Celtics still searching for direction

Celtics still searching for direction
June 27, 2014, 2:00 pm

Last night in Brooklyn, the NBA held its 2014 Draft, and by now you know the basics of how it played out —

With the No. 1 overall pick, Cleveland rolled the dice on Andrew Wiggins’ gigantic upside and beautiful white flower-stenciled jacket. At No. 2, Milwaukee was more than happy to grab Jabari Parker, and believe it or not, Parker was more than happy to land in Milwaukee. At No. 3, stress fractures be damned, Philadelphia took Joel Embiid, and a few minutes later, once the Percocet wore off, Embiid was ecstatic. Aaron Gordon went to Orlando at No. 4. Dante Exum’s “Welcome to America” moment came at No. 5, in the form of a one-way ticket to Utah . . .

And at No. 6, the Boston Celtics took Marcus Smart — a 6-3, tough-as-nails point guard; a great leader and skilled passer, who has an inconsistent jump shot but makes up for it with grit, creativity and a relentless competitive edge.

Eleven picks later, Boston selected Kentucky freshman James Young. At 18, the second-youngest player in the draft. A pure, explosive scorer WHO DID THIS IN THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME. A raw talent, who will need some time to adjust, but has potential as a legitimate NBA swingman.

— Commercial Break —

Before we talk anymore about the 2014 draft, I want to point out that today, June 27, marks the one-year anniversary of the 2013 Draft. Which is to say that it’s been exactly one year since the Celtics agreed to trade Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Nets, and set the wheels in motion on this rebuild.

One year ago today.

In some ways, it feels like yesterday . . . is something that I’d love to say, but that would be a lie. In no way does it “feel like yesterday” that Pierce and Garnett played in Boston and these Celtics were those Celtics. It feels like a lifetime ago. Everything changed really fast. Although at the same time, it’s like nothing changed at all.

That’s part of the problem.

— And we’re back —

Heading into last night, as has been the case for most of these past 12 months, no one had a clue what the Celtics were up to. Not in the short term. Not in the long term. There were hunches and rumors, but no truths. So, now that the draft is over and free agency is fast approaching, what is true?

What’s real?

What are three pressing, frequently asked questions that I can hypothetically throw out and then answer in blurbish fashion?

FAQ 1: Is there a chance that the Celtics still trade for Kevin Love?

Yes.

Until Love is traded to another team, the answer is always yes. That doesn’t mean it’s incredibly likely, but it’s definitely still in play. The Wolves still have to trade him. There are still only a handful of teams that have anywhere near the assets to answer the call. The Celtics are still in the mix, and the longer Flip Saunders waits the more desperate he’ll become, and you better believe that Danny Ainge will strike if he gets the opportunity.

On that note, here’s an interesting coincidence...

Earlier this week, the Denver Nuggets acquired small forward Arron Afflalo from Orlando in exchange for Evan Fournier and a second-round pick. Reportedly, Denver did this with the intention of flipping Afflalo to Minnesota as part of a package for Love. They obviously have good reason to believe that Minnesota is interested in that kind of player.

After a quick Google search for “James Young NBA comparisons”, I can confirm that the most common result is Arron Afflalo.

I’m not saying that Young is Afflalo, or that he carries anywhere near the same value, I’m just saying it’s an interesting coincidence.

FAQ 2: Can Rajon Rondo and Smart co-exist?

Yes.

My first instinct was no, because as I wrote earlier: “Marcus Smart is a tough-as-nails point guard; a great leader and skilled passer, who has an inconsistent jump shot but makes up for it with grit, creativity and a relentless competitive streak.”

In other words, he’s pretty similar to Rondo. Obviously, they’re not the same player. Smart is much bigger (6-3 vs. 6-1) and stronger, and Rondo’s court vision is on another planet. Still, in a league where spreading the floor is paramount to success, rolling out a backcourt that features two guards who can’t shoot sounds like an iffy strategy.

So when Smart was drafted, I assumed that it meant the end of Rondo in Boston. But after a night’s sleep, I’m not so sure.

Ainge and Brad Stevens were pretty convincing in their stance that these two can get it done in the same backcourt.

“Absolutely. No question,” Ainge said. “[Smart’s] a very versatile player. He can play off the ball. He can handle the ball. With his length and his size, he can probably play against a lot of small forwards -- 6-3, long wingspan, 230 pounds. He’s a very versatile player. Easily those guys can play together, and I think they would really thrive playing together.”

Stevens added: “I don’t think there’s any doubt they can play together. I think it will be great for Marcus to have a guy like Rondo to look up to, to learn from. Not many guys get that opportunity, especially early on in the draft like this. Marcus is another guy that I was thrilled that he was there at 6, because, physically, he’s ready to play, and he competes every single minute of every single day. That will do nothing but help your team, regardless of what position he’s playing. I expect him to play some off the ball. I expect him to play some with the ball. But he’s a young guy. He’s going to be playing with a guy there that’s been in the league for a long time, that can really help him learn about it. I think it’s great. I think it’ll be great for both of them.”

And I know, what are they supposed to say?

“Oh yeah. There’s no way this will work. We have no choice but to trade Rondo. Let me make that clear! But whatever, I’m sure we can we still get fair value after revealing this to the media.”

