Celtics search for ways to improve after slow start

Fran Blinebury

It was easy and accurate enough to lay off the tepid start to the Celtics’ season on the string of injuries that had coach Brad Stevens scrambling through assorted lineups.

First it was Marcus Smart nursing an ankle injury that hung over from the preseason. Then a concussion sidelined Al Horford and Jae Crowder was on the shelf with a sprained ankle.

So much for the starry-eyed hope that plugging the free agent prize Horford into the front line would lift Boston to the level as contender to the Cavaliers. Or even ready to stand toe-to-toe with the Raptors. The Celtics are where they are — No. 3 in the Eastern Conference standings — as much due to the mediocrity that makes up the neighborhood as anything they have accomplished.

So as they prepare to face the radically improved Rockets on Monday night at Toyota Center (8 p.m. ET, NBA TV), one quarter of the way into the season, much of the optimism for what happens next spring still rests on what president of basketball operations Danny Ainge can do off the court than anything the current roster can do on it.

The Celtics, as currently constructed, may not be significantly improved from the team that lost to Atlanta in the first round of the 2016 playoffs. The pieces of the puzzle just don’t fit seamlessly, which according to the word around the league, is why Ainge is still reaching out with his handful of magic beans in the form of the first-round draft pick from the Nets that he is hoping can land him the big fish his team still needs.

For while the Celtics are now a season-best four games above .500 at the one-quarter mark in the schedule and have won back-to-back games, they have not climbed there so impressively. Those consecutive wins came against the always foundering Kings at home and then a fourth quarter comeback at Philly that finally put the still-clueless and Joel Embiid-less Sixers away 107-106 Saturday night.

The Celtics are ranked 18th in the NBA in defensive rating (105.0), 20th in blocked shots (4.7) and 23rd in steals (7.2). However that ranking has bumped up to 11th over the past 10 games and Boston is 7-3 when Horford has played, giving hope that better things are to come.

What’s more concerning is the Celtics are the third-worst rebounding team in the league, ranking ahead of only the Pacers and Nets, and allow a larger percentage of offensive rebounds than any team in the league.

While the lineup is getting solid, the schedule also grows more difficult with eight of their next 13 games on the road, including four stops at West playoff teams Houston, San Antonio, OKC and Memphis and closing out in Cleveland against the defending champs.

What Ainge has done while holding out to make the kind of deal that truly elevates his club, is to try to amass the best collection of talent possible, regardless of position or ability to assimilate with what is already on hand. It’s what made Ainge reach for small forward 6-foot-7 Jaylen Brown in the first round last June instead of 6-foot-4 point guard Kris Dunn. While Dunn was more NBA ready from the start, Brown, despite the energy and athleticism he’s brought of late, has the kind of length and talent that could eventually make him a more valuable asset in Boston or one to dangle as part of a trade package that lands the big one.

At this point, simply gathering the most talent is the way for the Celtics to go as Ainge waits for the big move to make. One of the reasons that general manager Daryl Morey has been able to constantly turn the Rockets roster over is an eye for potential in rising talent and no fear to keep churning ahead with the next deal. You worry about the right fit when you have enough real pieces and not when you’re only fantasizing and pretending to be a true contender.

Does Ainge get to a point where he would consider making the biggest roll of the dice if Sacramento finally tires of finishing in last place with DeMarcus Cousins? Despite the raw numbers that show him as the best center in the NBA right now, Cousins is still the highest of risk-reward game-changers either way.

As they near Dec. 15 — the unofficial start to the trade season since most players signed over the summer are eligible to be dealt then — Boston will move forward with Stevens only looking ahead to improvement in the next game while Ainge keeps his eye on the bigger picture. It’s got to be a frank acknowledgment of who the Celtics are, which is not yet inhabiting a place in the conversation of real contenders.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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