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Monday, January 6, 2014
Slumping Celtics moving forward

By Chris Forsberg

Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens keeps repeating it, but not everyone wants to listen: The 2013-14 season isn't black and white. You can't gauge this team's progress by wins and losses.

But the Celtics win a couple of games, flirt with a playoff berth and the buzz screams that they are a tank-bucking bunch of overachievers led by a 37-year-old wunderkind. They lose a few games and all of a sudden Stevens is a first-year coach enduring the hardships of the NBA transition with a flawed roster that's finally trending toward the lottery team we expected.

The only truth is that the Celtics are a team in transition. They made no promises about how the 2013-14 season would play out, only that the players and coaches would try their damnedest to win games and management would do everything in its power to position the team to best accelerate through this turnover process.

Avery Bradley
Retaining Avery Bradley should be easier for the Celtics after they dealt Courtney Lee and his cap-clogging contract.

Boston is enduring a rough patch on the court. A combination of inconsistency at both ends of the floor and a schedule ramping up in difficulty has sent it to seven losses in its past eight games. The Celtics have slipped out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, but remain about as close to a playoff berth as they are to a shot at a top-five pick in the draft.

The scuttlebutt now is that Boston is at some sort of crossroads, that the team must decide which direction it is going in: Operation Tank or load up with a returning Rajon Rondo and make a run at the playoffs.

The win-loss record is a flawed measure of the team's progress. The 2013-14 Celtics made an important move Sunday in how this season will be graded, agreeing to a deal that will send Courtney Lee and his cap-clogging contract to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for Jerryd Bayless and his expiring deal.

The move seemingly weakens the team a bit this season ("They're tanking!" the uninformed cry), but gives the Celtics added flexibility in future seasons, which could help keep a key contributor such as Avery Bradley around for a time when wins and losses will mean a whole lot more than they do this year.

Undeniably, the past month has seen quite a violent swing in emotions and outlook.

A month ago, after a 41-point thrashing of the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, the Celtics were riding a three-game winning streak that brought them a 10-12 record and a spot atop the Atlantic Division standings. Jordan Crawford was on the verge of being the conference's player of the week and everyone celebrated how Boston was thumbing its nose at the notion of tanking.

On Monday, Boston went through an offday workout in Denver having lost seven of its previous eight and four in a row to fall to 13-21. The Celtics entered Monday's action a game out of the final playoff spot in the East, but not much further from one of the conference's worst records.

The Celtics stood a mere two games in front of Cleveland (11-23) and 2 ½ games ahead of Orlando (10-23). With four games remaining on a daunting West Coast trip, there's the very real possibility that Boston could tumble even further in a tumbledown East before week's end.

Boston reemerged in ESPN Insider's Tank Rank and plummeted nine spots to No. 28 in ESPN's weekly Power Rankings.

So what happened?

Through 22 games, Boston ranked 24th in offensive rating (99.6), ninth in defensive rating (100.7) and 19th in net differential (minus-1.1). The Celtics were 19th on the offensive glass, 24th on the defensive glass and 18th overall in rebounding. The Celtics ranked 27th in turnover percentage and 22nd in pace.

In the 12 games since, the Celtics rank 28th in offensive rating (97.7), 19th in defensive rating (105.7) and 29th in net differential (minus-8). Boston actually has been better on the glass (17th offensive/21st defensive/15th overall), has improved its turnover percentage (22nd) and has quickened its pace (19th).

But the fact of the matter is that the schedule has gotten tougher and the Celtics have struggled to find consistency. Stevens half-jokingly suggested recently that the team should use a promotional hashtag #EveryGameIsAnAdventure given Boston's propensity to kick away double-digit leads.

The Celtics have dropped three one-possession games among their last seven losses, which hammers home their ability to be competitive, but they were thoroughly beaten by two of the more elite teams in the league in Indiana and Oklahoma City, which suggests their lower-tier placement in the NBA hierarchy.

So where do the Celtics go from here?

It's simple, really. Stevens will continue to try to extract all he can from his players, and if Jared Sullinger can navigate his hand injury and regain his shooting touch, or if Jeff Green can find that long-missing consistency, or if Bradley continues his offensive progression, then maybe the team will win games and raise eyebrows (particularly once Rondo is back on the floor).

But the Celtics will continue to be inconsistent and lose games, like every team in transition does. Observers can chalk it up to tanking if they'd like, but it's just what happens when a young, flawed team endures lulls in play.

For Stevens, the key is trying to find out how to extract the most out of and develop the players that are here for the long term. The team's wins and losses won't matter when he sits down to grade his players' development from his hiring on July 3 to season's end.

And Boston's front office will keep working to identify the building blocks currently on the team's roster and put the team in prime position to add impact bodies and build for future seasons. Even if that comes at the expense of some wins and losses along the way.

Wins and losses don't matter this season. The Celtics will gauge their progress by how well they build toward when the wins and losses will matter.