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The Celtics Are Leading The Atlantic Division…..What Does It Really Mean?

 

That headline is something none of us expected to read (or write) this season, but it’s true: If the playoffs started tomorrow, your 8-12 Celtics would be the division champions and the 4th seed in the playoffs. I’ll give you a second to get your head around that fact.

Twenty games into the season, it’s pretty safe to say the Celtics aren’t tanking, at least by the strictest definition of the word. That definition, of course, is “intentionally losing games to better one’s odds in the lottery.” The Celtics aren’t intentionally losing games, as evidenced by their insistence on winning losable games (like last night’s 108-100 victory over Milwaukee).

They are, however, benefiting from an easy early schedule. Boston’s eight wins have come against Orlando (twice), Charlotte, Utah, Miami, Atlanta, Cleveland and Milwaukee. Those teams have a combined win-loss record of 40-90. If you remove the Miami game, that record drops to 26-86. That’s not exactly stiff competition.

That’s also why it’s probably not time to panic for either proponents and opponents of the tanking strategy. The Celtics are going to keep trying to win, as they should. Eventually, games against tougher teams will probably knock them out of playoff contention and back into the lottery, where pro-tankers think they should be.

Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald concurs. Here’s Bulpett on Boston’s early season…I guess you’d call it success?

Fortunately for these people, the prescription for their ailment involves no controlled substances or ritual sacrifices. The good doctor advises you to take two months and call him on a February morning.

The Celts have now played just 20 of their 82 games, which, as any fool knows, is just .2439024 of the season. But they’re not the problem. The issue is with the New Yorks and Brooklyns and others who have been playing so horribly below expectation. If the Knicks and Nets are still sleeping with the East River fishes around the All-Star break, then you have our permission to break into a cold sweat.

This seems the most rational, measured take on the current situation. New York and Brooklyn have looked awful early, and we are past blaming everything on a small sample size. The sample size is still small, but trends can be formed in 15-20 games, and we are at that point in the season.

That being said, the Knicks are missing Tyson Chandler, who will almost certainly make a difference (not a franchise-altering difference, but — this season, anyway — a playoff-making difference), and Brooklyn has been without Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Andrei Kirilenko for much of the season. If/when those players return, it seems pretty unlikely that the Celtics will continue to lead the Atlantic Division with a .400 winning percentage.

That’s not to say this batch of Celtics will stop trying, of course.

“If we win, don’t jump on our bandwagon now,” Sullinger said after the team’s Monday practice. “We don’t want wishy-washy fans. As grown men, we play hard and do the best for this team. For everybody else outside the circle, we could care less.”

Basically, we should probably stop the tanking talk. Not because this team is going to be good, necessarily, but because Jared Sullinger sounds like he’s about ready to kill us all if we don’t cut it out.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.

  • hax

    Just posted this in the Crawford article. Hollinger's odd machine has 50.8% chances for this team making the play-offs, based on the first 20 games and such. 25% chance to win the division.

  • janos

    hi TOm
    you now is mean team nba celtics more of then just player ok; is team atitude go beyond player. when you are have the more experinece nba you are learn to this.

  • Ray Leighton

    Sorry for the pro-tankers, but it doesn't work this way. Our schedule is not getting worse; for some reason this article makes it sound like we haven't played tough teams by ignoring those teams that already beat us. SA, Portland, Houston, Indiana are not tough teams? The facts are that (a) we already got the worst stretch in our schedule out of the way, and (b) no other team in the putrid East is getting back a player of Rondo's abilities. The 20-game sample, has in fact, historically been a very accurate estimate. Over the past 30 years or so, something like 90% of the teams that were in the top 8 seeds after the first 20 games wound up making the playoffs. And we would be in the playoffs as the 8-seed right now, even if we were not leading the division. No, we probably won't win the division; I suspect that Brooklyn pulls it together once they fire Kidd. The Knicks are probably watching the playoffs on TV though. More to the point, do we honestly believe that teams like Charlotte, Philly, Orlando, and Detroit will continue to be any more competitive than we are? Once Rondo is back — and it is fairly clear that the team's sets have been designed with him in mind — then we are going to be even better. At that point, this is going to be up to Danny — he will either trade some of our better veterans to make us drop in the standings; or he will recognize that we may be just a major star away, and then he will trade expiring contracts, draft picks, and younger players away for a major star, so that we can move further up the standings. Welcome to the six-month rebuild.

