Whether the Celtics can overtake the Miami Heat is still highly debatable, but there will be an entirely new mix in green next season as the Celtics make what was an inevitable transition.
And so, after swapping effectively Ray Allen for Jason Terry and making a pair of first-round selections, the Celtics on Thursday executed the sign-and-trade that brought Courtney Lee from the Houston Rockets in exchange for two quarters, four dimes and two nickels. Rajon Rondo has another energetic playmate to go alongside Avery Bradley, and the Celtics look, well, fresher than they did just two short months ago.
Again, assuming health, your starting five essentially returns intact, with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Brandon Bass in front of Rondo and Bradley. The bench consists of Terry, Chris Wilcox, Lee, Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger, Kris Joseph, and Fab Melo, the last five of whom all will be 27 or younger when the Celtics start the season.
A championship? Probably not. Not as long as the Miami Heat have LeBron James and the Oklahoma City Thunder have Kevin Durant. What we need to look for from the Celtics now is growth and a maximization of their potential, which is hard to admit for a franchise and fan base that has long operated with the simplest of rules.
Championship or bust.If the Celtics want to kick themselves for anything this summer, they should start and end with the Game 6 home loss to the Heat. That was their chance. Losing the series to Miami was an entirely acceptable outcome given the strengths, weaknesses and issues of both teams during the season, but losing Game 6 was not. Presented with the chance to make a third trip to the Finals during the era of the new big three, the Celtics absorbed a 98-79 defeat that was a colossal disappointment.
It's one thing to play well and lose.
It's another thing entirely to pull a no-show on your own court in a potential elimination game.
Here's the good news: with the fate of Derrick Rose very much up in the air and Dwight Howard potentially headed to the Western Conference, the Celtics might be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference again. Beyond Miami, the Indiana Pacers might be the only other club truly worth worrying about. For the last three years, Ainge has been trying to build a roster that would save the tread on the tires of Garnett, Pierce and Allen, but for one reason or another, something has always gone awry.
Marquis Daniels, Shaquille O'Neal and Nate Robinson were supposed to help preserve Boston's core. So were Green, Wilcox, Keyon Dooling and Mickael Pietrus. And yet, by this postseason, Garnett was playing more minutes than he ever had as a Celtic (45 in Game 2 against Miami) and coach Doc Rivers basically had one bench player (Pietrus) in Game 7 against the Heat.
For all of the talk about the Celtics' inability to rebound, the Boston bench went belly up in 2011. The bench went belly up again in 2012. Now Ainge has rebuilt it yet again, assembling a second unit that could include, in theory, Terry, Lee, Sullinger, Green and Wilcox.
At the very least, that's interesting, right?
But here's the rub:
In some ways, assuming health with this group is as dangerous as before - maybe even more so.
Lest we forget, Green and Wilcox are each coming off heart surgery, which isn't exactly a scope job. Bradley has had double shoulder surgery. Sullinger's history of back problems caused him to drop as many as 15 spots in the draft, according to some, and Garnett will be 37 next spring. Pierce will be 35 in the fall and looked more outclassed and overmatched than ever in the Miami series, and one can only hope that he was more injured than anyone knew.
Ultimately, the happiest man in all of this may prove to be Rondo, who looks more and more like the man Ainge is trying to build around. Allen dodged questions about reported friction between him and Rondo when Allen signed with Miami last week, and so maybe, deep down, the Celtics knew they had to choose one or the other. Rondo and Bradley were at times dynamic together in the backcourt, and Terry now provides Rondo with backup support that he has lacked for, well, forever.
In the same breath, Terry and Lee provide Rondo with even more shooters to whom he can distribute the ball. Lee, Green, Melo and Garnett can run the floor and keep up. Stylistically, the Celtics are likely to be noticeably different at times, which certainly could produce a different, even more entertaining style of basketball at the TD Garden next season.
If they stay healthy, the 2012-13 basketball season in Boston could be both interesting and enjoyable.
But as has been the case in Boston in recent years, that is a very, very big if.
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