There have been plenty of surprises in the Eastern Conference through the first six weeks of the 2013-14 NBA season, but you wouldn't characterize very many of them as "pleasant." Amid near-daily news of New York chaos and expanding Chicago injury reports, though, there has been one heartwarming ray of sunshine — the Boston Celtics, who entered the season with a freshman head coach, an injured All-Star, hardly any players you've ever heard of and an expectation of being just about the worst NBA team money could buy. Instead, they find themselves sitting atop the Atlantic Division after 24 games.
You can chalk that up in part to the overarching disrepair of the Eastern Conference in general and the specific putridity of the Atlantic. Even if they're facing a bunch of losers, though, the Celtics still have to win. That they've done so as often as they have (if, at 10-14, not quite as often as they've lost) stands as a testament to first-year head coach Brad Stevens, lead assistant Ron Adams, the commitment they've instilled to defensive scrappiness and demonstrable developmental steps from a number of sources. Longtime loose cannon combo guard Jordan Crawford is playing the best basketball of his career as a more reserved and under-control starting point man, and Avery Bradley's looked much better off the ball than he did when forced into service as a lead guard by Rajon Rondo's ACL tear. Jared Sullinger has fully recovered from rookie-season-ending back surgery and is flashing expanded range and playmaking in Year 2. Jeff Green looks more comfortable as a top scoring option than a complementary piece, and has worked well as a floor-spacing wing/small-ball power forward. It's all been pretty neat.
There's still a lot of basketball to be played, to be sure, and it seems more likely that the Celtics' 12th-ranked defense tapers off than that their 23rd-ranked offense rockets up the charts. But there appears to be more in Boston's cupboard than we might have guessed, more reason for optimism than previously anticipated, and maybe even — in this cursed East — enough to keep playing past late April.
Then again, maybe not ... because it doesn't sound like Danny Ainge is on board with that. From Gary Washburn's chat with the Celtics' president of basketball operations in Friday's Boston Globe:
If the Celtics reach the playoffs, their own first-round pick [in the 2014 NBA draft] will be no higher than 15th, meaning they would fall out of the lottery and likely would miss out on a chance to draft [a] franchise player. Ainge said he hasn’t thought about the Celtics making a playoff push.
“I don’t know, because there’s too many variables, it’s just not that simple,” he said about the postseason. “Making the playoffs is not a goal. I need to explain that a little bit. If there’s a bunch of teams that are just injured and playing and you finish five, six, or seven games under .500 and you made the playoffs just because of that, that might not be such a great thing. I’m only concerned about how our players are playing, and if it so happens we make the playoffs and we earn our way and our guys are getting better, then I’m thrilled.
“We’re not excited about being 10-14. That doesn’t bring excitement to anybody, but progress does.”
Ainge's chilly attitude toward the Celtics' warmer-than-expected start might seem a bit surprising, considering the views he expressed toward "tanking" this fall and on the importance of winning in an October feature by Paul Flannery in Boston magazine:
The main criticism of Ainge’s plan right now is actually that they won’t be bad enough to take advantage of what’s expected to be a deep draft next spring. In other words, that they aren’t tanking to “win,” as one of the league’s worst teams, a top pick.
“It’s easy to say that, but it’s hard to live that,” Ainge says. “You have sponsorships, you have television, you have players that you’re trying to develop that become of no value when your team just can’t win a game. You have season-ticket holders that don’t get their value. You have coaches that get critiqued and blamed. There’s nothing good about losing except the possibility of a good draft pick.”
Here's the thing: Ainge is right on both counts, even if it sounds like he's talking about of both sides of his mouth.
The whole point of trading franchise icon Paul Pierce, fan favorite Kevin Garnett and other guy Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets for an array of bad (but short) contracts and future unprotected draft picks was to begin the overdue process of building the next iteration of championship-contending Celtics. After completing a five-year run of title contention followed by an ends-with-a-whimper first-round exit, Ainge's job is to make sure that the period before the next five-year run of contention is as brief as possible, not to succumb to sentiment fueled by a surprising start that might make some believe that next run is closer than it really is. The goal is hanging banners, not being the Bucks; merely making the playoffs doesn't make you a contender, and the unintentional losing with nothing to show for it is worse than planned recession.
That said, there's a flip side to "not all playoff trips are created equal." Being first-round fodder can be useful if the experience is instructive and the players exposed to losing take the proper things away from it.
The 37-45 Indiana Pacers weren't an especially impressive No. 8 seed in the 2010-11 playoffs, but their five-game exit at the hands of the Bulls provided the first postseason lessons for Roy Hibbert (improve your body, cut down on the fouls), Paul George (improve your shot-making and ball-handling) and Frank Vogel (a lot of things, probably, but let's go with "don't be an eighth seed"). It also underlined the need for a two-way four-man to bump Tyler Hansbrough back to the bench, and emphasized the importance of upgrading the Darren Collison-A.J. Price point guard combo. An offseason later, in come David West and George Hill, up go Hibbert's defensive game and George's work on the wing, and the Pacers' future started to look a lot brighter; that process, clearly, has continued.
The scenario's a bit less sunny in Boston right now, due in large part to the absence of a Celtic appearing to have anything approaching the ceiling of George or Hibbert. If the biggest revelations that could come from a below-.500-but-not-quite-as-far-below-as-everyone-else Celtics team reaching the postseason are "we need more top-end talent," well, that's not really a revelation at all; why compromise adding another lottery pick to find an answer Ainge already knows, especially when doing so lessens the chance of adding such a high-ceiling player in a draft in which there might be quite a few available?
The challenge, then, is figuring out how to win enough to keep sponsors, partners and season-ticket holders happy, figuring out how to lose enough to stay in the running for a franchise-shaping talent, and figuring out how to do both while still promoting positive development for your first-year coach and young players, whether they're part of the long-term plan or simply stockpiled assets. That's a lot of goals for Ainge to accomplish, all more important to the franchise's long-term health than the short-term benefit of a few late-April games ... even if that kind of stinks for fans tuning in to watch Mike and Tommy call this year's action.
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