There are many ways to be a good basketball team, and probably more ways to be a bad one. There is the bloated badness of too many of the wrong kinds of players on the wrong kinds of contracts; the callow badness of youngsters fumbling their way through professional basketball; and, of course, the timeless, quotidian badness of absent talent, of poorly constructed teams made of poorly equipped players.
The 2014-15 Boston Celtics have managed to collect all of these badnesses onto a single basketball roster, one that vaguely resembles a game of "NBA 2K15" in which you let your opponent (presumably an ill-humored 12-year-old) pick your team. It's been a long time since a Celtics team was this bad in this particularly depressing sort of way. Recent history includes last season's 25-57 record, the 24-win season of 2006-07, even the wretched 15-win 1996-97 campaign, but each of those were naked tanks, upward-failing grabs at Tim Duncan, at Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, or at the Andrew Wiggins/Jabari Parker/Joel Embiid trio. None of these prizes came to pass, of course, but at least there was usually a backup plan. The 1997-98 season saw a 21-win jump in the honeymoon period of splashy new hire Rick Pitino; in 2007 Danny Ainge pulled off the biggest Massachusetts-based summer blockbuster since "Jaws," acquiring Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett en route to the 2008 championship and the greatest single-season turnaround in league history.
This season promises nothing of the sort. A year removed from blowing it up and trading Garnett and team legend Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets and seeking to bottom out in the quickest way possible, the Celtics went into the offseason with intrepidly foolish hopes born of holding a decent lottery position and the much discussed, rarely defined "assets." This is the season we'll finally win the lottery, fans told themselves, or at least land in the top three. OK, top five! Or we'll trade for Kevin Love -- how hard could it be to pry another Kevin away from the Minnesota Timberwolves? What big, sweet-shooting Caucasian wouldn't want to play under the retired numbers of Heinsohn, Havlicek, Bird?
Well, to quote another great northerner, the devil fools with the best-laid plans. The Celtics fell to sixth in the lottery and, embracing the "talent over need" dictum, snatched up Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart. Smart is a promising player, a powerful, physical specimen who would have enjoyed superstar hype had he left college in 2013, as was widely expected. He's an athletic, savvy guard with a preternatural court sense and no jump shot. He also plays the same position as Rajon Rondo, another athletic and savvy guard with preternatural court sense and no jump shot, who happens to be the Celtics' best player.
This led to speculation that the permanently embattled Rondo was finally on his way out of town, for real this time, but getting superstar value for Rondo -- a walking medical red flag who is in the final year of his contract -- was never a robust prospect in a point guard-saturated league. And that was before Rondo broke his hand by allegedly falling in a shower the very same day he took his daughter to a trampoline park, a timeline of events that can't help but scan as rather suspicious. (Imagine, for a moment, an alternate world in which the trampoline-accident whispers are true: Leave it to Rajon Rondo to injure himself in an even weirder off-court activity than the prodigious roller-skating he's already famous for).
Assuming Rondo misses the start of the season, the Celtics' best player on opening night will be forward Jeff Green, a good player who shouldn't be the best anything on any NBA team, even a terrible one. Center Jared Sullinger has had a nice preseason, drawing particular praise for his impressive 3-point shooting, but no one aside from the most shamrock-goggled Celtics fan really believes the undersized Sullinger has the makings of a star player. The rest of the frontcourt is a patchwork of (literally and figuratively) green youth and high-priced detritus. Brandon Bass and Gerald Wallace are hard-working forwards who also make $17 million between them. Kelly Olynyk is an intriguing 7-footer who is a defensive work in progress in 2014 much like the Big Dig was a municipal work in progress in 1992. Tyler Zeller, acquired from the Cleveland Cavaliers in the offseason, would make a great end-of-the-bench guy on the sort of playoff team the Celtics absolutely are not. Vitor Faverani is enthusiastic.
The backcourt is a more exciting adventure, a talented bunch terminally burdened by asterisks. The team’s three best guards -- Rondo, Smart and defensive wiz Avery Bradley -- are the most shooting-averse trio since the Three Amigos (the actual ones). Marcus Thornton is a prodigious scorer whose best skill seems to be shot attempts, which, to be fair, is less a "skill" than an "interest." (As a snapshot into the Celtics-fan psyche, let me present this recent text message from a friend: "Marcus Thornton scored 14 points in 14 minutes on 13 shots. I'm intrigued.") One hopeful spot is James Young, a talented rookie out of Kentucky whom the Celtics nabbed with the 17th pick. A productive college player who got lost in the starry Wildcat draft-day shuffle, Young might prove to be a steal, except it's unclear whether he'll get much play behind higher priced offseason acquisitions Thornton and Evan Turner, both of whom play his position.
Earlier this year I wrote that, in the glow of the 2007-2013 run, Celtics management had won almost unconditional trust from the team's fans. A seemingly bird-in-hand David West spurns the team for Indiana? We'll be fine. Ray Allen bolts for Miami? We’ll be fine. Rajon Rondo blows out his ACL? We'll be fine. Pierce, Garnett, and Jason Terry traded to Brooklyn for picks and cap flotsam? We'll be fine. But right now, this is a depressing team facing depressing questions. Do they chase mediocrity with the roster they have, hoping that if everything breaks just right, they might land an 8-seed and quick exit in a shallow Eastern Conference? Or do they try to bottom out, again, but even better/worse this time, even if #oferforokafor doesn't quite have the same sparkly ring to it as campaigns from years past?
The only sure thing is the 2014-15 Celtics are going to be a bad team, and probably a very bad team at that. Worse, they'll be a bad team without recourse to fanciful hope or the illusion of direction. They probably won't be the worst team the franchise has ever put out on the court, but in all honesty, they often feel that way, particularly to those who've grown accustomed to winning, or even just relevance. Those people include only its best player, its front office and its entire fan base. But, hey, we'll be fine.
Jack Hamilton is the pop critic at Slate and assistant professor of Media Studies and American Studies at the University of Virginia. Follow him, @jack_hamilton.