by BERT A. RAMIREZ
The past few games have been heart-breakers that it just pleased me no end when the Boston Celtics finally snapped a five-game losing streak yesterday (March 19 in the US) with a 101-96 victory over two-time defending champion Miami. True, the Heat played without LeBron James, but the Heat, with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and their championship veterans, were still a formidable bunch compared to this young Celtics ballclub, and any win at this point, as long as it won’t materially affect the Celtics’ lottery status, would be a welcome break.
The victory, aside from giving Celtics fans a respite particularly after those earlier three losses where they had a chance to turn the tables but fell just the same – an 87-80 swoon to Phoenix, a 121-120 overtime defeat in New Orleans and a 94-89 setback in Dallas – also gives the Celtics an idea of which players on their current roster are worth keeping and which are not.
Taking after the action movie franchise “The Expendables,” we call those worth keeping “The Indispensables,” players who can make up the core of a contender with the addition of two or three solid pieces, particularly one who can close out games and not make the Celtics winless in all their 15 games on the road against Western teams, as they became with that loss in Dallas on the feast no less of New Englanders’ patron saint, St. Patrick.
Who are these players? Allow us to present them to you, in the order of indispensability:
1. Rajon Rondo – As always, Rondo has been at the center of debate among Celtics fans and non-fans alike. Should the Celtics build around him, or should they try to trade him and get equal value to shore up other positions in the lineup? After that 15-assist, 10-rebound, nine-point performance in the victory against Miami, people should get an idea that this guy is going nowhere.
Let’s face it, folks, nobody in the league can set the table better than Rondo, with the 6-foot-1 playmaker probing the defenses like a deft surgeon probes a patient’s inner crevices, and then pouncing in an instant once he sees as little a crease as there is in the defense. See that spectacular bounce pass to Jeff Green that the latter converted with a reverse layup? That’s the kind of playmaking that a closer, well, somebody better than Green himself, can really relish and turn into instant baskets.
Never mind the claim that he won’t get his assists without All-Stars around. He’s currently averaging 9.1 in the 22 games he’s played thus far, which would have ranked him third in the league. And never mind his 38 percent floor shooting at this point. He’ll get around to the mid-40s once he regains top shape. He just showed in the win against the Heat what he can do once he’s fully into it, making two floaters down the stretch that clinched it for the Celtics. “That’s the most frustrating part of my game that hasn’t come back,” Rondo said of those decisive baskets. “I expected it to be there. I made two tonight and have to continue to work on it.”
“It was one of those nights when Rondo controlled everything without scoring the basketball. That was until the Celtics needed their captain to take the game over when the game was in the balance,” said Shawn Cassidy in Celtics Today. “Rajon Rondo just missed a triple double… but dominated the last two minutes of the game like he has done in the past. Rajon’s performance against Miami is a taste of what will be with Rondo as the future of the Boston Celtics.”
2. Jared Sullinger – Save for a high-powered package for a franchise star similar to that sent by Danny Ainge to Minnesota to get Kevin Garnett back in 2007, this kid is going nowhere himself. Sully has simply proven to be a solid piece to build around at the “four” spot, averaging 12.9 points and a team-leading 8.2 rebounds in 27.2 minutes. He has shown that he can stretch the floor, too, with his outside shooting (although he has to improve his shot selection), and bang inside with his solid build that makes up for a rather shortish height that’s listed at 6-9 but is actually closer to 6-8.
3. Kelly Olynyk – Some people had begun to write Olynyk off earlier in the season but the 7-foot rookie forward has come on to average 7.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.6 assists in less than 20 minutes of average playing time. Olynyk not only has a good touch from the perimeter but has also shown extraordinary skills for a big man, being able to handle the ball and make good passes off the high or low post. More seasoning is bound to make the 22-year-old Gonzaga product even better, particularly at the defensive end where he’s weakest at this stage.
4. Avery Bradley – Only Bradley’s contract status prevents him from going higher than Olynyk. The 6-2 Bradley’s value could be clearly seen in the win against Miami, where he made a career-high six three-pointers en route to leading the team with 23 points. But Bradley, who is averaging a career-high 14.3 points, second on the Celtics, as well as 3.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.06 steals, is also one of the best perimeter defenders in the game, and only his durability (or lack thereof) has prevented him from becoming an even more valuable commodity. If he can settle for $6 million a year instead of the $8 million that his agent was asking from the Celtics, he can well be a fixture in Boston’s backcourt. The question is, would he get the money he wants as a free agent, or will nobody offer him that and thus force him to stay put?
