By Bert Ramirez
Now that the Boston Celtics have been officially eliminated from the playoffs and would just be going through the motions of completing their schedule, which actually means coach Brad Stevens could either do some experimentation or continue developing his young players to prepare them for bigger responsibilities in the future, we can now look at the current team and begin in earnest an inventory of its assets and liabilities.
What does the current roster have? Where is it strongest and what are the holes that need to be filled? What is its greatest weakness and therefore its greatest need?
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that these Celtics, as currently constituted, have these two biggest needs: a primary offensive option, a player who can consistently carry the scoring load night in and night out, and a defensive stopper inside, a player who can protect the rim and intimidate opposing big men as well as incursions inside the shaded lane.
Even Stevens, after an especially frustrating string of losses late in the season, expressed that crying need of the Celtics for a rim protector.
“I think, certainly, in an ideal situation, what you’re looking for are certain qualities as a team. A rim protector, whether it’s a seven-footer or not, is extremely important in this league,” Stevens said. “A guy that really protects the rim from the dotted line in.”
But before one can even think of that, a good argument can be made that a team, in order to contend, first needs that consistent offensive option, a go-to guy that always represents an offensive threat and is capable of generating much-needed points when all other options may have failed or are not available. In short, an alpha dog in the mold of a Kevin Durant or maybe LeBron James or Kobe Bryant when he’s alright. Heck, how many of them are there right now?
When Paul Pierce was around, that issue was more or less pretty much in the backburner, at least until the previous year or two when No. 34 started getting more earth-bound or losing half a step, which wasn’t much by his standards anyway. But with Pierce’s trade along with Kevin Garnett’s last summer, the Celtics lost that go-to guy they almost matter-of-factly took for granted over a good part of more than a decade. The Celtics were quietly hoping that Jeff Green could be Pierce’s successor, but after a full season’s audition for that role, one can pretty much decide that Green can’t be that first option, or even the second one on certain occasions. He’s simply too inconsistent and lacks a certain DNA (did I hear an assassin’s DNA?) that Celtics president Danny Ainge must have given up on him being able to fill that role.
And so the search is on for that alpha dog, and one option that keeps coming up is 2015 free-agent-to-be Kevin Love of Minnesota. Love, a relatively unobtrusive but highly-efficient go-to man on the Timberwolves who hasn’t even gotten a whiff of the playoffs, has reportedly been disillusioned with the only team he has known since he entered the league as the fifth overall pick in 2008, being expected to opt out when the third year in his four-year contract is completed after next season.
The frustration seems to stem from a lack of support both from the floor and the front office. The Timberwolves, despite the presence of Love, a 6-foot-10, 243-pound power forward, and such talents as 6-11 center Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin, Ricky Rubio, Corey Brewer and J.J. Barea, have not quite taken off under coach Rick Adelman, nursing a 37-37 record that, in the strong Western Conference, would mean a 10th straight playoff-less season for the ballclub, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Fact is, the Wolves’ current record would represent the best that they’ve had with Love on the team.
Compounding this seeming lack of major progress is the front office’s seeming displeasure at Love’s failure to carry the team into the postseason. Sounds familiar? Wolves owner Glen Taylor once felt the same way with Garnett, and KG got so miffed that he finally relented to a trade to the Celtics in 2007. This time, the blame game is even more apparent, and this could very well also lead to Love’s own departure.
“I don’t know who labels people stars, but even (T’wolves owner) Glen Taylor said: ‘I don’t think Kevin Love is a star, because he hasn’t led us to the playoffs’… I mean, it’s not like I had much support out there,” Love relates in frustration.
Love has thus made no secret of his own desire to join a contender to have a chance of winning a championship, and if history is a good gauge, this could lead to a déjà vu for Boston. While Love, who averages 26.0 points (on .462, .382 and .820 shooting clips), 12.6 rebounds and a career-high 4.4 assists, initially indicated his preference would be Los Angeles or Chicago, Boston also qualifies as a big market where Love can be “big time in a big city.”
