball: If you’re not on it, you don’t belong to anyone. So it’s not as if the C’s can build a minor league team all to themselves, but it does give them considerable control over everything from training regimen to coaching and the style of play.
This could become a very useful resource for the Celtics and indication that they will use all the means at their disposal to rebuild the franchise.
We’re less than a week away and already the rumor mill is churning quickly. The Celtics either did – or did not – offer a promise to Iowa State forward Royce White with one of their first round picks. Whether they did or not, White is exactly the kind of player who should be available with the 21st and 22nd picks in the draft.
Here’s a snapshot list of potential prospects (click the name for a profile)
Players who could drop
Jared Sullinger, PF Ohio State: A longshot, but a back condition could send him reeling out of the lottery. If he’s there it’s a no-brainer.
Perry Jones, SF Baylor: Super-talented but not always the most aggressive player, Jones is a gamble waiting to happen. It would have to be a steep drop for him to get to the Celtics.
Arnett Moultrie, C Miss. State: Most mocks have the 6-foot-11 Moultrie going to the Magic at 19, so it’s not a steep fall. There are questions of motivation, but if Garnett comes back Moultrie would either reach his potential or be gone quickly.
Terrence Ross, SG Washington: A smooth scorer off the wing, Ross is everywhere from the bottom of the lottery to the middle of the first round.
Players who should be there
Moe Harkless, F St. John’s: The feeling is that he’ll go higher, but Harkless in an intriguing prospect who willingly played center and is a versatile frontcourt player who can guard multiple positions.
Fab Melo, C Syracuse: A defensively-inclined center who is still learning the game.
Andrew Nicholson, PF St. Bonaventure: A quintessential stretch-four who can shoot deep and offers a nice post game. He may take some time to develop, but he comes into the league with an NBA-ready skill: His outside shot.
Royce White, PF Iowa State: More of a point-forward, White is one of the better big-man passers in the draft. He carries with him some baggage including some youthful mistakes at Minnesota and an anxiety disorder that he says is under control. A talent, nonetheless.
Quincy Miller, F Baylor: Already has a torn ACL on his medical chart, but at one time was one of the top prospects in his high school class. Intriguing talent.
For more on the draft, check out the Talking Hoops podcast with Jeff Goodman, lead college basketball writer for CBSsports.com.