Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Rondo Injury Forces Decisions on Future

By Bob Ekstrom

Rajon Rondo's season-ending ACL tear last Friday in Atlanta has the Boston Celtics' front office on the proverbial horns of a dilemma. Does GM Danny Ainge consider this the death knell for a season that already had one foot in the grave and allow his team to "fall to the cellar for Cody Zeller" as many cynical fans advocate, or does he put some trust in the backcourt depth he acquired last offseason as insurance against such a catastrophic loss?

Ainge's chances to bring Boston an 18th title have been waning since the C's lost Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, but he's managed to maintain part of the nucleus that got him to the championship round twice in a three-year stretch and extended Miami to seven games in last year's Eastern Conference finals, and he's going to extract every last drop of hope before his window for another ring shuts. Any coach would, but Ainge is still feeling the wrath of trading Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder in 2011, a move whose cost was a legitimate title run in the minds of many fans. Despite word to the contrary, he's got cold feet.

To blow up or not to blow up was the stuff of great radio talk show debates even before Rondo's injury. Only 43 games into a significant reinvestment in Kevin Garnett and a swap-out of Ray Allen for spare backcourt parts that included Courtney Lee, Jason Terry, and Leandro Barbosa, it was becoming clear this year's new-look C's with their same-old upfront inadequacies lacked more than just the youth and length to win consistently in today's NBA. They lacked the intestinal fortitude.

Ainge's lively experiment that once-upon-a-time brought a title to Boston has been trying to outdistance the advance of age and drain of talent by stoking an ever-burning fire inside, but there are no longer any logs to throw upon the smoldering ambers of past glory. This is now a team that gets routinely called out by its own coach. The tactic earned Doc Rivers a win the first time he tried it back in November, but it backfired this month after a loss to the Pistons in the midst of a six-game losing streak that no amount of public humiliation could stop, painting Rivers into a now-what-do-you-do? corner. "We've got to make changes," he said after the Detroit loss.

But in basketball as in all aspects of life, Boston is not so quick to surrender its past. In a city with 200-year old ships docked in the harbor and cemeteries that top its list of scenic attractions, where football fans sat on aluminum benches as recently as this Millennium and baseball ownership bolts new bleachers onto the 100-year-old fa├žade of Fenway Park rather than finding a new place to play, the C's fit right in. Theirs is a fan base that once drove Rick Pitino to remind them how "Larry Bird is not walking through that door anymore."

Blowing up the past does not come easy in these parts.

Nevertheless, a large contingent still remembers the original Big Three of Larry Bird, Robert Parrish, and Kevin McHale succumbing under the weight of Father Time's considerable fist, and their memories now cast the TD Garden into uneasy quiet every time opponents blow by KG in the fourth quarter or Paul Pierce short-rims another of his patented dribble-out-the-final-seconds step-back jumper at the buzzer. They fear the costs of hanging on to a good thing too long and have been lining up behind Rivers in recent weeks. The Celtics indeed have to make changes, even if that involves Pierce or Rondo, both the subject of constant trade rumors until the latter's injury. And with Rondo now out of the picture, extremists have even gone so far as to suggest the C's are better off without him.

Better off without the all-star they once put among the top three or four point guards in the game today?

Sure, they've got numbers. Who doesn't? Rondo has missed 34 games in four years and the C's have won 21 of them. That's a .618 winning percentage compared to only .604 with him. This year, they're three games under .500 when Rondo played. Take away his suspect defense and the C's average margin of victory climbs from 2.9 to 4.4 points per game. That's not a delta that can be explained by quality of opponents; sans Rondo, Boston has beaten both the Knicks and the Heat, the latter of which snapped the six-game losing streak that occurred over the last fortnight of Rondo's watch. So how much worse could they be without him?

Then there are chemistry issues. Like a lot of point guards, it used to be said of Rondo that he made others on the court around him better. Now the thinking is that he's made the likes of Courtney Lee and Jason Terry and Jeff Green worse by cramping their style and keeping their shots down. Rivers has indicated no one successor will assume Rondo's role, that it will be point guard by committee. Although the extra minutes and additional responsibilities will undoubtedly benefit Lee, Terry, and to a lesser extent, Leonardo Barbosa, the real lift to the Celtics will be that Paul Pierce will take back game management, as he did on Sunday in Boston's double-overtime win over the Heat. He responded with a triple-double, only his second in the past six seasons.

Whether Ainge and Celtics fans like it or not, they can't trade their way out of this. The only players that garner any interest are defensive specialist Avery Bradley and big man Jared Sullinger, and they're the future of the Green. Read: untouchable. Ainge will have to be content to play the hand he dealt himself, hang on to the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference for the sake of Celtic Pride, and inflict a little torture on the Heat in the first round.

Ainge's window isn't locked tight just yet, but only a draft of air is seeping through. Maybe that's just enough to give breath to false hopes, but it's not enough to get by Lebron James et al. The 2012-13 Celtics will end in Miami, but that will be of some consolation to a team many thought ended in Atlanta last Friday night.

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