LA would have, of course, looked like a natural and thus could have had the inside track for Love. He is, after all, a native Californian, and he went to school at UCLA. But if Love would look more closely at the Lakers’ current situation, he would realize that it is not much better than what he’d be leaving in Minneapolis. The Lakers are currently in a transition stage, floundering this year and hoping to land a game-changing player in the draft. This is pretty much what they can hope for as they won’t have much cap space when Love becomes available about a year from now, being weighed down by a $48.5 million contract extension they gave Kobe Bryant, their aging star and team leader who was out for most of the season because of a broken bone in his left knee following an Achilles tendon tear the previous season.
“Bryant’s contract erases any possibility of landing one of the top available players in 2015,” Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times wrote.
“(They would have) hardly enough for Kevin Love,” salary expert Larry Coon said. “Not even enough for Courtney Love.”
Coupled with the power struggle between Jeanie and Jim Buss and an unsettled situation at the Lakers’ front office, Love would have major red flags confronting him if he’s deciding on whether to go to Hollywood.
The Bulls, while presenting a better alternative, would also have major obstacles particularly at power forward, where Love may have no room unless the Bulls are able to unload either Carlos Boozer or Taj Gibson, their tag team at that spot that has carried them into the playoffs despite the absence through most of the season of Derrick Rose because of another knee injury, this time in the right, and the trade of Luol Deng in January to Cleveland. Would the Bulls have to remodel their lineup one more time to accommodate Love? In that case, Love may also be going into another unsettled situation just to be able to escape his current predicament.
On the other hand, Boston would present a much more stable state of affairs, a team with a great winning tradition, excellent ownership and front office, a stable of good young players and an All-Star point guard, Rajon Rondo, who could provide the 25-year-old Love a good partner for many years. This doesn’t even include a prospective great young player or two that the Celtics can obtain from the upcoming draft. Love just has to look at his predecessor with the T’wolves, Garnett, whose six years in Boston gave him his one and only championship and who continues to feel the love of the city despite his now being in New York.
Of course, one other need has to be taken care of, and the Celtics might just be able to address that in the June draft, that is, if they land one of the top three picks in the lottery that will be held on May 20. This is because it is widely believed that the player that could turn out to be the rim protector they’re looking for – Joel Embiid – will opt out of Kansas and declare for the draft. Embiid, a seven-foot, 250-pound center, has been into the game for just four years but has shown uncanny talent for hoops after playing volleyball and some soccer in his younger years in Cameroon.
A look at the 20-year-old freshman’s defensive game would readily make one salivate. He blocks shots like a young Bill Russell did, deflecting them not towards the stands like most grandstanding big men do, but towards a teammate or inside where it can be kept in play. His only weakness on this side of the ball is his propensity to foul, something that can be remedied with more experience and with better coaching.
A red flag on Embiid is a stress fracture of the lower back that forced him to miss the last six games of the Jayhawks, but most basketball people are optimistic this can be overcome with Embiid still in his early stage of physical development.
One other option is Houston center Omer Asik, whom the Celtics tried to acquire in a trade last December, but unless the Rockets finally decide to unload their erstwhile starting big man, Embiid would appear to be the better alternative.
Stevens definitely has acquiring a defensive big man as a major area that needs addressing. “I’d be really curious to know, or to see from a defensive standpoint systematically, plugging one guy in there, what that might do to our numbers being where we are in a lot of different areas,” said Stevens as he wondered if the Celtics’ performance this season might have been different if they had that rim protector. It could have been different, indeed, although they wouldn’t have had a shot in that case at somebody like Embiid, or any one of the top picks in this year’s bunch of blue-chippers.
But given the fact that they now have, the Celtics are in the throes of what could be a defining offseason for them much like 2007, when they put together a Big Three of Pierce, Garnett and Ray Allen to end a 22-year title drought at the end of the campaign. From where we stand, replicating this may not be that far-fetched, assuming that a few friendly bounces of ping pong balls takes place, and somebody like Love decides there is no better place to go for him than Boston.