Mar 28, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Boston Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk (41) and teammates huddle before the start of their game against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Celtics 105-103. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Boston Celtics: Can The Team Compete Next Year?

The Eastern Conference has always been the kid brother of the West. It’s never as big or as strong, and its big bro is consistently pounding on it, season after season.

Now though, it appears all that is changing.

The East is no longer the NBA’s punch line, and it looks as if it’s ready to challenge–and maybe even one-up–it’s Western counterpart. LeBron James has turned the Cavaliers into bonafide contenders, Derrick Rose is due for a healthy season, the Hornets have added Lance Stephenson, and the Heat were able to retain Chris Bosh, who alongside Dwyane Wade, would easily make them a playoff team.

The winds have changed, and the Eastern Conference is exponentially deeper and more competitive than it was a season ago.

But where do the Boston Celtics fit in?

Just two seasons ago, the C’s were considered a real threat to win the title. They had come off an offseason in which they added Courtney Lee and Jason Terry to replace Ray Allen. They signed Leandro Barbosa, Jeff Green would finally be healthy after his heart surgery, and Jared Sullinger, a former Ohio State star, would be suiting up in green and white.

One knee injury to their star point guard changed all of that.

Nov 23, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Rajon Rondo leaves the court after defeating the Atlanta Hawks 94-87 at Philips Arena. The Celtics won 94-87. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

The day Rajon Rondo was diagnosed with a partially torn ACL, the Celtics rallied and were able to win a double-overtime thriller against the two-time reigning champions, the Miami Heat. Paul Pierce hit the dagger to win the game with 30 seconds left, and Jeff Green’s facial on Chris Bosh was one of the best dunks of the season.

They rattled off seven wins in a row, and looked like they were going to still be able to contend, even without their All-Star point guard.

Sadly, it was a mirage, and the Celtics slowly cooled down until they were just better than .500 without Rondo. In the first round of the playoffs against the New York Knicks, the C’s went down 3-0, and were eventually defeated in six games. That summer, Danny Ainge decided enough was enough, and traded the two future Hall of Famers, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for a handful of role players and three first-round picks.

When the two legends left town, the Celtics identity that had resonated throughout Boston for upwards of six years left with them, and ever since, the C’s have been nothing more than another young team without an identity.

Last season, the Celtics missed the playoffs for the first time in six seasons, but the sad part was that they weren’t even close. They only won 25 games and were horribly inconsistent, winning a tough road game one night but getting blown out at home the next.

There weren’t many bright spots during the year, but the spots that were bright were blinding.

Mar 17, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Boston Celtics center Jared Sullinger (7) reacts after scoring during the second quarter against the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Jared Sullinger’s 20-20 game, Avery Bradley‘s career year, and Kelly Olynyk‘s entire month of April all stood out as positives, but none of the individual accolades or accomplishments mean anything if the team isn’t winning games.

Rajon Rondo looked like a shell of his regular self last season; he was tentative on the floor, and at times looked downright scared to attack the rim, something he had excelled at for his entire career. Of course that can be attributed to his injury, but nonetheless, if the Celtics want to sniff the playoffs in the next few years, Rondo is going to have to be healthy and return to his elite form.

Hopefully, after a summer of working out and regaining his confidence in his leg, he will rediscover his aggression.

When Rondo is healthy, yes, the core is a solid one. The additions of James Young and Marcus Smart will absolutely help the squad win a few games, but sadly, the East is just becoming far too competitive for the C’s to really make any noise.

They will still struggle to get points on the board against the stingy defenses of Charlotte, Washington, Indiana, Chicago and Miami. They will still struggle to contain quick guards on the pick and roll. They will still have difficulty winning when the crowd isn’t on their side.

Really, Indiana, Cleveland, Chicago, Charlotte, Miami, Toronto, and New York are locks for the playoffs. Washington could find itself somewhere in that mix easily, as could Atlanta, Detroit and Brooklyn.

It’s going to be a battle for the final seed, and the C’s just don’t have the star power or the experience to compete with the veteran clubs already coming off a playoff berth from the prior year.

Sure, the Celtics’ rebuild might not last for the single season it was projected to, but there’s no point in rushing anything. It’s tough for fans to swallow their pain and stick through the tough years, especially knowing the winning history of the C’s, but Boston’s front office should be trusted, as they have consistently made the correct moves year after year.

A playoff appearance isn’t coming next year, but down the road, if the young guns progress as they are expected to, postseason showings are going to be plentiful for the Cs.

It’s going to be another season of nothingness for the Celtics, but as each day passes and the present becomes murkier, the future becomes brighter and brighter.

Tags: Boston Celtics Jared Sullinger Rajon Rondo

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