Thursday February 15th, 2007

There is no joy on Causeway Street, not even after a franchise-worst 18-game losing streak was finally halted Wednesday against Milwaukee at TD Banknorth Garden. Boston has fallen on hard times before -- witness the 15-win season of 1996-97 -- but even then there seemed to be a method to its madness. In 1997, it was an open secret that general manager M.L. Carr had installed himself as head coach in order to sink the team to where it could land the top pick in the draft, one Mr. Tim Duncan (hey, nobody said it worked out). In other words, Carr was trying to tank the season.

This year's team is not quite as bad as the '97 bunch, but it is far more frustrating. This is a team built by design. Outside of Paul Pierce, current management, a group fronted by GM Danny Ainge and ostensibly supported by owner Wyc Grousbeck, acquired every player on the roster. The Celtics have placed an emphasis on youth, but to date that youth has failed to meet their expectations.

What to do? Let's take a look:

While Boston's triumvirate of Ainge, Chris Wallace and Leo Papile has been successful in acquiring young talent with low draft picks -- Delonte West and Kendrick Perkins were late first-round selections, and Ryan Gomes was a second-round choice -- it has struggled finding the right blend of veteran talent to play alongside those players.

Joke all you want about Antoine Walker's skill level, but the fact is Walker took a lot of pressure off of Pierce both on the court (he had embraced the role of No. 2 star) and off (nobody took more of a beating for the Celtics struggles' than Walker). Replacing Walker with a one-dimensional player like Wally Szczerbiak and bringing in Brian Scalabrine -- no matter how popular he is -- for an absurd $15 million contract have hamstrung the franchise.

One Eastern Conference executive says Boston is "one of two teams in the league that needs to be blown up" (Minnesota is the other). What was once considered a "three- to five-year plan" in Boston has now become a six- to seven-year exercise in futility. Ainge seemingly has the unwavering support of ownership (Grousbeck gave Ainge a vote of confidence last week), but with Boston being a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of town, expect public pressure to put a strain on that confidence.

Should Ainge go, Boston must turn to a more experienced hand. Far-fetched as it seems, disgruntled Memphis president Jerry West would be a perfect fit with the Celtics (yes, I know he was a Laker). Ownership has shown that it is unafraid to open the vault for the right kind of talent, and with West at the top calling the plays, Boston would have the kind of stability it hasn't had since Red Auerbach gave up the day-to-day duties in the mid-1980s.

The Celtics are playing hard. There are no looks of defeat on the bench, and rarely does a hustle play not go Boston's direction. They simply do not have the talent to compete with the majority of the league for four quarters. That they have been sloppy at times is attributable to their youth, but it is also a result of coach Doc Rivers' failures as a tactician. League and team sources suggest Rivers is a notch below other coaches in the X's and O's department.

Another factor to consider: Rivers has only one year left on his contract after this season. No matter how supportive ownership is publicly (Rivers received the same vote of confidence Ainge did), there is no way it can justify extending a coach who has overseen the worst stretch in franchise history. And with lame-duck coaches being a distraction (see Adelman, Rick), Rivers is a near certainty to be shown the gate.

Who would be on deck? Speculation persists that Larry Brown is interested in returning to the bench, possibly as soon as next season. Brown has a clear preference to stay on the East Coast, and a $30-40 million contract could be enough to entice him back. Maurice Cheeks, however, is on thin ice in Philadelphia, and the 76ers would be reluctant to let their new vice president leave to take over a division rival, especially if they have plans to have him coach again. Given that, another seasoned hand like Paul Silas would be an attractive fit. Silas has Celtics roots (he played in Boston from '72-76) and commands the type of respect a fresh-faced assistant could not.

Paul Pierce: Pierce is the cornerstone of the franchise, a 29-year-old elite scorer who when healthy is arguably one of the NBA's top 20 players. The climate of the league has changed in the last 20 years so that two players of Pierce's caliber are enough to be considered a conference contender. Pierce, then, remains an essential building block in the Celtics' future.

