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Exiting the Seductive, Deceptive Middle

 


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.

  • Ray

    I don't think it is going to be very easy to move up in this draft. Teams are placing a very high value on their picks. I think you might be looking at Rondo + Sullinger to break into the top 6. On the other hand, these things are fluid and the hype might burn out by June.

    The other problem is I'm not sure Boston can go in the other direction, that is, bottoming out into a top pick. Milwaukee and Utah will almost certainly be 1-2 (talking about reverse order of record here). The Kings are trying, but it's tough to see them winning a lot of games in the west. Toronto just traded away their best player; their offense will be give DeRozan the ball and hope for the best. Orlando and Philly are young and not deep. The Celtics have too many veterans to compete with these teams.

    The worst part is the cost of making the playoffs for the mediocre east teams. If the season ended right now, Chicago (.444) would be the 8th seed and Toronto (.368) would be 9th in the east and out of the playoffs. Neglecting the lottery, Toronto would pick 9th. Then Minnesota (.450), Memphis (.474), New Orleans (.474), the Lakers (.500) and Phoenix (.550). Finally Chicago picks 15th. Charlotte (.450) gets the 16th pick and then the Celtics (.455) get pick #17. So making the playoffs in the east drops you from 9 to 15 in the draft. How is the east supposed to get better? (Furthermore, given the strength of competition, who would bet against Utah getting the best chance at #1 vs Milwaukee.)

    All in all, it may take another season for Boston to bottom out completely.

  • hax

    So in other words, a Heat employee hacked CelticsHub to post that the Celtics should trade everything for guys like Wiggins who can barely average 10 ppg against mid-major schools. The Heat fear the Celtics more than ever. Not to mention Jeff Green saves his energy for Heat games just to destroy them yet again. Bosh is soft and can't match up with el hombre indestructable, or even Sullinger.

    • The Cardinal

      Amen. The current chatter is this draft is deep. If so, why in heck would one be continually obsessed with getting a lottery pick when there will allegedly be a wealth of young players with high projected ceilings?

      A superstar through the draft? IMAO, LeBron James and Kevin Durant are it for that category in recent times, but there are a wealth of players who are legitimate stars – Chris Paul, James Harden, Dwight Howard, for instance – that in combination with a few other good players can lead a team into contention. But – you need "a few other good players" to make this work, and that is exactly what some of the players on the current Boston roster are – a few good players who may only be a couple of very good players away from being contenders.

      Despite the alleged depth of the draft, there is no Tim Duncan or LeBron James coming out, and the next number one pick could just as easily be a Kwame Brown, "Never Nervous" Pervis, or Anthony Bennett (shudder).

      • Ray

        Oh you are right, no team ever drafted Howard, Paul or Harden.

        • The Cardinal

          Dude, you misunderstand. Look at where those three are right now and how they got there. Trades and free agent signings using cap space maneuvering and assets – not the draft – put Howard and Harden in Houston and Paul in LA. None of these guys – as well as LeBron and Durant – have ever won a championship on the team that drafted them.

          My point is twofold: 1) developing a winning culture will do you far more good than gambling through tanking – the top free agents want to play for teams that appear capable of contending with one or two major additions right now; and 2) winning teams usually become champions through acquisition of two or three key veteran players – not rookies, not number one draft picks, not even second year guys – to go with a decent core of pretty good players at the time the core has jelled. Barring serious injuries or absolute incompetence on the part of ownership and management, the Celtic's core will have jelled by season's end and we are more likely to get better sooner through summer time veteran additions than through trade deadline subtractions and subsequent tanking.

          • Morpheus

            Exactly. These pro tankers crack me up. They don't realise that Bron, Dwight, CP3, Melo, Bosh, Harden, heck even Shaq back in his day had to be traded to win a championship.

            The only exception I can think of where tanking actually worked was Tim Duncan, but that was pure luck. So, are we willing to sacrifice a winning culture for luck?

            Even if we get Wiggins, Parker, Randle, it will take them 6-7 years for them to reach their peak, by which time all our current guys Sully, Bradley, Rondo, Green would be in their 30s past their primes, leading Danny to make stupid irrational decisions, trades like a fumbling idiot like Otis Smith, Billy King or Ferry just to build around that "superstar" he drafted in the 2014 class. Which puts us back to square one.

            I say, stay the current course and rebuild through trades and FA signings. I mean, Brad will be garnering a lot of attention from FAs around the league with what he's doing with this team. Why ruin a good thng?

          • Ray

            You want to rebuild through FA signings? When was the last time the Celtics signed a FA that ended up being an All-Star? When will the Celtics have any cap space to sign a significant FA?

            I think the best thing this team can do for its future _this year_ is get a lottery pick. You seem to think the only thing a team can do with a lottery is pick draft a player. The 2007 Celtics and the 2012 Rockets beg to differ.

