BOSTON (CBS) -- It's been an underwhelming start to the season for the Boston Celtics, who have yet to live up to some lofty expectations placed upon them heading into the new campaign.
Those expectations included talk of a 50-win season and potentially vying for the 2-seed in the Eastern Conference. There's still plenty of time for them to right the ship, but the Celtics sit at just 13-12, sixth in the East and just a game-and-a-half away from falling out of the playoff picture.
It's easy to point to injuries to key players Al Horford (who missed 10 games with a concussion), Jae Crowder (missed eight games with a bad ankle) and most recently Isaiah Thomas (out the last four with a groin injury) as a reason for this early-season malaise. But even with that lack of continuity in the lineup, the Celtics have let games they should have won slip away.
"Our team feels like we've given a few games away this year, and my feeling is we won a few games that we sort of stole and were fortunate to win," Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge told WBZ NewsRadio 1030's Adam Kaufman. "Winning and losing in the NBA right now, unless you're one of those top elite teams, it's hard. There is a lot of parity in the NBA and the difference between winning 40 and 50 games is very fragile.
"It doesn't mean that you're far off from winning 40 or winning 50, and we're right in that boat. We're very close to having 17 wins right now, and very close to having 11 wins right now," continued Ainge. "I like a lot of things and I'm anxious to see our full team together for an extended period of time to see what we can be; to get some continuity and consistency with our team. Because we really have been banged up a little bit."
Despite their struggles, Ainge likes what he's seen from the team as of late. They've lost three straight without their leading scorer (Thomas is expected to return to the lineup Friday, barring any setbacks), but Ainge says the next two months will be important when it comes to evaluating his squad.
"We do have some holes and we're trying to improve our team continually, but I think we're a little bit better than our record," he said. "But that is who we are right now; we're a 13-12 team. I think the next 25 games will be really telling of who this team really is."
But Ainge knows what he has and knows what he's looking for, so the start of the season hasn't changed his approach to the trade market. He knows he needs to get a star player, one who can take over at the end of games. He's known that since he traded away Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the beginning of this latest rebuild, and he's feeling pressure to find the right move -- one that will put the Celtics over the edge.
That pressure is not coming from above, though. It's from Ainge himself.
"I feel the pressure to make our team better, for our players, coaches and fans. My staff, we work tirelessly. We talk every day collectively; if we're traveling or out scouting college games, we're texting or emailing ideas on how we can make our team better. It's a daily discussion, so I do feel that," he said. "At the same time, you can't do really dumb, short-term things that will make you a tiny bit better in the short term, but will prevent you from being a championship contender in the long term."
Unfortunately for Ainge and the Celtics, those stud players don't come along very often.
"That's one of the most challenging things to find. That's why you hear us talk a lot about transcendent players, and those are the players who can finish games against great defenses. They're the most difficult players to find in the NBA. Whatever position those players are in, they're the hardest to acquire," he said.
Ainge had fun with a recent report from The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski that said he may be overvaluing his players when trying to work out that blockbuster deal. While he admits that he's probably guilty of it, so is everyone else in the NBA.
"I get such a kick out of that. I've probably heard that 20 times, and I think everybody gets that. You can say that about every team," said Ainge. "Nobody can even make that claim unless they know, for sure, what the [trade] opportunities are or aren't. I respect Adrian and everyone who has that opinion, but I think there are players that I think are way better players than the rest of the league values them. And I think the opposite is true.
"That's my job, to evaluate players values and all of that. I probably do like my players, and I think the players we have, some of the players we have are obviously better than the rest of the league has valuated up to this point," Ainge continued. "Look at Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder; they're under great contracts by us, and the rest of the league hasn't valued them as much as the Celtics have. Those guys will get paid some day when they become free agents, but those are guys we have really liked and it's paid off for us."
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