Tony Allen: Allen is a bit of a mystery. His jump shot is awful and his off-the-court troubles have scared Boston's front office, but he is a defensive stopper who can play three positions. Before tearing two ligaments in his right knee Jan. 10, he averaged 21 points in his last seven games. His injury makes him damaged goods, so Allen will most likely be on the roster next season. If he can pick up where he left off, Allen has value as the second or third swingman off the bench.

Ryan Gomes: If Gomes were, say, three inches taller, he would be a perennial All-Star candidate. With a nose for the ball and a nice touch from the baseline, Gomes is a rotation player but has no business in the starting lineup, where he has been 47 times this season. With a favorable contract (Gomes is on the books for $770,610 next season), the former Providence star is a keeper.

Gerald Green: Green is the Celtics' most athletic player and is quickly becoming their top three-point threat. He also has high trade value and plays the same position as Pierce. Green loves Boston and trade rumors wear on him, but he would be an ideal candidate to be moved for a veteran. Any package for Pau Gasol would almost certainly include Green, and the Celtics would be wise to listen.

Al Jefferson: Jefferson is in the same boat as Green. A rebounding machine (he averaged 11.9 in January), Jefferson has emerged as a low-post threat and an All-Star waiting to happen. But he's also incredibly valuable on the trade market. Memphis would deal Gasol in a heartbeat if Boston threw Jefferson into the package, but a Gasol-Jefferson-Pierce front line would be a formidable one, and the Celtics should attempt to make it happen.

Michael Olowokandi: Biggest draft bust in a decade, perhaps longer. The Kandi Man isn't making any money ($744,551 this season), so he won't be difficult to wave goodbye to after the season.

Kendrick Perkins: Perkins is big and physical but his rudimentary offensive game makes him a liability, and scouts are uncertain as to how much more he can develop. NBA big men don't grow on trees, and Perkins' age (22) means his value will never be higher. Including Perkins in any Gasol trade would certainly sweeten the pot.

Leon Powe: Nice story, mediocre player. Can hop on the same bus as Olowokandi.

Theo Ratliff: Ratliff might be the Celtics' most valuable player this side of Pierce despite playing in just two games this season. Why? He will make $11.7 million next season in the last year of his contract, and he is attractive to teams looking to slash payroll. Boston should be careful: packaging Ratliff to acquire a top-flight player is one thing, but nothing in the collective bargaining agreement says Boston can't benefit from a fat contract coming off the books.

Allan Ray: Boy, that Olowokandi bus is filling up fast.

Rajon Rondo: Boston native Dana Barros made 1,090 three-pointers in his career; Rondo has made four in his rookie season. Barros should take Rondo down to his sports complex in Mansfield and show him how he did it. Rondo is already the best playmaker on the roster, a solid backup with the potential to be a full-time starter for the next decade. But his suspect perimeter game allows defenses to cheat off him. The next two to three years will go a long way to determining Rondo's NBA future.

Brian Scalabrine: Scalabrine is a team leader but his skills make him best suited as a 10th or 11th man, a role Walter McCarty played with distinction during his Boston career. His contract makes him unappealing to potential suitors, so Boston will have to live with an overpaid reserve for the duration (three more years) of his contract.

Wally Szczerbiak: Szczerbiak is a victim of his contract. A perfectly good complementary player, Wally shouldn't be blamed for accepting an eight-figure contract, but he shouldn't be considered a $12 million player, either. If Boston can cobble together a deal for Gasol, Szczerbiak instantly becomes valuable as Pierce and Gasol would attract enough double teams to allow Szczerbiak to make a living from behind the three-point line. Keep Wally, hope for the best, and if nothing else be glad he has only two more years on his contract.

Sebastian Telfair: Portland shipped Telfair out of town without a suitable replacement. That should tell you something. Telfair's low salary ($1.8 million) makes him tradable, but Boston better rid itself of him quickly before his value sinks any lower.

Delonte West: A perfect bench player, West can play both guard spots and has become a deadly spot-up shooter. Keeping West in the fold is a no-brainer.

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