Yesterday’s Celtics win was so thorough and the Knicks’ resistance so deliciously nonexistent, it made you wonder if James Dolan was going to fire Mike Woodson before he could make it out for his post-game presser. For Boston, it was one of the signature victories of the first five weeks of the season and the latest evidence that the Celtics are not the doormat many expected (and, admittedly, hoped) they would be.
In this year’s abominable Eastern Conference, Boston has a legitimate shot at the Atlantic Division and home court in the first round of the playoffs (at this point it’s fair to assume that neither Brooklyn nor New York should be considered a lock to rebound). And while we hoped to see moderate advances from the Celtics’ young talent, the leaps being made by Jared Sullinger and Jordan Crawford are pretty close to thrilling. They both look like starter-level talents, even if either could regress due to, respectively, a recurring back injury or being Jordan Crawford. Still, it’s only a little over a quarter of the way into the season and the C’s have already given us a year’s worth of highlights, particularly when benchmarked against expectations.
That’s why the Celtics should quit while they’re ahead.
Not actually quit, of course. This is a team with a ton of pride and a coach with, apparently, a pathological inability to helm an underachieving team. Danny Ainge may have to strip mine it to rack up the kind of losses the Celtics need for one of those top 6-7 picks in next year’s draft.
I know, I know. It’s heresy to submarine something that’s working. Especially with Rajon Rondo coming back. But Rondo will be on short minutes for a few weeks and his return looks like it won’t come before mid-January or, perhaps, as late as early February. So, his impact will be dulled.
And the truth is that the Celtics aren’t that good. They’ve benefited from the calendar, having played the 5th easiest schedule in the league so far. But their offense (6th worst in the league) is inefficient enough that even Rondo can’t fix it, particularly against the league’s top defenses. Which is what you’re going to run into sooner rather than later in the post-season. And then there are the defensive rebounding problems (5th worst in the league). And all the mid-range jumpers Boston (still) takes.
It’s interesting. In a lot of ways, this team’s statistical profile is similar to the last couple of year’s worth of Celtics teams. At least from a regular-season point-of-view. Good defense, bad offense, weak rebounding. But those teams were underachieving. This team is overachieving. And it’s still not .500.
I don’t mean to be negative. I sat through the failed Tim Duncan tankathon year. I tried to talk myself into Xavier McDaniel’s intensity and Dominique Wilkins’ fading game and I bought into Dino Radja’s European reputation. I saw the entire 18-game losing streak in 2006-07. None of that was any fun. These wins are way more heartening.
But that’s the point. This path to the middle, even the upper-middle, the one taken for years by Milwaukee Bucks teams in the 1980s and Atlanta Hawks teams in the 2000s and any number of also-rans in between, is as seductive as it is deceptive. Because the incremental improvement that moves you from 30 wins to 40 to 45 eventually hits an apex when positioned opposite teams with multiple superstars. And championship-level supporting casts. Especially because you often have to max out your cap and your picks just to get there. You’re left with no room to move and no upside to challenge the best teams in the league. But it doesn’t feel like that on the way up.
Still, once in the middle, what do you do? You still have to be opportunistic. It doesn’t make sense to offload pieces just to lose. The return in any trade, be it in picks, favorable contracts, or actual talent, has to be a net positive for the team’s overall portfolio of assets. Not just a slightly better lottery shot. That may or may not be possible between now and the trade deadline.
So, here’s a potential shift in my thinking from the beginning of the season.
I’m convinced landing a high 2014 draft pick is the best route for Boston to grab a future all-star and/or franchise player. But with a batch of legitimate assets already in place (from Sully to Rondo to Crawford to all those picks), maybe, just maybe, it makes sense to juice the value of those assets with a good run this season, and then look to move up in the draft after the season or on draft night by offloading a couple of them. That’s a plausible path that still lands the same return we in the pro-tanking crowd were hoping for a couple of months ago.
It’s just a more entertaining route to get there.