COMMENTARY | Seems like just yesterday, a faceless, Rondo-less Boston Celtics squad slogged through the preseason under new coach Brad Stevens in search of an identity, a rotation, possibly a ticket out of town.
Projections were not friendly. Kelly Dwyer's palatable exercise called for a measly 16 wins. With a 108-100 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night, the Celtics moved to 8-12 at the season's quarter pole, a surprise to those who assumed the Celtics would tank for a more favorable position in the draft lottery. Rondo's return looms. And in the absence of the injured point guard and two future Hall of Famers shipped off to the Brooklyn circus, role players have come out of the woodwork as the building blocks of Boston's future.
Heading into the season, many wondered if Jeff Green was ready to assume the mantle of primary scoring option. If Green's previous five pro seasons hadn't been an indication, this 20-game sample has demonstrated he's not entirely comfortable in that role. And that might be OK for the Celtics. Boston is 4-1 when Green scores between 16-18 points, complementing big nights from teammates like Brandon Bass or Jordan Crawford. Uncle Jeff doesn't need the keys to the car to be effective.
Crawford has exhibited a jarring amount of discipline as fill-in floor general and enthusiastic bucket filler, dishing and shooting the ball at career high rates. But Crawford only has the keys until Rondo comes back. Bass has been the best version of himself as he appears energized on both ends of the floor. But a team looking for a skilled big man may certainly be willing to absorb his reasonable contract at the trade deadline, sending assets Boston's way as it builds for the future.
The fascinating aspect of the 2013-14 Celtics is what Tommy Heinsohn refers to as "building the spirit" of the team. That spirit may best be exemplified in Sullinger and Avery Bradley, two players Boston drafted for their high ceilings with late first-round picks in recent years. Let's be real: These Celtics aren't going to win the wasteland of the Atlantic Division. They'll probably finish well below .500. But they will compete, and the growth of Bradley and Sullinger is something to watch as they develop into key cogs in the next Celtics playoff machine.
Bradley has a lot at stake this year as Danny Ainge takes a "wait and see" approach with the fourth-year shooting guard and his contract. At season's end, Bradley will be a restricted free agent whom other teams can pilfer if Ainge doesn't choose to match their offer. Just 19 months ago, Bradley excelled as a lock-down defender and spot-up assassin as the Green gasped their last exciting playoff run into the conference finals against Miami. And he did it despite needing surgery on both shoulders.
The injuries healed, but Bradley hasn't been the same player. The defense is still valuable, but last year he was tasked with point-guard duties in Rondo's absence. This limited Bradley's effectiveness; the previous year he did his damage off backdoor cuts and corner threes and suddenly he had to facilitate the offense to calamitous results.
This year, he's playing off the ball more but hasn't benefited from the distraction of KG and Pierce. Defenders can key in on Bradley and while he has responded with a career-high scoring average, he needs to find night-to-night consistency and a reliable outside shot. Worst-case scenario, he looks capable of filling the Tony Allen role on a contending team.
Sullinger has arguably been the brightest spot on the Celtics' roster. Fans knew he possessed the talent from his Ohio State days and he displayed a real nose for the ball coming off the bench to relieve KG in his rookie season. He continues to improve on the offensive end this season, using his big body to find new ways to score and even demonstrating the ability to be a stretch 4 who can pull up from downtown. Even on a rare bad shooting night against Milwaukee, he provided essential spacing and hit the big shot to put away the game.
His aggression on the glass has led to several big rebounding nights, and as the excellent Jay King notes, Sullinger is cashing in on his year as KG's understudy, anchoring the defense with effective positioning and banging the opposition out of the lane for defensive boards. He also told the chorus of tanking advocates to "kiss our butts," a statement sure to be popular with fans and in the locker room. Sullinger may well develop into one of the leaders of this team.
The 2006-07 Celtics, bad as they were, featured four young talents who were essential to the 2008 championship mixture. While Bradley and Sullinger may not wind up with their names etched in history like Rondo, Perkins, Powe and the aforementioned Allen, they're making their case to be a part of the next great Celtics team and a fixture in Boston for years to come.
Sean Sylver is a Boston-based writer, radio personality and avid gardener. His work has appeared on Babble's Disney Dads and other pro sports blogs. Follow him on Twitter @sylverfox25.
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