5. Kris Humphries – Humphries’ $12 million salary is surely a downer, but his contract expires after this season, so why not sign him to the mid-level available? In the 6-9, 235-pound Humphries, the Celtics have a workhorse who averages 8.5 points and 6.1 rebounds in just 20.2 minutes of floor time. He is the quintessential role player who’ll do the many small things, hustle and get dirty without fanfare, unlike his short-term partner Kim Kardashian who must have gotten bored with him due to his no-frills and low-key nature.
6. Jeff Green – The ultimate tease, but, by this time, one may just have to settle for what he gets from Green, who leads the Celtics with a 17.0-point average but is clearly not the go-to guy and closer that this team needs, and which the Celtics had for more than a decade when Paul Pierce was toiling in Beantown. Green’s shooting percentages from game to game, along with his production, are simply so erratic one can’t anticipate what he’ll get from him each night. Consider his floor shooting clip in the Celtics’ last six games: 57.9, 18.8, 47.6, 14.3, 52.2, and 38.5. This would even out to a median of 38.2, which may be enough on certain occasions but not for one’s go-to guy or closer by any stretch of the imagination. And Green’s $9.1 million paycheck is somewhat of a burden for a guy who deserves to come off the bench based on his production.
7. Jerryd Bayless – Bayless’ contract also expires after this season, and, depending on what the Celtics can get in the open market, the 6-3 guard may be good enough to keep around and provide Boston a lift either at the “one” or “two” position, where Jerryd clearly fits in as a reliever to either Rondo or Bradley . Danny Ainge would want to keep his options open in building the components of his bench but, for now, Bayless seems as good a candidate as any to remain with the club.
Brandon Bass (10.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg), the injured Vitor Faverani (4.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg), rookie point guard Phil Pressey (2.4 ppg, 2.7 apg), the injured Gerald Wallace (5.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.5 apg), Joel Anthony and Keith Bogans as well as D-League pickups Chris Johnson (6.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg) and Chris Babb (2.2 ppg, 1.3 rpg) make up the rest of the Celtics’ roster. Except for Bass, however, none from this bunch has been productive enough or shown extraordinary attributes to merit consideration as an indispensable component of the Celtics’ future. This is particularly true in the case of Wallace, a one-time All-Star in 2010 whose declining game makes his $10 million-plus per-year pact all the more onerous particularly with the two years it has left.
The same factor may be weighing down on Bass, whose almost-$7 million annual salary that runs out after next year makes him a primary trade bait. Truth is, Bass and such players as Green, Bayless and Humphries whom we classified as indispensables above could become part of any major trade that Ainge may work out this coming summer if the circumstances warrant. They could very well serve as trade chips along with one or two of the first-round picks Boston has accumulated in previous trades.
The Celtics have nine, and possibly 10, of these picks (assuming Philadelphia makes the playoffs next year) until the 2018 draft, and Ainge would only be too willing to part with a few of these if he can land a guy like Kevin Love.
All in all, the Celtics clearly have an idea of which players they’d want to keep at this point. It will just bear down to which of these players may need to go if a trade opportunity presents itself, and it’s simply too attractive to refuse even at the cost of losing a couple of “indispensables.”
SHORT NOTES: Allow us to clarify a certain portion in our March 1 blog where we mentioned that Gerald Wallace’s contract could be stretched out at a lesser hit to the cap if he is “amnestied,” which is kind of mixed up. For the record, the amnesty provision in the 2011 CBA gives teams a one-time privilege of waiving a player so that his entire salary does not count against the salary cap or the luxury tax. The stretch provision, meanwhile, enables a club to release a player while still paying his full salary over twice the length of the remaining contract, plus one season. For example, if a team has an underperforming player with one season remaining at $12 million, the team can waive him and stretch his salary across three seasons at $4 million per season, which is the hit the team’s cap will now take… The Celtics have signed Chris Babb for the rest of the season just like earlier D-League callup Chris Johnson. The agreement is actually for multiple years, but only this season is guaranteed. Still, it will give the 6-5 Babb, along with the 6-6 Johnson, the chance to stay with the Celtics through October’s training camp…
Danny Ainge on the Celtics’ future: “We’d like to be a relevant team next year, but can’t force it.”… WEEI’s Ben Rohrbach thinks Ainge is “more concerned” with determining the value of his assets for a potential trade than where the Celtics will draft in June. He also says Ainge believes ownership and Brad Stevens make Boston a free-agent destination, although DA admits winning is a bigger attraction.