Regardless of the truth, Ainge and Stevens had to say what they said. But they didn’t have to say it the way they said it. I thought they made made a strong case. I also think it’s fair to assume that these two guys, and everyone inside the Celtics front office, have spent a lot more time and expended far more resources exploring the option of Rondo and Smart playing together than you or I or anyone who’s writing about it today. They’ve been scouting Smart for two years, where as most of us (and just barely) have been at it for a few months. They seem to believe that Smart is a better shooter than people give him credit for, or at the very least, that he has the potential to become a much better shooter. And if that’s the case, a Rondo/Smart backcourt goes from questionable to potentially devastating.

We’re talking about a pair of basketball killers here. They not only play the same position, but they share a similar mindset. Ultra-competitive, sometimes to a fault.

That’s also an incredibly rare mindset, and as a result, players with that mentality can get frustrated when their teammates don’t understand. But conversely, there’s nothing better than playing alongside someone who does.

In that sense, Rondo should be dying to share a backcourt with Marcus Smart. Smart approaches the game in a way that Rondo can relate, too. That he can respect, inspire and be inspired by. Rondo should see the same things in Smart that Garnett saw in him, before taking him under his wing and into his sacred circle of trust.

Rondo and Smart are kindred spirits, in a way. And if Smart finally sees the light on his jumper, or if Rondo continues to make strides with his, or both, this could work. Maybe I’m a hopeless sap, or maybe it’s all the ecstasy I’ve been taking, but right now, I can close my eyes and see the Celtics back on national TV. It’s the fourth quarter, a close game, and they absolutely need a stop. I can see Rondo and Smart, standing next to each other on the perimeter, slapping the floor and sweating their asses off —

And I feel good about that.

FAQ 3: Does this mean that Rondo won’t be traded?

Nope. And ultimately, that’s what makes this all so frustrating. Ainge and Stevens might honestly believe that Rondo and Smart have a future. And I believe it, too. But we all better believe that Rondo’s name will be discussed between now and opening night, and if necessary, right up until next season's trade deadline. Even if Ainge doesn’t make the calls himself, he’ll certainly receive a few. He’ll get to talking. And if there’s a scenario that makes the Celtics better, he’ll accept it. He’ll move on.

Until that happens, or doesn’t happen and Rondo re-signs, no one’s moving on from this Rondo issue. You can’t. His presence changes everything. His absence changes everything. The Rondo issue is everything.

That’s why the 12 months since the Celtics swapped their history for a brighter future feels more like 12 years. Why, even with the addition of these two young talents, the future doesn’t seem any closer than it did it a year ago. Because from the moment Pierce and Garnett were traded, there was one glaring, lingering question that needed to be answered before anything else made sense:

What’s this mean for Rondo?

And we still don’t know. From the start, the Celtics have distinct rebuilding paths in front of them. One direction is with Rondo. One direction is without. And until they choose, there is no direction. Even if they’re making moves, it’s impossible to evaluate whether they’re “moving forward” when we don’t know which direction forward is.

For what it’s worth, I’m not sure the Celtics know, either. Not for lack of effort or preparation, but because they just don’t know. Things will happen. Opportunities will arise.

All we know right now, is that next year Rajon Rondo will become a free agent, and between now and then, something has to happen. He’ll either get traded and the Celtics will move on or he’ll re-sign and they’ll move on together.

Until then, no one’s moving on.

And the rebuild will continue to drag on.

It’s like, imagine you’re lost in some random city. Let’s say your phone is dead, and you’re running late to meet a client for an important lunch. So, you walk into a convenient store, ask for directions and the clerk says: “Oh yeah. I love that place. It’s just four blocks down on the right.”

In that case, you walk out of the store, calm, confident and focused. You know exactly where it is. You walk down the street thinking about your sales pitch, maybe what you’re going to order. The walk flies by.

Now imagine you walk into the store, and the clerk says: “Oh yeah. I think I know that place. It’s somewhere down on the right. Just keep walking and you’ll run into it eventually.”

In this case, you walk out feeling pretty unsure of yourself. Now you’re worried about being late. You’re a little uneasy. You walk down the street focused on every storefront, looking for the sign. After a few blocks, it feels like you’ve been walking forever; you’re sure you must have missed it. Maybe the guy meant HIS right? Maybe he was thinking of another restaurant? Maybe you should find another store and ask for better directions? The same four blocks becomes the longest walk of your life.

My point is that where you’re going feels much farther away when you don’t know how to get there.

And today, on the one-year anniversary of the start of this trip, that’s what the Celtics are still trying to figure out. They’re still staring at the same two paths, waiting for the right time push forward.

And you know what? They should take their time. There’s no reason to rush this. As much as everyone would love to see Ainge slam all his weight on the gas pedal and crank this rebuild up to ludicrous speed, that wouldn’t be smart. This isn’t a situation like the one in Minnesota, where the Wolves have to trade Kevin Love eventually and are hurting their case by holding on. The Celtics don’t have to trade Rondo. There are scenarios still in play that lead to Rondo playing the rest of his career in Boston, and doing so on a perennial playoff team. It’s worth waiting, letting a few more dominoes fall and staying ready to seize a golden opportunity.

But there’s also no guarantee that this golden opportunity will present itself.

Either way, for now, all we can do is wait.

Maybe one more year.

But don’t be surprised if it feels like another lifetime.

Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine