The Boston Celtics will reconvene in Phoenix on Monday ready to navigate the final 28 games of the 2013-14 season. Like the first 54 games, the focus this season hasn't been on the win-loss record, but the progress a transitioning team has made while trying to put itself in position to be competitive again as soon as possible.
With that in mind, here are five things we'll have our eyes on over the final two months of the season:
THE BEST OF YOUTH
Maybe the most encouraging aspect of the Celtics' season so far has been the development of younger players, particularly those that could be building blocks for the team's future. Jared Sullinger has emerged as a consistent double-double threat, Avery Bradley has become a fearless shooter with a burgeoning mid-range game and Kelly Olynyk showed encouraging signs of progress with his first two NBA double-doubles right before the All-Star break. Boston's No. 1 goal over the final 28 games (and through the offseason) has to be to nurture its younger players, particularly the ones who could own key rotation roles next season.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has strived to keep his younger players motivated. When one of them is performing well and he is asked about that player, Stevens often prefaces his praise by noting that the player can get even better. Just a few weeks back, Stevens sat down with Sullinger and challenged him to take his game to another level and not use his youth as a crutch to rest on what he has accomplished already.
By getting the most out of Boston's youngest players this season, it sets a heightened expectation level for the start of next season when, with the right moves, the Celtics could be right back in the competitive mix. The Celtics' youngest players cannot be complacent with the strides they've made, the team is forcing them to constantly increase their own ceiling.
RONDO THE CENTERPIECE
He's still kicking off some rust after a year away from the game, but soon Rajon Rondo's repaired knee will be pretty much an afterthought. If Rondo is one of the key building blocks for this team moving forward, then it's imperative for him to find the proper chemistry with those that will play alongside.
Maybe most important is how the Rondo-Bradley backcourt fares together and whether that is a sustainable pairing to cement. Bradley is set to be a restricted free agent, the type whose price tag could balloon a bit with interest from other teams. The Celtics tried hard to re-sign Bradley before the Halloween deadline to extend rookie deals, but will have to determine this summer just how much they are willing to spend to keep him around. If the Rondo-Bradley combo rekindles its defensive dynamic from the end of the 2011-12 regular season, the Celtics likely could stomach a steeper price tag, though their appetite could be impacted by who they land in the draft. Bradley has a chance these next two months to prove to the Celtics that he's worthy of a long-term, big-money deal.
It's just as important to get Rondo on the same page with the likes of Sullinger and Olynyk, two younger players who are still learning Rondo's style given the limited game reps with him to this point. It's all about finding chemistry and having teammates know where the others are going to be on the floor. Answering those questions now will help Boston hit the floor running next season.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, with two in-season trades under his belt already, could further overhaul this flawed roster by this week's trade deadline. But there's no pressing need to make moves now when a bigger shuffle could loom this summer. Ainge has noted that the Celtics are trying to figure out who they want on their bus.
Is Jeff Green on that bus? Brandon Bass? Is it worth dipping into the stockpile of draft picks to help get Gerald Wallace's contract off the bus? These are things that could be accomplished by Thursday, or the Celtics could wait until the summer when teams are not quite as hindered by in-season obstacles.
Even those who are leery that Green has a long-term future here can understand why the team might keep him around past Thursday. While he failed to assert himself as a consistent force when Rondo was out, there is always the chance that he finds a comfort zone when Boston's roster is healthier and less is expected of him on defense. Regardless, Green needs to find other ways to more consistently impact the game when his scoring is not there. While we understand the notion that it's unfair to judge Green's progress and impact based solely on scoring, there still are strides to be made in his game, from defense to rebounding to working without the ball on offense.
Even if the Celtics keep Bass through the deadline, you wonder if it's in Boston's best interest to trim his minutes a bit in order to find more floor time for someone like Olynyk. If the Celtics don't envision Bass as a long-term fixture, doesn't it make more sense to develop a player who is more likely to be here?
PLAYING FOR THEIR NEXT DEAL
With Humphries, the key might simply be whether the team can get him back at an affordable number (and even if they can't, he's a sign-and-trade asset). Bayless, an NBA vagabond, has a chance to set some roots if he can be retained at the right price. The Celtics acquired Bayless from Memphis not just to dump Courtney Lee's bloated deal, but also because they like Bayless' game and could see him as a valuable bench player moving forward. Bayless must prove he's worth keeping around, particularly if he wants to stay in the neighborhood of his current salary ($3.1 million).
STRUT YOUR STUFF
Let's face it, the final 28 games are a final chance for everyone on the roster to put his best foot forward. For a guy such as Chris Johnson, whose contract is nonguaranteed beyond this season, it's imperative to state his case for a roster spot next season. As the Celtics know plenty well, rosters can fill up quickly in the offseason and those with nonguaranteed deals are often the victim (right, Shavlik Randolph?).
For Stevens, it's important to keep his team engaged over the final 28 games, even if the already-slim playoff hopes that some players use as motivation continue to fade. The schedule, starting with a trip out west, will test this young team nightly. Disinterest happens for lottery-bound teams -- and, heck, some say it could only better the draft position -- but it's better that Stevens continues to get four quarters of effort from his troops and let those chips fall where they may. Chances are, it will still often be in the loss column.
As caught up in the now as we tend to get with sports, it's important that what Boston does over these final two months all operates with the goal of being more competitive when the 2014-15 season tips in late October. Much of what they've accomplished over the first 54 games has done that, the team needs to continue working toward that goal over the final 28.