In Lupe Fiasco’s song “The Cool,” a deceased gangster sees that the latch to his casket is broken. He kicks it open, then digs through dirt, debris and all the liquor his friends have poured out in his honor to reach his modified buried treasure, sunshine.
Lupe describes the skeleton gangster as a reverse archaeologist who finally emerges above ground and looks at his watch, which had stopped working six months ago when he died. The gangster uses flowers to wipe the dirt off his shoulders, then begs for change so he can return home and hopefully find work on the same corner where he used to “slang” drugs.
On his train ride home, people complain about the gangster’s wretched stank, the blunt he tries to light bursts into flames, and his reflection in the mirror looks nothing like it did when he lived. Ultimately, he reaches the corner where he once sold drugs, the same one where he was shot and killed, and nobody there recognizes his drastically altered appearance. The drug dealers rob him; one of them pulls a gun to his head and asks, “You scared, ain’t ya?”, to which the halfway-dead gangster replies, “Hustler for death. No heaven for a gangsta.”
There’s no heaven for aging basketball players on the tail ends of their careers, either, and so the Boston Celtics have sputtered through the first half of this lockout-condensed season, trying to conceal their drastically altered appearance and dig through all the surrounding dirt to reach that modified buried treasure, sunshine. It’s hard to tell what the Celtics are at this point — they have been bothered by injuries and out-of-shape stars since Day 1 of training camp, and it’s entirely possible that their 15-16 record is not fully telling. It’s also highly probable, perhaps certain, that they are no longer title contenders, and if they head back to their corner in an attempt to slang championships, the Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls — or even another lesser team — could rob the Celtics and pull a gun to their collective head, asking if the Celtics are scared.
They won’t be scared, but it’s likely they won’t be armed with the ammunition to fight back, either. Danny Ainge is surely considering options to blow up the Celtics roster, but the chances that he finds a deal to improve the Celtics long-term standing seem slim, albeit entirely possible. Boston’s aging veterans are unlikely to yield a young stud in return, and Ainge won’t take on any bad contracts in any deal. He would be looking for draft picks or young, relatively established talent in return, and there aren’t many teams, if any, who would be interested in Boston’s veterans and have the proper mix of assets to toss Boston’s way. Rajon Rondo would fetch a greater return, but Ainge would have to weigh the merits of trading a uniquely talented 26-year old who occasionally plays like the best player in all of basketball, especially one with a contract as manageable as Rondo’s. The rest of Boston’s assets — draft picks, young players and expiring contracts like Jermaine O’Neal — are more desirable to Boston’s rebuilding quest than they will be to any inquiring teams.
Add it all up and Ainge’s best bet for the future could be to let this team play out the remainder of the season as is and enter the offseason with Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, a few spare parts and a whole lot of cap space. Meanwhile, the Celtics still have a season to play this year, and their goal should now be to avoid the seventh or eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, thereby missing Chicago and Miami in round one. The way the Celtics are playing now, escaping the Eastern powerhouses in the first round won’t matter. But if they can somehow put together an offensive revival of sorts — remember, their defense has remained stodgy even during their current putrid losing streak — and perhaps find a little luck, it’s possible they could put a scare into any playoff opponent. With their defense, the Celtics don’t need to score like the 1980′s Denver Nuggets, but they do need to establish more of a rhythm, cut down turnovers and, well, score more often.
It’s true: As the Celtics sit here on Feb. 22, 15-16, with offense harder to come by than an ocean in the Sahara Desert, postseason success seem as likely as an undrafted Harvard graduate becoming the toast of the NBA. Jeremy Lin happened once, but the NBA isn’t always the place for miracles. Appearances can be deceiving, but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes your record is what you are. Other times, which the Celtics have shown in the past, teams have the ability to reach a level that didn’t seem possible.
The Celtics have been in this position before — graves dug, the casket door almost shut, nothing but dirt and cadavers surrounding them on all sides. But this time, like the gangster who managed to find his way to sunshine, if not happiness, they might actually be dead.
Here’s hoping for an unlikely resurgence. And if that’s not in the plans, at least the All-Star break is coming, and not a second too soon.