As we near the flipping of the calendar for the 2016-17 NHL and NBA campaigns, local fans are facing an ominous question:
Are the Bruins and Celtics looking at lost seasons?
It's obviously way too early to rule anything out and there's still plenty of time for both, but the early signs aren't great.
A quick look at each:
* The Celtics problems late in games against quality opponents, unfortunately, extend beyond the recent loss of Isiah Thomas or the early-season absence of Al Horford. The C's have been losing these games all year long, no matter the combinations on the floor. In fact, the last time they beat someone with a winning record Hillary Clinton was still supposed to be our next president. That was Nov. 2 against Chicago -- the fourth game of the year.
Their record (13-11) isn't much different than what it was at this time last year, but the whole idea this season wasn't to tread water. It was to continue the upward trajectory and establish themselves as the second best team in the East. Don't let the Green Teamers move the goalposts on you now. Those were the expectations. Brian Scalabrine even said before the year that the C's had a top-3 roster in the league for crying out loud.
As of now, Al Horford has not taken this team to the next level. The defense has actually been worse and the overall effort far more inconsistent. That's not Horford's fault; he's been as advertised. It's just that, unlike last year, the sum has not been greater than the parts.
The C's are obviously going to make the playoffs, that's not the issue. The issue is how far they go once they get there while developing their assets into more valuable commodities. As it stands now, the C's would open the first round on the road, and it's doubtful they'll be gaining any ground tonight in San Antonio. As for their stock of assets, what player on the roster has gotten better this year? Who would be worth more in a trade than he would have been when the season started? Maybe Terry Rozier. Anyone else? I can't think of one.
The good news: The Eastern Conference blows -- and as little as a three-game winning streak could get them into the top 4. And the second half of the season is when the C's hit their stride last year, so there's still ample opportunity for the young guys to improve their game and their values.
But right now the C's don't look like they've closed the gap on Toronto and it's debatable just how valuable Danny Ainge's trade chips really are. It was supposed to be better than this.
* The Bruins finally got their first big boy win of the year in Montreal on Wednesday, but their issues remain. They can't score and their bottom two lines are putrid. Frankly, their second line isn't so great either, which is why Claude Julien has been reduced to giving David Pastrnak to David Krejci in hopes of getting the veteran centerman going. That move was a sign of weakness, not versatility.
The B's schedule has been easy so far, and they haven't even taken proper advantage of it. Recent home losses to last place Colorado and Toronto reeked of the mess produced by this team the last two, playoff-less years. They now head to first-place Pittsburgh tonight followed by home games with first-place Anaheim and perennial power Los Angeles. Look out.
The B's have been teetering on the playoff line all year, and one bad week could send them below it to stay. Unlike the C's, the playoff margin for the B's is thin. They need to figure how to grab a few points this weeks after stealing two in Montreal Monday.
As for roster development, we're actually finally starting to see some. Pastrnak has been a force and defenseman Brandon Carlo has been a revelation. But I'm not sure anyone else has gotten better (Krejci, Ryan Spooner, Jimmy Hayes, Tory Krug, among others, have all gotten worse). Oh, and the untouchable Patrice Bergeron hasn't been himself either. We're going to need to see another name or two emerge to feel truly good about the youth movement, and unless some of the vets find their form the B's will certainly circle the drain sooner or later.
The B's have entered a new phase. But if they miss the playoffs again this year the men who've begun that movement (Don Sweeney, Cam Neely and Claude Julien) probably won't be around to finish it, never mind be here to take it into next season. In the meantime, the B's have yet to turn the corner. Bottom line: the baseline expectation for both of these teams was simple: improve. Nothing grandiose, nothing unrealistic. Just take the next step. We haven't seen it yet.