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Reconsidering the Celtics' 'limbo' and where they go from here

By Matt Moore | NBA writer

Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens are adrift but in good position?  (USATSI)
Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens are adrift but in good position? (USATSI)

Offseason: Free Agency | Latest from Ken Berger | Rumors

Danny Ainge isn't exactly one for strict deadlines. The Celtics GM waited until the last possible moment to bail on the Big 3 era when he finally, mercifully traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn last summer. After 2012's noble effort in nearly knocking off the Heat, it was just too hard to walk away from the idea they could once again rule the world.

Instead, Boston got the doomed 2012-2013 campaign, most often remembered as the year Rajon Rondo's injury cut short, but really, the team was a mess before then. Its dynamic to compete had expired, like that sauce in the fridge you had only used last week but now does not smell appropriate at all. So finally Ainge bailed... and landed a windfall thanks to the Brooklyn Nets Subsidy Act, in which all teams with tough contracts for aging players are granted relief by Billy King.

Then, for the last year, he has just... hung out. Is he rebuilding around Rajon Rondo? Well, no doesn't look like it. Is he aggressively looking to trade Rondo and build from the ground up? Well... no actually. He's just hanging out. Yes, Rondo trade rumors are still constantly floating up from the bottom like Tom Hanks' luggage in "Joe Vs. the Volcano," and yes, the Celtics stayed in the conversation on Kevin Love to the very end.

But there's just not a plan. Well, OK, that's maybe not true. There's a plan, and the plan is to have no plan.

Typically I strike up the matches and set fire to any front office that isn't steadfastly steaming towards a goal. "Build through the draft," "reload not rebuild," "swing for the fences," "slow and steady winds up signing Ben Gordon to $9 million," you know, any plan will really do. You've just got to have one and not just be aimlessly adrift in the competitive waters.

And it's possible that Ainge has in fact waited too long to trade Rondo. His value has taken several hits, including the ACL injury and the fact that without reliable scoring around him, his own scoring inefficiency stands out. He's not the blue-chip he once was in trade talks.

But what's interesting is how Ainge has managed to keep his time in limbo productive by balancing the two approaches. Usually you lose steam and wind up with a bloated cap sheet and a mish-mash of mediocre young talent.

Ainge on the other hand has put together a pretty frothy batch of young talent if he finds he needs to pull the plug and truly start over. Marcus Smart was a high-value prospect and while his downsides (decision-making) are considerable, he's also an absolute ox defensively and has more creativity than he got to show at Oklahoma State. James Young was considered to be within range of a top-ten pick for most of the year before the Celtics managed to nab him at 17.

Jared Sullinger is not Al Jefferson, the thought-of comparison when he was part of a package being offered for Kevin Love. But while Sullinger's shooting is truly blanch worthy:

Sullinger does show the basic building blocks of essentially being a poor man's Ryan Anderson: able to rebound effectively and hit from he outside (though that perimeter shot -- especially that 32 percent spot from the top of the arc -- needs a lot of work). Kelly Olynyk is big. Phil Pressey really did show some things last season. Avery Bradley improving his 3-point shot to 39.5 percent was huge.

There's talent there.

And Ainge has also managed to keep those expiring contracts without pawning them off for little to no value. Managing your cap sheet without letting it get away from you or panicking and throwing out the disposable goods too early takes a delicate balance.

Ainge is running out of time to use Brandon Bass or to find a way to get rid of Gerald Wallace's deal. But he's still got time to figure out what he wants to do. All this time I thought that Ainge was wasting his opportunities by not boldly pursuing a new Celtics policy of team building. Instead he's simply propped open the window. Yeah, the Celtics are in limbo. But instead of thinking of it as a prison, think of it more like a bus station, or an airport. Right now they haven't bought a ticket. But they can still go anywhere.

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