From the very start, we knew this NBA season would be a crazy one in Boston. Given the silly schedule and the uneasy state of the Celtics, we were prepared for anything, expecting the unexpected. We knew that moving forward, nothing about this team was set in stone.
Blah Blah Blah. It's the same stuff we'd talked about forever. But this time it was real. It had to be. So, we made peace with the fact that, after four years of consistently contending for a title, the fifth year of the Big 3 era (vol. 2) would be just as much about the future as it was the present. That things were changing, and no one was safe.
But not in our wildest dreams did anyone see this coming. That with fewer than 15 games left, the biggest, most emotional drama surrounding the Celtics wouldn't be KG's legs, Rondo's attitude or every bone and muscle in Jermaine O'Neal's body. But instead, this
Who should start at shooting guard: Ray Allen or Avery Bradley?
At first glance, it's still such a ridiculous question. You know, because one guy is Ray Allen and the other is Avery Bradley. But for me, it's an easy one to answer.
I'm on board with Avery. No matter when Allen returns from injury, and regardless of how great he feels, I think Bradley should stay in the starting line-up.
First, let me just say that this has very little to do with this season.
Which guy makes the Celtics better in 2012?
Take your pick.
On one hand, Bradley's obviously playing well enough to start. I could spend a second column arguing what makes him such a good fit (what he does defensively, in transition and for the overall flow of the offense), but for now, all we need to know is that the Celtics are more successful when Bradley's in the line-up. They're 11-4 with him as a starter. They're 19-4 when he plays at least 15 minutes. And while this sample is too small for us to draw any major conclusions, from what we've seen, Bradley's ready to roll.
Then, on top of Bradley's emergence, we have Ray's recent decline.
In many ways, it's really hard to forget how great he was at the beginning of this season. Looking back on it now, Allen's hot start probably had a lot to do with the fact that more than half the league came in out of shape, while Ray never skipped a beat. Why? Because he's Ray Allen. He only knows one way to live. There are very few certainties in life, but one is that Allen will never be out of shape. Ever. So when the lockout abruptly ended, he gained back a few years. He also happened to catch one of the greatest shooting streaks of his career, and was night innight out the Celtics most consistent and effective player.
But here are some updated numbers on Ray.
Field goal percentage by month: .581 --> .483 --> .442 --> .427
Three point percentage by month: .583 --> .549 --> .406 --> .397
As the season's gone on, he's gotten worse. And while he's certainly still capable of exploding for a big game much more so than Bradley a big game for Ray Allen doesn't necessarily translate into Celtics success. For instance, he's scored 20 or more points 11 times this season. In those games, the Celtics are 4-7.
But on the other hand, if I didn't need to tell you why Bradley is such a good fit with the starters, I obviously don't have to waste time with Allen. Even if the rest of league has finally caught up to his conditioning, and he isn't quite as consistent as he used to be, we all know what Allen is capable of. We understand the bond and chemistry he has with this starting unit, and that when push comes to shove, when the game's on the line, you're still more than comfortable to see the ball in Ray Allen's hands. And so are all his teammates.
Which guy makes the Celtics better in 2012?
Again, take your pick.
But then ask yourself this:
Does it really matter?
At the end of the season, will the identity of the Celtics shooting guard be the difference between them winning or losing the NBA title?
Regardless of who starts at the two, will anyone be able to make the argument: "If only Ray was still starting, the Celtics would have won!" or "Oh man, once they put Bradley back on the bench, they had NO shot!"
Nope. No way. At this point, this season is what it is. It's a lot more fun and inspiring than we ever imagined, but the bottom line hasn't changed.
This isn't a championship team.
No decision is going to make or break their year.
So for me, the AllenBradley conversation comes to down what this season was supposed to be about in the beginning: The future.
Figuring out the next step.
And on that level, there's absolutely no question as to which is the right decision.
Listen, there are many people out there, myself being one of them, who believe that Danny Ainge whiffed at a chance to trade Ray at the deadline. That, as sorry as we all would have been to see him go, the move was to trade Allen for whatever you could have gotten whether it be a draft pick or a younger body and stockpile for the future. You know how Danny does it, its all about collecting chips. And this was a chance for him to grab one. A chance to head into this offseason with a whole bunch of cap room and possibly three first round picks! But he balked at the chance, and opted for one last futile run with his Big 3. He sacrificed a little piece of future to keep peace in the present. And other than for nostalgia which definitely counts for something it didn't make sense.
Even more now that Bradley's clearly capable of stepping in and only getting better.
And looking ahead, I think that's one of the biggest questions facing this franchise:
How good is Avery Bradley?
Now that his game has clicked, and it's clear he's not the next Gerald Green, where does it end? Is there something to this RondoBradley backcourt? Is this the runningmate Rondo's been waiting for? The first major piece of his Celtics puzzle?
Because right now, I love it. Rondo and Bradley give Boston and edge and mentality that they've missed for years. Of course, it's still a little hectic. It's definitely a work in progress. But you can't help but feel that there's something else there.
The more I look at Bradley, his athleticism, toughness, dominating defense and willingness to move with out the ball (combined with his shy, understated personality), the more I think he might the perfect sidekick for Rondo. That he's exactly what Rondo needs. That the future might be now.
But of course, it's still early. They've only started five games together! But they've been out there enough to make us want to see more.
We'll need to see more.
So, when Ray Allen is healthy, Doc will have two choices:
1) Play out the rest of the season with Allen in the starting line-up, and do your best to work Bradley into the mix. (For the record, if Doc attempts to do this, he will fail. No offense to him, but that's not one of his strengths.)
In this scenario, the Celtics will be eliminated, and questions surrounding the two-guard position will linger into the summer and add more confusion to an already confusing offseason:
Is Avery good enough to start next year? Will him and Rondo work? Is this the back court of the future?
And here's Doc's second option.
2) Answer those questions now.
Instead of slow playing the process, and leaving yourself in even more summer limbo, you roll the dice and see what you have with Bradley and Rondo. If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. But you're in no worse position than you were before. Even in the worst-case scenario, you find out the Bradley's not ready, and can act accordingly.
On the other hand, if the future really is now, these next two months could be invaluable to the growth of the RondoBradley and the future of this franchise.
To spend the summer, planning and building around, a young, athletic and playoff-tested back court? To feel like this franchise finally has some some direction? To know: "OK, these two guys are going to be here, and this is something special!"
That would be something special. And would be a huge step towards proving that, once and for all, the Celtics are committed to putting the future first.
Danny wasn't quite ready at the trade deadline, but here's hoping Doc will be now.