/ |

Celtics seeking missing piece to become legitimate title contenders

by

The Boston Celtics are having a wonderful season, third in the Eastern Conference with only about a month remaining in the regular season, one of the true surprise teams in the NBA along with perhaps the Charlotte Hornets and Portland Trail Blazers.

They’ve done it with an unheralded group of what’s mostly considered role players, accepting shared responsibility, working hard and guided by a bright, young coach.

All the Celtics need now is for Kevin McHale to get a general manager’s job, preferably with the Atlanta Hawks or Oklahoma City Thunder.

You may remember the secret to the Celtics’ most recent run, their 2008 championship and a loss in the 2010 Finals, a wonderful five-year festival of success. It was when former teammate McHale traded star and leader Kevin Garnett to Boston and GM Danny Ainge for a packet of young players and draft picks. It never got McHale’s Timberwolves much of anywhere. Except a firing for McHale and off to coach Houston. But with the earlier trade for Ray Allen, when Boston’s season-long draft plans blew up with bad lottery luck, the Celtics had a new Big Three and championship relevancy.

That’s where they are now, poised on the brink of becoming an Eastern Conference threat to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. But they are little threat with the team they have, and as good as they have been and as entertaining and difficult to play as they have become, they basically don’t have a single player whom they are committed to beyond this season.

Sure, several are under contract, and many, particularly guard Isaiah Thomas, have done exceptionally well, Thomas as a 173-cm point guard even becoming the most unlikely of All-Stars this season as a last pick in the 2011 draft.

But this Celtics roster is all about figuring out where to find the next Garnett, an anchor, a true star and leader.

The Celtics are reasonably well positioned to do so with the clever moves Ainge has made. Realizing his title window had closed with Paul Pierce and Garnett, Ainge traded them. So Boston this season in addition to its own draft pick has the Nets’, which is unprotected and could be top five, and likely Dallas’ unless it is top eight, which seems unlikely.

In 2007, Ainge was in a similar situation, if not with as successful a team. The Celtics had the league’s second-worst record in a season filled with fans’ dreams about drafting Greg Oden — their choice no matter what you may hear otherwise — or Kevin Durant as a consolation prize.

But in the lottery, Portland jumped up from No. 7, Seattle from No. 5 and Atlanta from No. 4. The Celtics fell as far as they could to No. 5 and no hope of landing an impact player.

So Ainge cashed in the pick for Ray Allen, a nice addition, though one who would seemingly not make Boston much better than when they had Pierce and Antoine Walker. But then came the shocker at the end of July, the Garnett heist for a bundle of players and picks. Suddenly, it was three stars with a fulcrum and the Celtics were off.

Can Ainge do it again?

He’s reportedly chased every big star with rumors of offers for Dwight Howard, Al Horford, Durant and Jimmy Butler, among others. Nothing happened, obviously. The Celtics will be well under the salary cap with a roster of mostly drafted players and inexpensive free agents. It’s one edge the Celtics have had in competing this season. They’re like a tryout camp with everyone working every day to make the team. And get a contract.

So they can pursue big timers like Durant and Horford in free agency. There even has been speculation that if they could lock up Horford, Durant would follow to play with the big man.

Who knows?

So for now, they hustle.

They’ve got a good mix with excellent perimeter defenders in Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart and they pressure relentlessly. Teams don’t like that. Their guards, led by Thomas, attack the basket on offense and they leave it up to the elusive Thomas late. They are tough and accept their roles, which perhaps is easier with so many just trying to make the team’s future.

Then there’s coach Brad Stevens, an aberration from a small college, Butler University in Indianapolis. Ainge smartly gave him a six-year contract to take the pressure off coming in with a losing team. Stevens is clever, willing to experiment and adjust and unlike many college-to-pro coaches who have failed, willing to coach young players and learn. Unlike so many coming to the NBA who want to coach only veterans.

A veteran NBA coach who has watched Stevens closely gives this scouting report:

“He has succeeded because he is bright, not full of himself, a super student of the game. He has copied the best plays over the years, uses them wisely, and now has everyone else stealing from him. He stays out of his own way as a coach, stays out of the way of his players, is honest with his team and players in a matter of fact way that does not ruffle feathers, and still teaches the game like the college coaches used to do, an emphasis on simple fundamentals and execution. And he finally has a homogeneous roster with few problem guys.”

All that is terrific, and Boston fans are excited.

It won’t get them an 18th title.

That could be up to the next team that hires McHale.

Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”