  • YouSerious?

    After 20 games, and seeing the activity within the division, its pretty clear that the Celtics will have a hard time sinking to the bottom of the conference.

    Toronto is stuck in mediocrity as Rudy Gay and company continue to run a stagnant offense that will not work with the level of talent they have. Philly is intriguing, but they seem to be coming down due to a lack of depth.

    Now, about the Knicks and Nets. The Knicks have the talent to zoom by us, but they seem to be in one bad, bad place right now. Shumpert isn't happy, Melo can't outscore the other team by himself, JR is in a slump, and Chandler's recovery does not fix everything (plus, who's to say he'll be great when he returns?). And the Nets…they're looking like a total mess. Their important players are all suffering injuries that pile up after awhile, and with the recent drama of Lawrence Frank being demoted from his Assistant Coach position, you have to wonder if Kidd is the coach that can rally these players. The Nets only hope is that they have some sort of magical bond over the All-Star break and make a run in the second half of the season, and THAT'S assuming their players can stay on the court!

    Meanwhile, our beloved Celtics are currently awaiting the return of their only All-Star. And with his return, our backcourt suddenly becomes much, much more solid. Oh, and we can also mention that we have several players who could possibly see further progression in their games over this season (Bradley, Olynyk, Sully). We have the best outlook here.

  • Jim

    I do not think we are tanking . What the coach I believe is doing is trying to develop the young guys while trying to win at the same time. If we were really trying to get the best record possible Humphries would be getting a lot more time and guys like Olynyk (when healthy of course ) would be playing a lot less minutes. I think Brooklyn will improve once the injuries sort them selves out. I do think that Kidd is over his head as a coach. He seems to have some ego problems. The Knicks I believe are going to find a way to play better. Losing Chandler was huge but there is some talent there if they can figure out how to play team ball. All that being said I think we will be in the lottery. Not an easy feat this year.

    • YouSerious?

      But for us to be in the lottery, that means something has to happen to us, too. So I ask out of curiosity: who on the Celtics will regress? Or will we trade contributing members of the rotation?

  • The Cardinal

    Man oh man, where do I start?
    1. 19 games in the month of November (most in the frickin' league and on average, about 2-4 more than most everyone else) with 10 road games and 6 back-to-backs, and we end up 7 -12 with a rookie coach and a roster of players who mostly had never played together (including 3 bonafide rookies and one second year guy who may as well be considered a rookie due to last year's injury). Seems pretty impressive to me!
    2. Hmmm…seems to me the worst of the schedule is behind us. Out west, they've already played SA, Houston, Portland, Memphis, and Minnesota once and will only see each of them one more time, and in the east have beaten Miami on the road, beaten Atlanta on the road, split with Charlotte in a backasswards manner, and pretty much held their own against Detroit. Except for Indiana – and they weren't out of it until late in the 3rd Q, the only blowouts have come against Western Conference teams.
    3. Yes, at some point we will play a boat load of Western Conference teams either one more time or for the first time, yet so will the rest of the piss poor Eastern Conference. If this "small" sample size positioning remains fairly constant (we are talking close to a fourth of the season having already been played!), then the C's will probably end up somewhere between 4 and 8 as a playoff team if they remain fairly healthy.
    4. Brooklyn ain't gonna get much better with their rookie coach, over-the-hill-stars, injury-prone best players, and depression-level morale and you can take that to the bank.
    5. New York will probably play better and will probably sneak into the playoff picture, but not before a whole lot of drama goes down. Overall, they are a slightly more talented team than Brooklyn but…they also have a few more head cases and that could very well sink any chance of them making a decent run at the playoffs.
    6. I've watched every minute of every Celtics game so far, and I can tell you that on most nights thus far, Indiana and Miami are the only teams in the Eastern Conference that are definitely better than the Celtics with Washington, Detroit and Chicago all falling into the "maybe, maybe not" category. Charlotte and Atlanta are probably no better than equals, and I truly believe Boston is – and will continue to be – better than any team in the Atlantic. In a seven game series by season's end against anyone but Miami and Indy, who knows?

    • hax

      Not to mention Jeff Green is a 'Heat Killer'.

  • All Jefferson 1 Fan

    it is pathetic that Boston or Nicks or Toronto will win division with like 30 wins …

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