This is the other side of success in pro basketball.
This is what happens when a team has run its course, when all the smart moves and good fortune flip in the other direction, when all the work put into winning a championship unravels.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Boston Celtics.
As bad as things are for the Los Angeles Lakers, the league’s other marquee franchise — well, they got nothing on Boston.
Just five short years ago, the Celtics were in the middle of a renaissance. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge landed Kevin Garnett, traded for Ray Allen and stole Rajon Rondo in the draft. … And Ainge already had Paul Pierce on the roster.
The Celtics quickly went from doormat to a team with a target on its back. No one could take them down. They won the title in 2007-08. They contended every year since.
And now this.
Earlier in the week, the Celtics learned Rondo, an All-Star starter, required knee surgery and would miss the rest of the season.
Then, Friday, it was announced rookie reserve Jared Sullinger underwent lower back surgery. He too is out for the year.
Throw in the fact Allen walked in free agency before the season (for hated Miami), and that Garnett and Pierce are a little past their primes, and you get today’s Celtics.
You get a .500 team that’s trying to hang on — a team that’s wearing the puzzled look of someone who has been standing in the rain for hours, only to learn it’s been waiting at the wrong bus stop.
But back to Sullinger.
This was the type of move that’s worked so well for Ainge in the past. Sullinger was an All-American at Ohio State, widely regarded as a top-10 pro prospect.
But the NBA “red-flagged” his back prior to the draft. He slipped to the No. 21 overall pick. Ainge took a chance, and until this week, it looked like another coup. Sullinger looked like an eventual replacement for the 36-year old Garnett.
Now, who knows?
Clearly, NBA doctors were onto something. They questioned the durability of Sullinger’s lower back. As of today, they were right.
Granted, the Sullinger situation isn’t as dire as the one involving Rondo. He’s the Celtics’ engine, their hope for a year or two (and more) down the road. Sullinger was part of that, but not nearly as much as Rondo. But both were also keys to the here and not-entirely-out-of-it now.
Unfortunately for Ainge and his gang in green, quick fixes do not exist. Young, reshaping teams don’t want Garnett or Pierce. Older contenders have nothing the Celtics want in return.
Interestingly, Ainge’s best option may be reaching out to the team that’s made the Celtics matter before — and that he has helped matter today.
That would be the Oklahoma City Thunder — formerly the Seatle SuperSonics. It’s from where Ainge landed Allen back in ’07, and to where Ainge shipped young center Kendrick Perkins in a package for forward Jeff Green at the trading deadline two years ago.
The Thunder are young, contending and possess a bevy of moveable assets (read: draft picks). They may again have the motivation to assist Ainge while improving themselves. Especially after the Thunder’s recent loss to the Lakers.
Still, there can be no clear plan in times like these. Some in NBA circles are saying the Celtics’ best option is to ride it out, stink for a while and start over. That makes sense.
There comes a time, after all, when everyone has to experience the other side of success in this game. It just may be the Celtics’ turn.