The state of the Celtics remains frustratingly uncertain. Asked for a midterm evaluation, director of basketball operations Danny Ainge said he was "hopeful" about many aspects of the squad he has restructured in eight months.
Given the team's 21-23 record, there has been considerably less talk about a grand, three-year plan for restoring the franchise to its former glory. Despite the fact that only five teams in the East have records better than .500, there are more pressing concerns for a team without any guarantees of making the playoffs. Consistency. Toughness. Rebounding. Struggles at home. Defensive slippage. Chemistry.
Since the Celtics appear an inscrutable team with unpredictable swings in effort and performance, this season has tested the mettle and tried the patience of coach Jim O'Brien. Game to game, quarter to quarter, it's often uncertain how the Celtics will play. Besides one five-game winning streak and two four-game losing streaks, Boston has been an up-and-down, one-step forward, two-steps back kind of team.
"I thought the team was playing great until the games [against San Antonio, Orlando, Houston, Milwaukee]," said Ainge. "In the last two years, this Celtics team has gone wins, losses, wins, losses, very inconsistent, great stretches, bad stretches, great stretches, bad stretches. I don't anticipate anything different now with this team. I like a lot of things about our team. But our team is a team that has to play exceptionally well in order to be a playoff team."
And the Celtics have played "exceptionally well" at times. Strong performances against Dallas, Denver, Houston, Indiana, Memphis, Sacramento, and Seattle have teased fans. Those games showed the Celtics can win down the stretch with their defense, can rely on other players besides Paul Pierce for game-winning shots, and can easily score more than 100 points when the offense clicks.
But for every hopeful performance, there are other examples of their poor play. Look no further than the team's recent four-game losing streak, which was marked by such a decline in defensive discipline that O'Brien used a rotation of only his strongest defenders against Miami Tuesday night. O'Brien also declared he would practice until his players "got it right" on defense, though he gave the Celtics yesterday off.
With 10 new players this season, O'Brien is struggling to push the right buttons, say the right things, find the best source of motivation. For now, the Celtics are focused on building momentum before the All-Star break.
"With the position we're in, we can't afford to keep getting down and staying under .500," said Pierce. "We've got our goals. We want to make a run before the All-Star break and this is just a start. With 10 games left, we're trying to set goals. We'll see if we can get the next 7 out of 10, 6 out of 10 and be .500 better after All-Star break. Then, we'll be all right."
But there are also questions about leadership. For the first time in his career, Pierce serves as the Celtics' sole captain. He also leads the teams in all major offensive categories. While Ainge said Pierce should not feel as if he must carry the team, often times he does exactly that. Boston could benefit from a vocal, veteran leader. Someone such as Eric Williams, who before being dealt to Cleveland commanded the respect of his teammates while making sure no one shirked their responsibilities on either end. When asked if the Cleveland deal was working out as he expected, Ainge said, "Ricky Davis has been a very positive sign for us. I love the way Ricky plays. He brings us more energy than anybody on our team, night in and night out. Sometimes I think he should be more selfish. He's very unselfish. The biggest thing is Ricky has to get better at being more disciplined defensively."Regardless of the Celtics' record, Ainge remains unwavering in his vision. He will continue to work the phones in pursuit of deals. He just wishes people would stop asking about the state of the Celtics and what's next in the rebuilding process. "Until I feel like we are fighting for a championship with our personnel and the chemistry and the talent level and the maturity level is there, will I ever stop?" said Ainge. "I don't even think [Sacramento president of basketball operations] Jeff Petrie has stopped and they've got the best team in the league right now."