          • Morpheus

            Haha, you misinterpreted my post there princess. Obviously a pro tanker. You totally ignored the trades part of my post and I did not recommend that we build a contender strictly through FA signings. However, this team can certainly add a important piece through FA, a defensive, rebounding big, a Ray Allen sharpshooter, a James Posey grit and balls hustle his ass off type player.

          • Morpheus

            Also, I just realised Shaq wasn't traded, he chose to leave Orlando, because apparently the stupid retarded Magic fans felt he wasn't worth the money – $80 million.

            Still, point remains, Orlando drafted their "superstar" only to be left in the dust. They didn't envision it, they didn't see it coming and to this day that team has yet to win a championship.

          • Ray

            OK sunshine, enjoy your internets there sport. Just don't stay up too late.

          • Morpheus

            Sunshine? Don't stay up late? LOL that's your comeback?

    • Danny

      The draft is a crapshoot you never know what you'll get and whose to say if you draft a superstar it doesn't take 7 years for him to reach his peak and win a championship. How many championships does Cleveland have again. No the better route is to stay revelant stockpile talent and try to attract free agents while making good trades. The Celtics are one the right path, it would be stupid to throw it all away in pursuit of a pipedream. We have about as a good of odds of winning a championship this year as we do of getting wiggins or parker.

      • High Rollers

        If not for a Jesus Shuttlesworth miracle last year, LeBron James would be one for four in finals appearances right now.

        The banner business is complex far beyond the lottery.

        • Danny

          Truer words have never been spoken my friend

    • Mark

      The Heat fear the Celtics? As a fellow Celtics fan I love the optimism, but that statement is insane and laughable. I can only imagine you posted this sarcastically.

      If not, the someone has spiked the Kool-Aid. Big time!!

  • High Rollers

    Ryan’s given you the green light, C’s! Win away!

  • IRS

    What about the Rockets? Sit about .500 for a few years, working on developing mid-level draft picks and project FAs, trying to get your two superstars through trade/free agency. It seems about as likely to succeed as tanking for the lottery–the odds of getting a franchise-changing player with even a low lottery pick are far from certain (would you rather have Derrick Williams or Chandler Parsons?), and if I am a Dwight Howard I am much more likely to sign with a coach who has proven his ability to win with little perceived talent than the coach of a perennial tanker.

    I cannot think of a team that has managed to become a contender from tanking by blowing up the roster. San Antonio had Robinson to play beside Duncan after the injury, and OKC got Harden because despite Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka they had the fourth-worst record. Winning takes multiple superstars, and getting multiple superstars through the draft requires being bad *with a superstar on the roster*.

    So sure–if the right offer comes up, I think everyone on the roster is expendable. But the Celtics should be trying to collect talent, not throw away decent players in the hope of getting a better player with the forthcoming draft pick (how many teams trading draft picks for veteran talent have an expected draft position better than the Celtics?).

    • Ray

      The Rockets and the Celtics are recent examples of rebuilding by stockpiling talent and then cashing it in. But they both used a lottery pick to do it.

      I was an advocate of the Celtics blowing it up this year (once they traded Paul and Garnett anyway) because the timing was right. Their best player was coming off surgery and would be out for a while. They had a bunch of 6th-8th men on the roster. The draft is supposedly deep. It was the perfect season to dip into the lottery for one season.

      Now the path ahead is less clear. Guys like Humphries, Bass, Green and Wallace aren't helping them acquire assets. Nobody wants to trade young players or picks for them. The best you are going to do is a move that helps the cap situation. On the other side they are helping the team on the court, which hurts their draft pick and development of young players.

  • janos

    is prety good artcile but there more to team you know – is number, stat, sure but also team feel when play of pride. yesterday you know was team focus on together, play hard and proper approaches under coach so also to consider this pleas beyond of number stat look post .

  • roadsidenotes

    Here's your "There is no spoon" moment:

    Mediocre teams have mediocre management. Draft order is irrelevant.

    There is a gradient of intelligence in NBA front offices. A smart GM exploits that gradient. He, for instance, trades the overall number 1 for Robert Parrish and the #3 pick. Or he trades Pierce, Garnett & Terry for three unprotected picks and the right to swap a fourth.

    There will always be teams buying into theories that don't work (tanking, mishmash superteams), and a smart GM will always be able to exploit that.

    A team that is consistently mediocre?

    "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our standings but in ourselves that we are mediocre."

  • Danny

    I think the tanking talk is a pretty moot point at this junction anyway. Its become painfully clear that even if we wanted to be we are not among the worst teams in the league this year even without rondo were almost .500 team. We could get rid of him jeff green and bradley and still not be worse than the bucks or the jazz., better to stay the course. There are just too many terrible teams this year the race to the bottom is almost more competitive than the race to the top. Its kinda sad really.

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