We call it a midseason break, but All-Star Weekend is more like a brief pit stop before launching into the final of three laps in the NBA season.
With 54 games in the rearview mirror, here are five things we've learned about the Boston Celtics through the first two-thirds of the 2013-14 season, plus a quick-hit thought on every player on the roster:
1. They are who we thought they were
The Celtics arrive at the All-Star checkpoint with a 19-35 record, which puts them on pace for a 29-53 record overall. Back in ESPN's Summer Forecast, that's exactly the mark our panel of experts pegged the Celtics for. What we probably didn't expect was for the rest of the East to be quite as dismal and the Celtics to own only the sixth-worst record in basketball. That means Boston will seemingly be hard-pressed to get into the bottom three while currently owning a three-game lead over an Orlando team with the third-worst record in the NBA.
2. January wasn't as bad as it looked; February hasn't been as good as it appears
The Celtics went 2-15 in January, setting a new team record for most losses in a calendar month. What got lost in that sea of losses was that Boston was competitive in a lot of games, including a string of three single-digit losses between their two victories. A pair of trades overhauled the backcourt, and injuries left the entire rotation in flux, while a daunting schedule didn't aid matters either. Boston played better than its record indicates. The Celtics arrive at the All-Star break feeling better about themselves for having won four of six to start February, but those four wins came against the four worst teams in basketball. There are still plenty of strides to be made after the All-Star break (though the trade deadline could again shuffle the roster a bit).
3. Jared Sullinger has potential to be an All-Star
Jared Sullinger is coming off back surgery, often plays out of position at center for undersized Boston and has battled finger and hand ailments for much of the past two months, and yet none of that has been able to prevent his sophomore emergence. The 21-year-old Sullinger is averaging 13.2 points and 8.2 rebounds over 27.3 minutes per game in 52 appearances this season. He'll be the face of the Celtics (along with rookie Kelly Olynyk) at All-Star Weekend in New Orleans when he competes in the Rising Stars Challenge. It's fair to wonder, if Sullinger remains on his current trajectory, how long it could be before he gets consideration to play on Sunday during future All-Star weekends. Sullinger has added a 3-point shot to his arsenal, has been a beast on the offensive glass and is emerging as a consistent double-double threat. There's still room for growth, but he hasn't let any obstacles stunt his development this season.
4. Brad Stevens understands the process
It cannot be easy for a coach to know he's likely going to lose more games in his rookie NBA season than he did during his entire ultra-successful college career. But Brad Stevens clearly braced himself for the harsh realities of the NBA rebuilding process when he made the leap from Butler University and has maintained a day-by-day focus. Even after inheriting a poorly balanced roster, one that was overhauled on the fly twice in January, and getting back All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo only in the past month, Stevens has still implored his team to play hard most nights and has done an excellent job developing some of the young talent who could constitute the future of the team. Stevens understands what the Celtics are building toward, and that losses are part of the process, but also hasn't discouraged his team from playing hard and trying to win games.
5. Rajon Rondo is showing signs of his old self -- and new dimensions
The Celtics have taken it slow with Rondo's return to game action after missing nearly a full year, including sitting him out on back-to-backs to this point and offering additional rest days when his body requires them. But as Rondo kicks off the rust, we've seen glimpses of the All-Star floor general whom Boston so desperately missed. What's more, Rondo is showing some new weapons in his arsenal, including a 3-point shot and a transition pull-up. After Rondo made a career-high four 3-pointers in Wednesday's loss to the San Antonio Spurs, many screamed, "What does it mean!?" It's actually quite simple: Building off the improvements in his jump shot before ACL surgery, Rondo is extending his range and finding new ways to attack defenses that leave him open from the perimeter. Maybe the most intriguing aspect of Boston's final 28 games is how Rondo further emerges with more game action.
