Mar 5, 2014; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics center Kris Humphries (43), point guard Rajon Rondo (9) and center Kelly Olynyk (41) react during the first half of a game against the Golden State Warriors at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Boston Celtics: How Far Away Are They From Contending Again?

Losing in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers seems a lot longer ago than just four years, but for the Boston Celtics, that’s exactly how long its been since their last trip to the Finals, and a lot has changed since then. The trio that led them there are no longer with the team, with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett on the Brooklyn Nets, and Ray Allen on the Miami Heat, and the man that coached them, Doc Rivers, now leads a powerful Los Angeles Clippers team.

Now in the 2013-14 NBA season, the Celtics stand with a record of 22-45, and would appear to be out of title contention. But the big question isn’t exactly what they’re doing this season, but what the Celtics will be doing in the future, and how far away exactly are they from being back in the NBA Finals.

In a pre-draft trade in 2013, the Celtics sent Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Marshon Brooks, Keith Bogans, Kris Joseph, and most importantly, three first round draft picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018, and the ability to swap first round picks in 2017.

With eight first round picks in the next four years, the future looks bright for the Celtics draft-wise, especially with two first-rounders in the loaded 2014 draft, where the Celtics are in position to land a top 10 pick in this years draft (currently sitting at No. 4 in the draft, but that could change with another few weeks of games, and the draft lottery)  and the higher pick between the Nets and the Atlanta Hawks.

Depending on how the Celtics handle the future of star point guard Rajon Rondo, whether they choose to re-sign him or trade him, will affect how the Celtics use their draft choice this year, and for years to come.

Lets say they keep Rondo, this lessens the chances of them drafting a guard, like Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart. Drafting someone like young phenom Andrew Wiggins (although its unlikely that Wiggins falls to wherever Boston will be drafting) or Arizona’s high flying forward Aaron Gordon might be more realistic. Pairing any of those two players with Rondo would make the Celtics a faster and athletic team, with a young core to build around.

And of course if it comes down to Rondo not being on the Celtics come the draft, picking someone like the aforementioned Smart would give the Celtics a superb guard that can run the floor night in and night out, and would allow the Celtics to trade Rondo for more picks/young players. At Oklahoma State, Smart has been arguably the best point guard in college, especially his sophomore season, where he’s averaged 17.8 points per game, 4.7 assists per game, and 5.7 rebounds per game, and he has the skills and poise to man the point at the next level.

Mar 13, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Oklahoma State Cowboys guard Marcus Smart (33) shoots a free throw during the first half against the Kansas Jayhawks in the second round of the Big 12 Conference college basketball tournament at Sprint Center. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Grabbing a player like Marcus Smart with their top pick in the 2014 draft would be the perfect opportunity to “officially” move on from the past few years, and garner in a new era of basketball in Boston, built around a younger core.

Drafting aside, the Celtics also have young talent on their team like Jared Sullinger, Avery Bradley, and Kelly Olynyk. Jared Sullinger, who is in his second year as a pro, has taken giant steps from his rookie season, and has turned into a rebounding machine, with a solid outside shot for a big man. Jared has averaged 12.9 points per game, as well as 8.3 rebounds per game, while averaging 27 minutes per game. Putting up these numbers at such a young age shows that Sullinger has the potential to not only be the type of player the Celtics can build around, but possibly a star as well.

Bradley however is set to hit the open market this offseason, and although the Celtics can resign the talented guard out of Texas, who is averaging 14.2 points per game, 1.4 assists per game, and playing lockdown perimeter defense, it’s unclear whether the Celtics are interested in giving the often injured Bradley the money he will most likely be asking for. Bradley would be a solid option to have on a rebuilding team, and he has played well in Boston, so it’s not out of the question to see him returning come next season.

There are also players like Jeff Green, who hasn’t exactly been all that Boston has expected of him when the Celtics traded for him in 2011. As the teams starting small forward in 2013-14, Green has put up decent numbers with 17.2 points per game, 4.8 rebounds per game, and 1.6 assist per game, but only on a .415 shooting percentage. At the age of 27, it would appear that Green has reached his ceiling, unless he proves to be a late bloomer. The Celtics could keep him around to play small forward, but if another player was brought in to play next to Green to take some of the pressure off of him, however, that could possibly lead to more success.

Mar 16, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jeff Green (8) shoots against the New Orleans Pelicans during the fourth quarter of a game at the Smoothie King Center.The Pelicans defeated the Celtics 121-120 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

There is, however, the case of Gerald Wallace, who despite his veteran leadership and hustle on the floor, could be seen as nothing more than a large contract holding back a rebuilding team, while only producing around 5.1 points per game, and 3.7 rebounds per game, and is expected to miss the remainder of the 2014-2014 regular season. Wallace will still have two years left on his contract, and is due about $100 million per season. That seems like a lot for a veteran player averaging only 5 points per game. Now unlike the NFL, Boston can’t just cut their losses and waive him, but at the same time it would seriously handicap them to have him on the roster.

The best way to fix this situation is to trade him, but not many teams are in the market for a $10 million bench player. It seems like the only way Boston will find a trade partner is by including some draft picks in the deal, and getting next to nothing in return, or pairing him with a favorable player teams would seek in a trade, for example, Jeff Green.

Now the Celtics could opt to keep Wallace as a veteran influence on an otherwise young team, but in the end, it might be better for both parties to go separate directions after this season.

The Celtics have a solid roster base as it is, with plenty of expiring contracts, like Kris Humphries and Jerryd Bayless, that will open up about $15 million in cap space to sign bigger names in the offseason. One name that has been thrown around and linked to Boston is the Utah Jazz’s Gordon Hayward, who played under current Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens at Butler. Hayward has taken a huge leap this season as far as his production, averaging 15.8 points per game and an average of 5 rebounds and assists per game. Although Utah does have a restricted free agency tag on Hayward, the Celtics should be one of the major teams in play to swoop in and sign Hayward.

The future is certainly fixed around Rajon Rondo and what the Celtics plan to do with him, and many of their moves may be fixed around him, but the do have plenty of assets as far as draft picks and young players to build around. General manager Danny Ainge has plenty of moves he could make, and has in the past, turning the worst team in the league (2007) into NBA champions (2008). With a smart rookie coach like Brad Stevens at the helm for the next few years, the Celtics may not be as far away from contention as some may think.

Shawn McFarland covers the  New Orleans Pelicans, the Boston  Celtics, and the Orlando Magic for HoopsHabit.com, make sure to follow him on Twitter at @McFarland_Shawn

Tags: 2014 Nba Draft Boston Celtics Gerald Wallace Jeff Green Marcus Smart Rajon Rondo

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