In 2014, by the modern and warped standards we have come to possess in this millennium, the sports year in Boston was terrible disappointment. Excluding the bye, the Patriots won one playoff round, which proved to be the same number the Bruins did. Of course, that was one more round than either the Celtics or Red Sox, who finished a combined 52 games under .500 and in fourth and fifth places, respectively.
Thank heavens for those shameless Philadelphia 76ers, eh?
Where the locals are now headed depends on the team, naturally, so here is a look at the state of the Bruins, Celtics, Patriots and Red Sox entering 2015 as we close the book on a championship-free 2014 in New England.
Current standing: Fifth in Atlantic Division, out of the playoffs.
Metaphorical injury status: Doubtful.
All together now: what the hell happened? Nine months ago, the Bruins finished with the best record in the NHL and seem in the midst of their most glorious years since the big, bad era of the early 1970s. Now they are plodding along in mediocrity, haunted by some bad contracts and the trading of Tyler Seguin, the second-highest draft pick the team has had in basically the last 30 years.
The other high pick the B’s had during that time? Joe Thornton. And they traded him away for a collection of inferior pieces, too.
The Bruins have two obvious, bigger-picture issues: the first is the state of their roster, which has deteriorated on the ice in the departure of people like Jarome Iginla and Johnny Boychuk, off the ice in the departures of folks like Shawn Thornton and Andrew Ference. They don’t have the same talent and they don’t have the same grit. Whether general manager Peter Chiarelli can address that remains to be seen as the season approaches, incredibly, its midway point.
The second issue? Even amid the personnel losses, this team should be playing better than it is. Were Claude Julien in the final year of a contract, we might all be rumbling about a coaching change. But given that the Bruins just extended him – good timing, eh? – everything suggests the Bruins are seeking an aggressive trade (or two?) leading up to the annual trading deadline.
If no deals can be made, the summer promises changes.
Current standing: Ninth in Eastern Conference, out of the playoffs.
Metaphorical injury status: Out.
Hilarious, right? The Celtics are basically as close to the playoffs as the Bruins are. (Think about that for a minute.) And yet, when it comes to the pursuit of a championship, the Celtics are so much farther away than every other team in town that it is not even worth discussing, partly because of the nature of basketball, partly because of the state of their roster.
And before anyone suggests otherwise, please. Stop. The Celtics weren’t good with Rajon Rondo, either. (The Dallas Mavericks have lost 2-of-3 since Rondo joined.) The C’s have some interesting young players who can serve a role on a team – Marcus Smart, Jared Sullinger, maybe even Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk – but the departure of Rondo leaves them especially undermanned in the short term, though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Here’s the good news: all of those draft picks over the next three or four years, wherever they are. Danny Ainge isn’t always right, but he’s not dumb. In the NBA, the only way to get high lottery picks is to have the chance at them, so Ainge is simply stockpiling picks as if they were raffle tickets: the more you have, the better the chances. Maybe you’ll win something good. Maybe you won’t. But barring any other options, what are the choices?
Looking back, of course, the Kevin Garnett era was worth it. What everyone forgets is that it took Ainge about five years to acquire the resources to make the deals for Garnett and Ray Allen. Once Kevin Love fell through, the Celtics were destined for a longer rebuild. Now they are indisputably here, so dig in. It’s going to be a long couple of years at least.
Current standing: Top seed in the upcoming AFC playoffs, first-round bye, home field throughout.
Metaphorical injury status: Healthy.
Death, taxes and Belichick, right? Well, yes and no. Certainly, the Patriots have had a run of success like no other team in town this millennium. And yet, this year feels a little different, thanks to a defense that now feels far more in line with the offense, maybe even better. Despite a stretch of games against the very best offenses in football, the Patriots currently rank eighth in the league in scoring defense. Just as important, they rank ninth in defensive passer rating, which speaks volumes,
They can cover now, folks. They can get off the field on third down. They can play physically. Head coach Bill Belichick isn’t forced to cover up weaknesses in talent because the Pats have a legitimate, threatening defense.
In the short term, New England looks like the clear favorite in the AFC. In the longer term, Tom Brady and Darrelle Revis possess interesting contract situations and the offensive line looks thin. As good as Belichick is, we all know now that Super Bowls are not a birthright. They require luck, hard work and, yes, talent. The Patriots of 2014 certainly seem to have all the characteristics, which should make January and, perhaps, February, unlike any other.
Beyond that, specifically with regard to Brady and Revis, things could get interesting. And fast.
Team: Red Sox
Current standing: Finished last in AL East.
Metaphorical injury status: Probable.
Here’s the problem: thanks to the anomaly that was 2013, too many people think worst-to-first is an easy trick. It isn’t. The very best teams in baseball have a relatively young core that allows them to augment with free agency and develop young talent. The Red Sox’ core is now on the older side, from David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli to Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval and Koji Uehara.
The older guys are a little too old. And the younger guys are still a little too young.
In the short term, thanks to a payroll approaching $200 million as well as a soft division and league, the Sox can contend for – and maybe even win - a playoff spot depending on how their pitching (questionable) holds up. Longer term, the success of the franchise still depends on the development of people like Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Henry Owens and Blake Swihart because the Red Sox have yet to truly define their next superstars.
Seriously: how many Red Sox players would you say are smack dab in the middle of the primes of their careers? Answer: Not many. Maybe none. For the longer time, baseball people talked of players being in their primes between the ages of 28-32. The closer estimate is something like 26-29. Length of contracts aside, there are no real anchors on this team, which is to say players who are both young and proven.
In 2015, as much as the Red Sox would like to contend, the bigger goal for the Red Sox should be to cement Bogaerts and Betts in the big leagues. If that happens, the longer term will look considerably brighter.