The dreadful west coast trip has lived up to the hype so far, and may only get worse with the Clippers Wednesday night and a back to back at the red hot Warriors and Blazers. Returning home doesn't get much easier as the Rockets will be waiting in Boston followed by a Raptors team that has taken firm control of the Atlantic Division.
So with the Celtics recent struggles expected to continue, what types of things are worth watching for?
1. Who is here to stay? With a handful of expiring contracts and trade rumors swirling, we have no idea who is part of Boston's future. Will Jordan Crawford's breakout season influence Danny Ainge to keep him around… or is this just a boost to his trade value?
Ainge obviously is interested in keeping Avery Bradley in green, but will they be able to come to terms on a new contract? What if it is determined Boston will not be able to obtain Bradley? Will Bradley and/or Crawford be dealt? If so are the pieces brought in just temporary, or new building blocks?
For that matter, Jerryd Bayless is thought of to be a rental for the rest of the season. The move was definitely a great cap clearing move by Ainge, but the Celtics have gone after Bayless in trades before. If he performs well does he become part of the future, or is it just coincidence and he is just here to clear Lees contract like we assumed? There will be plenty more trades like this one to follow, it will be fun to analyze whether they mean something basketball wise or are to clear contracts.
2. Developing young talent: Boston's three rookies: Kelly Olynyk, Vitor Faverani and Phil Pressey have all shown flashes at times. Obviously the highest hopes are for Olynyk, but Ainge has admitted he sees Kelly as a roll player on a great team. That doesn't diminish his value though, we all know how critical James Posey type players can be during a championship run. Can these kids develop into something worthwhile? Now is a great time to give them some minutes and begin to evaluate.
This category is primarily for Jared Sullinger though. Sully has been a beast this season since the day he became a starter, even putting up productive numbers while playing injured. He really cares about winning and playing hard every night. While the rookies will be evaluated more in blowout type games, closer games is the time to watch Sullinger.
Sully is the best player on Boston's Rajon Rondo-less roster, and is only in his second season after missing half his rookie year. The best part is that there is plenty of room for Sully to grow as the season progresses. He projects to be a fantastic piece to keep on this team alongside Rondo, 2014 draft picks and potential free agent signings in the next couple of summers. However, don't discount Sullinger as an Al Jefferson type piece as well. If an opportunity to win now with veterans presents itself, a not quite as one sided and amazingly perfect Jefferson-KG swap could occur with Sullinger.
3. Rajon Rondo: As I have said all season, until I see Rondo in a Celtics uniform, I do not believe he will play this season with Boston. That doesn't mean he will not play basketball in 2013-14, there are a couple of other options. Obviously Rondo could be dealt as part of the rebuild and play for another team.
Ainge has been adamant that Rondo is here to stay though. So maybe Rondo just proves his health while getting his legs under him in the D-League. But if Rondo does return to Brad Stevens' club, it obviously provides reason to watch.
4. Brad Stevens: Coach Stevens has been tremendous so far this season. On a team where we are unsure of the players of the future, the coach of the future is carved in stone. He is learning a lot in his first season on the NBA sidelines, and continuing to watch him grow should be a priority for Celtics fans.
5. Danny Ainge: Why the hell should we watch for Danny Ainge? Because these are the seasons where Ainge really earns his money. What types of trades can he make to: a) cut back salary for future seasons, b) potentially remove big contributors this season from the roster, and most importantly c) add young talent/draft picks.
Are the Celtics going to win the championship this season? No.
But how Ainge handles this season (and offseason) will be what determines if the Celtics return to being contenders next season… the year after… or 10 years from now. Lets see what he can do.