With last night’s victory over the Pistons, the Celtics accomplished two things.
They distinguished themselves (handily) against a team that was thought to be among the best in the conference heading into the season. So far, the Celtics have proven themselves to be right in the thick of the parity in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture en route to their seventh win in eight games.
Over that timespan, Marcus Smart has shot 46% from beyond the arc (52% if you exclude an 0-5 night against the Bulls as the first win in that streak), and matched a career-best with 26 points in the team’s only loss over that time. Bringing Smart off the bench and pairing him with the enigmatic Evan Turner in his second unit’s backcourt has been Brad Stevens’ best roster decision in the New Year.
Also over that eight game stretch, Isaiah Thomas became the team’s first All-Star since Rajon Rondo was traded. The 5’9″ point guard has been a revelation since being acquired at the 2014 trade deadline from the Suns for Marcus Thornton, Brandan Wright and a 1st round draft pick. In addition, the team has been embroiled in trade rumors as this year’s trade deadline rapidly approaches.
The easiest place to start is with the team’s splashiest addition of the off-season: David Lee. The former All-Star was acquired from the Warriors in a salary dump in what appeared to be a coup for Boston. But Lee has completely fallen out of Stevens’ rotation as the less-heralded Amir Johnson continues to make his presence felt every night at the rim, on the glass, and on defense. Even Tyler Zeller has shown a resurgence over the last week, another sign that Lee is on the outs.
A report indicated that the team intends to buy-out Lee if it cannot swing a deal to move him prior to the trade deadline. But that has been far from the only speculation surrounding the team, as other high profile players have been talked about as possible trade targets for the Celtics, the most recent being polarizing Rockets center Dwight Howard. Other rumors have surrounded Hawks center Al Horford and guard Jeff Teague, as well as Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari, and we already know Danny Ainge likes Demarcus Cousins and Kevin Love.
It is impossible to say whether Ainge can pull the trigger on a deal for any of these names (although I can say it is improbable that he trades for either of the last two), or another piece who makes sense such as veteran scorers Arron Afflalo, Rudy Gay, or even the aging Joe Johnson. On the other hand, with the Celtics only a few games behind the Raptors for second place in the Eastern Conference and with the team’s embarrassment of riches as far as trade assets go, it’s hard to see Boston standing pat at this year’s trade deadline.
What the team really needs is a go-to scorer, veteran leadership, and perhaps an upgrade at center. While Evan Turner doing a stellar job as a human Swiss-army knife in the fourth quarter, it is hard to see him (or Thomas for that matter) carrying the Celtics past the Bulls, Raptors or Hawks to earn the right to lose to the Cavaliers. The team has also seen the wheels come off a few times over the last month when they get rattled in the second half and at the end of games.
A veteran presence would certainly help Brad Stevens settle down his young squad when the referees get a little whistle-happy. Even someone like Jared Dudley who may not be a star, but has playoff experience, would help this team. And at center, while Zeller has certainly started to look the part this week, the fact that for the bulk of the season the team has only been playing with one true center in the injury-prone Amir Johnson is bound to bite them in April.
Regardless of the outcome, fans should be happy to finally have a team that is among the best in its conference once again, and has a core of players in their mid-20’s supported by a cast of exciting youngsters. The future is bright in Boston, something that hasn’t really been true since the end of the last decade.