Celtics Ahead of Knicks, Sixers in Race to Rebuild

The Boston Celtics aren’t about to hang a championship banner and there isn’t one player now wearing their uniform who will one day have his number raised to the rafters of the new Garden. Incidentally, that’s the only way they measure success up in Boston, home to a record 17 NBA title banners and 19 retired players’ numbers.

But compared to a few other Atlantic Division teams in the rebuilding mode, including the Knicks, who host Boston tonight in the Garden, the Celtics are in a very good place, courtesy of some shrewd moves by team president Danny Ainge.

“It’s tough to rebuild, it really is tough. But I honestly think the Celtics are ahead of all the other teams that are in the same position they are and trying to rebuild,’’ former Celtics coach Doc Rivers said today on Sirius XM NBA Radio’s “The Starting Lineup.’’

This was the morning after Rivers’ Clippers throttled the no-show Knicks and before they headed down to Philadelphia to play the lowly Sixers on Friday. Then on Sunday, Rivers goes back to Boston, where he guided the Celtics to the 2008 title and came up only one win shy of winning a second title, when his Big Three fell to the Lakers in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals.

Rivers might be on the easiest three-game road trip of his life, including when he was a player. We all know what the 14-win Knicks have: a roster of rental players who go through the motions all too often for Derek Fisher and mostly will be gone next season. The lottery can’t get here soon enough and that’s when the Knicks will learn if all this losing has been worth it.

The 18-win Sixers have been tanking away the last couple of seasons, with very little to show for all of their losing. Rookie center Joel Embiid, the key to their rebuilding, won’t get on the floor at all this season, so it’s difficult to project his future. Or the team’s.

The Celtics are in position to make the playoffs this season, even if they wind up with a losing record. They’re 31-40, but that means they’re still in contention to finish with one of the top eight records in the East. It doesn’t mean they’re equipped to battle Rivers’ Clippers, with Chris Paul playing like an MVP, Blake Griffin finding his groove after missing five weeks of action following elbow surgery, and D’Andre Jordan dominating the glass with his league-high 14.8 rebounds per game.

Not that the Celtics will go far if they qualify for the post-season. But beyond what happens this season, they’ve got a very good chance to become a perennial playoff team.

“The Celtics have plenty of money (to spend on free agents) and they’ve also got about a thousand (draft) picks,’’ Rivers said.

“So they’re in very good shape. Some teams have just the money. And some have just the picks. But the Celtics have both. I think Danny (Ainge) has done a great job with how he’s gone about getting them lined up for the future, plus they have some players there who can help.’’

Ainge just hasn’t found a franchise player who will have the Celtics back in the title hunt. That’s always the hardest part of rebuilding and the search for a legitimate difference-maker has been underway since Rivers left for the Clippers' presidency and head coaching position. That same summer, in 2013, Ainge broke apart what was left of his Big Three, trading Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets. With Rajon Rondo’s trade to Dallas earlier this season, the gutting of the Boston champs was complete.

But here’s what Ainge has to show for the dismantling: He’s got 14 first-round draft picks over the next five seasons, plus another 14 second-rounders.There’ll be plenty of cap space, as well, with the Celtics committed to only about $40 million in players’ salaries for next season, and then only $15 million the season after (2016-17). In addition, he’s got one of the top young coaches in the game in Brad Stevens.

Now all Ainge needs is to go find the next player who one day will be good enough to raise a championship banner and have his number retired.

Because up in Boston, that’s the only way they measure success.

Longtime New York columnist Mitch Lawrence continues to write about pro basketball, as he’s done for the last 22 years. His columns for NBCNewYork.com on the Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and the NBA, along with other major sports, will appear twice weekly. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch _ Lawrence.

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