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Bulpett: Reaching next level no small feat for Celtics

November 27, 2016

It is a given that the Celtics will look quite different than they do at present should they ever reach the level they seek.

Though they have played just four games with their full rotation and still have 66 to go beginning with Monday night’s affair in Miami, they are, in the words of Dennis Green, who we thought they were.

And who they know themselves to be.

From all indications speaking to team sources around the league, Danny Ainge is still after the major trades he knows are needed. And no doubt he’s loving each story calling the 2017 draft one of the deepest and most talent-laden in many years, understanding that such talk could raise the value of the Nets’ pick that can be theirs.

But while you know changes have to be coming, it might be helpful to begin preparing yourself to part with one or more players to whom you’re growing attached these days.

The roster as current constituted doesn’t blend as well as the Celts would probably like, but that’s mainly a product of generally drafting the best player available without regard to role. The C’s have been in no position to do otherwise as they rebuild and gather assets they can either keep or develop for value in the marketplace.

But things have to fit, and San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich gave an indication of an issue facing the Celtics when he was discussing the mechanics that led the Spurs to go after Kawhi Leonard on draft night 2011.

Leonard was the 15th overall pick by Indiana, but San Antonio got him that night (along with Davis Bertans, who helped smoke the Celts Friday, and Erazem Lorbek) for George Hill.

“We’d be exaggerating if we said we knew what he was going to be,” said Popovich of Leonard, who has blossomed into a legitimate MVP candidate. “Kind of like Manu (Ginobili). We didn’t know Manu was going to be Manu or Tony (Parker) Tony. It just worked out for us.

“But we needed size when we made that trade, because it didn’t make sense to have Tony, George Hill and Manu Ginobili out there. It’s just too small. So we were looking for size.

“George Hill was one of my favorite players all-time. We’re still involved together in some charity stuff, off-court activities, so it was real difficult. But Kawhi had such size, and we thought he had the foot speed to move from an inside player to the 3 position, so we decided to roll the bones.”

Matters of size are certainly an issue for the Celtics, and not just up front where they still covet the so-called rim protector. Their backcourt rotation features the abundantly talented — but small — Isaiah Thomas (5-foot-9), Avery Bradley (6-2) and Terry Rozier (6-2), and while the 6-4 Marcus Smart is doing a much better job running an offense, he’s often being called upon to guard small forwards and even power forwards.

Such considerations almost certainly factored into the decision to draft Jaylen Brown instead of Kris Dunn last June. The Celts got a strong 6-7 wing who, while he still makes the expected rookie errors, has shown maturity beyond his 20 years, and they avoided a tighter backcourt logjam. (But as evidence the C’s still lean toward the best available talent, they kept the 6-1 Demetrius Jackson and waived R.J. Hunter.)

The best case scenario for the Celtics as they take the floor these next several weeks is for the team to play well enough collectively that it enhances the value of the players individually. As much as Brad Stevens focuses on trying to win the next game, the overriding mission of the organization is to build a roster that can compete for a championship. And that’s not what’s here now.

Thomas said as much after the 25-point loss in Washington earlier this month. He said that as long as the Celts weren’t playing as hard as they did last season, “it seems like we’re going off talent, which we really don’t have that much talent, including myself.”

Last week in New York, we were talking about the upcoming Nets’ picks and how he didn’t want to concern himself with such stuff.

“I mean, we can always use more talent,” he said. “But until we get it, we’re going to work with what we’ve got and we’re going to go from there.”

It is a fair and honest acknowledgement that the Celtics don’t have the talent to compete with the best teams in the NBA in a concentrated playoff situation. They may have played their best game of the season Friday and still lost to the Spurs, who came out sluggish and missed a bunch of open shots before taking care of business late.

The Celtics are who we thought they were, and when you consider how difficult it is to rebuild in the NBA and how many teams would like to be in their position in terms of players on hand and future assets, it’s not too shabby.