Embracing the great unknown

Ever since the Boston Celtics traded away Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, ushering in a murky transition phase, some have wondered if Boston might be too good for its own rebuilding good.

There was a line of thinking that suggested that Boston, with an intriguing young core headlined by Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green, Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger, might still be decent enough to be a playoff team in a top-heavy Eastern Conference. In an age when you sometimes have to be really bad to get really good again, those folks wondered if Boston would be better served to tank this season and land a higher draft pick rather than endure another early playoff exit and a midround pick.

On Thursday, ESPN Insider ranked the 15 teams in the East, pegging Boston at No. 13. There was some outrage that anyone could think the Celtics would be worse than last season's cellar-dwelling Orlando Magic or only slightly better than the lowly Charlotte Bobcats. Some of the same people that were hoping for a high draft pick were infuriated by the idea that Boston could be bad enough to land it (without trying, at least).

Yes, things were a bit simpler when Boston was an annual contender. But here's the thing: No one really has any idea how the 2013-14 Celtics will fare, maybe not even those closest to the team.

That's why I tend to believe Boston players, coaches and front-office staffers when they say they haven't even broached the idea of tanking. Of course they haven't. They have no idea if they'll even need to try to lose games next season. Let's cross that bridge when we get there.

Boston has a 36-year-old, first-time NBA head coach in Brad Stevens, who was wildly successful at Butler but must prove himself an outlier among college coaches who have struggled in jumping to the pro game.

Rondo is just five months removed from surgery to repair a partially torn ACL, and while the team is optimistic he can meet an aggressive timeline and be back on opening night in late October, there's no guarantee that will happen.

Was Green's late-season success a sign of things to come or just a temporary spike in production? Can Sullinger bounce back after back surgery? Can Bradley, a year removed from double shoulder surgeries, rekindle his offensive game and establish himself as the team's shooting guard of the future? And how exactly will Boston fare without the familiar security blanket of having Pierce and Garnett on the floor, or Doc Rivers on the sideline?

A whole lot has changed. That shouldn't be viewed as a negative. Maybe that makes this team a little bit more intriguing.

For the past six years, the faces didn't change all that much and there was a familiarity and safeness in knowing that -- if Boston stayed healthy -- it had a chance to compete. But change was overdue, as hammered home by a .500 record and a first-round playoff exit last season. Pierce and Garnett both said they saw the writing on the wall about their time in Boston, and when Rivers bolted 3,000 miles away to chase a title with the Clippers, it was obvious that more overhaul was on the way.

We know virtually nothing about what lies ahead. There are few expectations. Boston has positioned itself well to navigate the rebuild with future draft picks and assets, but it's going to take time to re-establish itself as a contender.

How will next season play out? Let's start with baby steps, like naming Boston's starting five next year. Not easy is it? Two potential starters are still rehabbing (Rondo, Sullinger), and Boston could tweak its roster again before training camp arrives while trying to trim salary and open necessary roster space.

How in the world can we accurately predict how a team with such uncertainty will fare over the course of 82 games? Yes, history tells us that a team with this many question marks is probably going to endure its lumps, and Stevens has admitted he's going to make mistakes as he gets his feet wet.

So maybe Boston won't have to try to lose games. Last time this team didn't have either Pierce or Garnett on the floor for an extended stretch, the 2006-07 team lost a franchise-record 18 games in a row.

Oh sure, this group could surprise us. Maybe this young-but-tight-knit core can rally around the notion that everyone is counting them out and find a way to be competitive (even if it seems impossible that their ceiling would be anything other than a low playoff seed).

The NBA offseason is all about speculation and prognostication, but there's no reason to get too wound up about how Boston will fare. This is a chance to enjoy a rare season with virtually no expectations. Down the road, Boston will re-establish itself as a contender and, with those 17 banners staring down, there will be a championship-or-bust mentality again.

But not next season. There's a chance to revel in seeing younger players take the next step in their development, possibly cementing themselves as future leaders or cornerstones for the franchise. There's a chance to revel in a regular-season upset or the NBA infancy of a rookie like Kelly Olynyk.

Goodbye, familiarity. There will be no more Pierce isos at the end of games. No more KG chest pounds and stanchion head-butts. No more hearing Rivers work the refs every trip down the floor.

And sure, that's sad to some for nostalgic reasons. It's also intriguing to see where this franchise goes next. It's why Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge expressed excitement at the onset of this rebuilding process, one that neither Rivers, Garnett nor Pierce truly wanted to endure.

So embrace the great unknown, and let the season start before we worry too much about how it will finish. Stevens has stressed he's process-oriented and has spent his first month on the job trying to take baby steps as he immerses himself.

We're often reminded to focus on the journey, not the destination. And that's a big departure from what the Celtics have known in recent seasons.