A quick hit on each player on Boston's roster, sorted by minutes played:
• Jeff Green: Three 29-plus point games in the past three weeks for Green but still maddening inconsistencies, especially as he tends to disappear when shots aren't falling. He needs to find ways to impact the game more consistently (rebounding, defense) when scoring opportunities aren't there. His name will bubble up at the deadline, but the Celtics likely still have a high price tag on him despite warts.
• Avery Bradley: Two ankle sprains slowed him before the All-Star break, but Bradley has made great strides offensively. With restricted free agency looming after this season, the Celtics would love to see him and a healthy Rondo get extended minutes together over final two months to determine potential for that pairing.
• Brandon Bass: His plus/minus is a disaster (team-worst minus-251 overall), but he's quietly had a nice season (the backbone of a Boston defense that has ranked near the top 10 in efficiency at times). A low price tag and versatility could make him a trade target for contenders, which would open up playing time for Boston's younger big men.
• Gerald Wallace: A little too vocal early on when Boston struggled, but seems more at ease with the rebuilding process now. With Bradley injured, Wallace has played some of his best basketball in Boston. A bloated contract will likely make him incredibly tough to move unless the Celtics are willing to part with a young player or draft picks.
• Kris Humphries: A lunch-bucket worker whose effort is infectious on and off the court (particularly with younger players after practice). It might be in Boston's best interest to keep him here through end of the 2013-14 season and examine the feasibility of bringing him back at a reduced price tag (and Humphries has said he'd like to see this rebuild through). Even if unable to re-sign him, the Celtics could use Humphries as a sign-and-trade option, and, worst case, his team-high $12 million contract comes off the books at the end of the season.
• Kelly Olynyk: The 13th overall pick struggled to live up to heightened expectations after a summer league breakout but looks much more at ease on the court recently and posted his first two career double-doubles before the All-Star break. More minutes over the final two months could aid his development and put him on pace to be a key contributor next season.
• Phil Pressey: The undrafted rookie thrived after Jordan Crawford was traded away, freeing up minutes at point guard before (and after) Rondo returned to game action. Pressey is gaining confidence in his jumper and has obvious quarterbacking skills that make him an excellent, low-cost depth option at the end of the roster.
• Vitor Faverani: The rookie big man started the season strong (12 points, 18 rebounds, six blocks in the home opener against the Bucks) but faded quickly. Faverani spent last month bouncing between the NBA and the D-League for game reps until a knee injury shut him down before the All-Star break. Any roster shuffling at the deadline could free up more NBA minutes moving forward, but development on defensive end remains the focus for the young Brazilian import.
• Jerryd Bayless: The Celtics moved out Courtney Lee's bloated contract and brought back Bayless, whose skill set (particularly his ball handling) makes him a better fit as a backup guard. His contract expires after the season, but the C's will have interest in offering stability to a journeyman at the right price.
• Rajon Rondo: There's a lot to like early in Rondo's return from ACL surgery. The flip side? Only six free throw attempts in 272 minutes of floor time. The worry is that improved jump shooting will cause his game to further drift away from contact near the basket. The Celtics' offense needs players who can get to the free throw line by attacking the basket.
• Chris Johnson: The Celtics might have found a D-League gem when January trades diminished their depth. Johnson's energy has been contagious, and he's a team-best plus-54 this season. Sure, it's a tiny sample, but good things are happening when he's on the floor, and the C's locked him up to a team-friendly, no-risk deal.
• Keith Bogans: His inability to grasp a simple, veteran leadership role for a humongous payday was disappointing enough for Celtics to send him home and wait for a trade (or, at worst, a straight-out release) that won't likely come until summer. Can't help but wonder if it will cost Bogans another NBA opportunity.
• Joel Anthony: Stevens has thrown the veteran big man into the fire to guard some elite centers (Tim Duncan, DeMarcus Cousins) without great success. The Celtics took on his contract to facilitate a three-way trade that brought back more draft picks. The question seems to be whether they'll find a way to package him before next season (or be forced to carry his $3.8 million salary).