What a year it’s been for the Boston Celtics! Remember all the rebuild talk from the past 18 months? Well, they’re still rebuilding. The Celtics are not a Championship caliber team as currently constructed. Conventional wisdom states that the worst thing a franchise can go through during a rebuild is making the playoffs as a lower seed. Doing so eliminates any possibility of landing a lottery pick in the upcoming draft. In the NBA, if you’re rebuilding and you win too much you typically end up in standings limbo; too good to draft a stud but nowhere near good enough to legitimately contend for a title.
Usually when a franchise finds itself in this predicament, the team’s gutted. Players are traded for cents on the dollar until the end result is a bottom-feeder headed for the lottery. So what’s going on with the Celtics? In a city like Boston, where Championships are expected, and especially for a franchise like the 17 time World Champion Boston Celtics, being a mid-tier club is obviously not the goal. The fans expect titles and everyone from management right down to the players and their towel boy wants to win sooner than later. That said however, given that the Cs are headed to the playoffs for a first round match-up against the Lebron James led Cleveland Cavaliers, let’s look back at what a whirlwind of a season it’s been and discuss some key reasons why a playoff berth will actually benefit this team, rebuild or not.
For starters, let’s take a quick look at how much the opening day roster has changed. The most notable departures have been former team captain and starting point guard Rajon Rondo, a 4 time all star who was also the last remaining link to the 2008 Championship team, and last year’s leading scorer, starting forward Jeff Green. That’s right, not just 2 starters, but arguably the two most talented players on the roster fell victim to President of Basketball Operation Danny Ainge’s master plan. “Trader Danny” would strike again, as center Vitor Faverani, rookie power forward Dwight Powell, and shooting guard Marcus Thornton, a guy who provided instant offense off the bench were also released or dealt away. Conversely, Ainge has acquired shooting guard Chris Babb, small forward Luigi Datome, power forward and deep threat Jonas Jerebko, and most importantly small forwards Jae Crowder and point guard Isaiah Thomas to round out the roster for the playoff push.
They join the likes of standout rookie point guard Marcus Smart, a very good defender and shooting guard Avery Bradley, a defensive specialist who’s offense has really broken through this year. Versatile guard Evan Turner, who can play both guard spots along with Phil Pressey round out the guard position. Tyler Zeller, a fundamentally sound workhorse who won’t wow you with his stats or win many style points, but is always in the right position to make a play joins power forward Brandon Bass, 2nd year center Kelly Olynyk, and 3rd year power forward Jared Sullinger, who recently returned from a leg injury on the front court. Rookie wing player James Young, who’s bounced back and forth between the main roster and its D-League affiliate, The Maine Red Claws, and seldom used forward Gerald Wallace complete the roster.
As you can see, the team has changed quite a bit over the course of the year and lacks an all-star. For a while, it seemed like head coach Brad Stevens had to deal with a new set of players every other week. It’s incredibly difficult to establish any sort of continuity when so many moves occur right smack in the middle of the season. As late as February 3rd, a bit over the midway point of the season, their record of 16 wins and 30 losses reflected this constant shifting of personnel.
Since then however the Celtics have righted the ship. Rather than bottoming out and setting their sights on the lottery again, the Celtics have improved their play, established some semblance of consistency and have gone 23-12. Somehow, some way, despite a slew of in-season moves, a young, relatively inexperienced roster, and a 2nd year coach, the Boston Celtics are looking to become the spoilers of the Eastern Conference. They may not be the team that nobody wants to play just yet, but they’ve made some strides and are primed for a playoff run. As previously noted, many will argue that making the post season is not a good move for a team on the rebuild. I beg to differ, and here’s why.
First and foremost, playoff experience is invaluable for the Celtics’ youngsters. Sure, they’ll be some off-season moves. We’ve noted that the Celtics as currently built are not in the Championship picture. “Trader Danny” has shown over the years that he will not hesitate to pull the trigger on a move if he feels it makes sense for the ball club. Combine that with the upcoming free agency period and we’re essentially guaranteed some turnover. But for the core young guys, namely Crowder (assuming the Celtics resign him, I’m banking they will), Sullinger, Bradley, Smart, Thomas, and Olynik, absorbing that playoff atmosphere and learning how to match a veteran team’s playoff intensity will prove to be a huge benefit going forward. You can talk playoff preparation till the cows come home but nothing beats being there. There will be playoff growing pains; such is inevitable for a young, up and coming team. That’s exactly the point however. If the plan is to keep at least the majority of this core together, then why wait? Get your feet wet. Make the playoffs and try your damnest to make some noise. Go for it. Win or lose, the experience will pay off down the line.
Equally important, making the playoffs provides invaluable experience for coach Brad Stevens. In just the 2nd season of a 6 year contract, barring catastrophic results or Brad simply walking away at some point, he’s in Boston for the long haul. I for one am ecstatic about that. What he’s done so far is admirable.
The goal for last year’s team was clearly to get in the lottery, and as tough as it must’ve been for Stevens to not make winning priority number 1, he did what was best for the team, often shuffling line-ups and making substitutions that didn’t quite make sense, all under the guise of “first year coach mistakes” and “young team with injured best player (Rondo).” There’s no doubt in my mind the Celtics could’ve won more games, but alas they had to get into the lottery. That they did and it resulted in Marcus Smart and James Young, 2 athletic players who figure to grow with the franchise.
