New York, NY (SportsNetwork.com) - When Boston Celtics' GM Danny Ainge came to the decision it was time to rebuild, and traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn as part of a blockbuster deal with Nets, the fans of Boston probably didn't expect there would be a whole lot to cheer about this season.
In addition to the departure of two cornerstone players, the Celtics also began the season awaiting the return of Rajon Rondo as he continues to rehab from a torn ACL.
But despite the absence of their three best players from last season's roster, the Celtics have been fairly competitive, and actually find themselves in first place with a 10-13 record in what's been an atrocious Atlantic Division.
I'm not saying Boston fans should be doing cartwheels, but there are encouraging signs and some hope for the future, especially considering the stock pile of first-round picks the Celtics got from the Nets in the big offseason deal.
Another reason to be optimistic is that a number of Boston's young players have shown some nice improvement this season.
Let's start off with Jordan Crawford, who was acquired from the Washington Wizards prior to the trade deadline last season for Jason Collins and Leandro Barbosa.
The fourth-year guard, who was the 27th overall selection in the 2010 draft by the Nets, is playing the best ball of his career.
Celtics' coach Brad Stevens inserted Crawford into the starting lineup at the point on Nov. 30, and the decision has paid immediate dividends.
In his first start, the Celtics lost in Milwaukee, but Crawford had 18 points, five assists, three rebounds and just one turnover.
Boston won its next three games, and Crawford was clearly the best player in each one.
In their second game of a back-to-back with the Bucks, Crawford had 25 points on 8-of-14 from the floor, including 4-for-7 from downtown.
The following game against the Denver Nuggets, he put up 22 points, eight assists and four rebounds and connected on 9-of-13 from the floor.
Then, in the Celtics' 41-point rout of the Knicks in New York on Sunday, Crawford lit it up from long range, hitting six 3-pointers en route to a 23- point performance. He also dished out seven assists without committing a single turnover.
That three-game stretch was good enough for Crawford to be named Eastern Conference Player of the Week for games played Dec. 2-8. He averaged 23.3 points, 6.7 assists and just 1.7 turnovers and was lights out from the field, hitting 61 percent of his shots, which included 12-of-23 from 3-point range (52 percent).
The Celtics did see their three-game winning streak end in Brooklyn Tuesday night, but Crawford did put up 15 points, four assists and just one turnover.
Meanwhile Crawford's backcourt mate, Avery Bradley, who struggled through an injury-riddled season in 2012-13, is looking more like the player the Celtics saw in the 2011-12 season. He has really benefited from the move to shooting guard with Crawford now playing the point.
Since the shift to the two, the 23-year old Bradley has played five games, averaging 15.4 points on 46 percent shooting from the floor and 50 percent from 3.
His scoring average is up over four points from last season, going from 9.2 to 13.5 points per game, and he's been a more accurate shooter. Last season Bradley shot 40.2 percent from the field and 31.7 percent from 3-point range, while this season he's knocking down 44.8 percent of his shots from the floor and his 3-point mark is up to 36.1 percent.
While Crawford and Bradley have bolstered the Celtics' backcourt, Jared Sullinger has done the same in the frontcourt.
Sullinger's rookie year was cut short last season when he had back surgery in early February, but he's been healthy this season and has made significant strides in his game.
The former Ohio State star played 45 games last year, averaging only 6 points while playing just under 20 minutes per games. This season he's playing nearly 26 minutes per game, but has more than doubled his scoring average at 13.4 ppg.
Sullinger started the season coming off the bench, but was moved into the starting lineup on Nov. 20 and has stayed there since.
If Boston can get Rondo back within a reasonable amount of time and the young players continue to produce, the Celtics will certainly have a reasonable chance to make the playoffs, and if the Nets continue to have problems staying healthy, they might actually stay in the Atlantic Division race for the long haul.