Stevens has led a very young Celtics team to the playoffs despite losing his two best players and not having a set roster till mid-February. The Celtics lack size. They don’t score too much down low and their interior defense more than anything will ultimately be their undoing in the playoffs. In crunch time, they’re still looking for a definitive go-to guy (with Evan Turner, Marcus Smart, and Isaiah Thomas all vying for that spot). Somehow despite these faults and question marks, he’s managed to transform the Celtics into one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference since early February. They play an up tempo, run and gun brand of basketball where players are encouraged to shoot. They don’t shy away from the three pointer and generally take too many jump shots for my liking, but given the lack of a true low post presence, they have to play that way to succeed. Brad has done a fantastic job optimizing what talents his team does have while minimizing their weaknesses. And he’s a helluva play caller, as evidenced by this gem against Toronto in early April that quite possibly saved the season. Mind you, this was after he astutely called a game saving timeout before Sullinger could get off what would’ve been the game’s final shot, a runner that clanked off the side of the rim. Instead, this happened:
He won’t win it this year, but Brad Stevens deserves some serious coach of the year consideration. More than anything however, he deserves this playoff berth. He’s earned it. More importantly he needs it. For the Celtics to once again become a Championship contender, Brad Stevens has to continue to evolve and become a top-tier NBA coach. He’s well on his way, but as with the players themselves, there’s no better way to learn how to coach in the playoffs than by actually coaching in the playoffs. I’m willing to bet this playoff berth will put him over the hump and next year he’ll truly be a strong candidate for coach of the year.
As we mentioned earlier, the Celtics will look differently next year. “Trader Danny” will strike again. That’s yet another reason why this bunch making the playoffs will result in good things down the road. With a young roster pushing hard to turn their season around and ultimately making the playoffs, the trade value of each of the core contributors rises. If they manage to win a couple of games and scare the pants off Cleveland in the first round (or gasp! actually win the series), that trade value increases even more.
I’d hate to see any of these guys go, especially after all the heart and guts they’ve shown this year. They’ve become a flawed but fun and exciting team to watch, but someone will go. My guess and preference would be Isaiah Thomas. It hurts a little to type that given how well he’s played and how infectious his energy has been since Ainge acquired him on February 19th. That said however, Thomas has a team friendly contract which runs through 2018 at an average base of roughly 6.5 million, a very fair (if not bargain) salary for a scorer of his caliber. He’s a legitimate 6th man of the year candidate, having averaged nearly 20 points and 5+ assists since joining the Cs and will likely garner a lot of attention from potential trade partners.
Isaiah Thomas is good enough to start in this league and my guess is he’d like to, but with Smart dubbed as the future, and Turner and Bradley both playing well at both ends of the floor, the way I see it Thomas is the odd man out. Listed at 5’9 (though probably closer to 5’8), he’s a liability on defense and at day’s end, defense wins Championships. I could be wrong about this. Who knows what’ll happen between now and next year’s February trade deadline? But either way you slice it, the point here is that making the playoffs opens the door for key members of the Celtics to shine, and thusly build their trade value. As much as it’ll suck to see some of these guys go, it’s what’s best for business. Remember how promising Al Jefferson and Ryan Gomes were back in 2007? They were part of the trade that brough Kevin Garnett to the Celtics. These are the types of moves for which the Celtics have worked hard to acquire assets. A playoff run enhances the value of the most important assets the Celtics hold, namely the players themselves.
Lastly, and this is admittedly a function of my homerism, THE CELTICS IN THE PLAYOFFS ALWAYS MATTER. 2nd only to the Los Angeles Lakers 60 appearances, the Boston Celtics will be embarking on their 52nd playoff run in 2015. For anyone who bleeds green as I do, that means something. Don’t get me wrong, a true Celtics fan is not delusional. We know this isn’t our year. We’re well aware we’d be out of the playoff hunt in the Western Conference, but we’re also not losing sight of the fact that our record since February 3rd would have us competing for a top 5 seed in both Conferences. Trending up is always a good thing and what better way to accelerate an up and coming team’s growth than going toe to toe with the league’s elite in the playoffs?
Those Celtics dynasties of yesteryear were not built in a day, nor was the ’08 title. All the leprechaun lore and Celtics’ mystique stuff aside, the practical best case scenario for Celtics fans should be stealing a game or two, being competitive, and showcasing a gritty, promising young team intent on proving the naysayers wrong. Hopefully one or two of those guys make the leap and establish themselves as a legitimate all-star caliber talent. A good playoff showing should also elevate some of our key players’ stock, potentially enticing enough for “Trader Danny” to package with draft picks, trade exemptions, and/or expiring contracts to create the foundation for the next great Celtics team. The Celtics have assets and cap room, an excellent young coach, and a President of Basketball Operations who’s not afraid to wheel and deal and whose methods have worked before. Banner #18 will have to wait, but that process is about to go into another gear with this playoff run. So buckle up Celtics fans, it’s going to be a fun, and hopefully foundational playoff ride. Bring on Lebron.