The Boston Celtics will enter the final month on the NBA's regular-season calendar positioned to make an honest-to-goodness run at a final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. This should seemingly be an exciting time to be a Celtics fan. Eight games over the next 15 days will determine whether this scrappy young team can improbably extend its season, all while Boston jockeys with as many as six other squads battling for three spots.
And yet there are some who are convinced that Boston would be better off to pull up and let the pack race by it. They scoff at the idea that anything substantial is being gained in this playoff push and believe the Celtics are hurting their chance for a brighter future by playing for the postseason instead of pingpong balls.
This group of curmudgeons, who would prefer you get off their lawns, are not without logic (as misguided as it might be). A trip to the postseason almost certainly will be a short stay for Boston and assures the Celtics of drafting no better than 15th overall in June. But missing the playoffs means only a slight chance at vaulting in the lottery, which some believe is Boston's best chance to add its next impact player.
Early April 2014 saw Boston limping through what would be a nine-game losing streak. There was virtually no reason for Celtics fans to flip on games and, after a loss to the likewise lowly Philadelphia 76ers, coach Brad Stevens was asked if maybe his team had packed it in for the year.
"That may be the case," Stevens admitted after the 76ers loss. "I hope that’s not the case. I said in [the locker room], ‘I’m going to swing, swing hard until 10 or 10:30 on April 16, our last game,' and I want whoever’s going to swing -- let’s go. Let us play, let’s get after it. You know, it is a long year, but sometimes you need to dial yourself back to ‘It’s a game that you really enjoy.'"
These past two months of Celtics basketball have been exceptionally fun. Even the frustration displayed when Boston lets winnable games slip away only hammers home the strides made by this team. Despite the lack of progress at the start of the year, all the roster turnovers (11 trades, 22 game-day players, 40 total roster players) and injuries, Boston has still found a way -- thanks, no doubt, to a terrible East -- to claw its way into a playoff push.
Now you've got Isaiah Thomas scoreboard watching harder than most NBA junkies and Jae Crowder posting daily snapshots to Instagram about Boston's postseason push (or apologizing for a bad loss on Twitter).
Players are biased -- and coaches, too, to a lesser degree. They don't necessarily have to worry about the long-term vision of the franchise. Their job is to win now and pingpong balls offer little consolation for an early end to the season.
The Celtics are far from where they desire to be. But the notion that they are doing themselves no favors with a playoff push is a bit overstated. There is no surefire blueprint to rebuilding. It's an impossible formula that leans heaviest on simply making more quality moves than bad ones, and taking advantage of opportunities when they arise.
What those grumpy Celtics fans have to do is put their faith in the likes of Danny Ainge and his front office staff. And Stevens, too. The Celtics have a lot of smart people in decision-making positions and fans simply have to trust that they will limit the missteps on the way back to contender status.
While Ainge and his staff have been commended for their turnstile approach to the roster this season, the heavy lifting certainly lies ahead. But here's our main point: Boston's playoff fate this season will almost certainly have little bearing on its future success.
If the season ended after Monday's games, Boston would be a playoff team but still own the 15th, 26th, 33rd, and 42nd picks in the 2015 draft. Over at the lottery-tracking site Tankathon, they compile draft power rankings based on the value of all of a team's picks. Boston currently sits fifth, one spot behind a Knicks squad that currently projects to land the top pick.
That's not to suggest that Boston would walk away with the sort of talent comparable to what New York would get with the top overall pick, it simply demonstrates the potential value of Boston's pile of picks. That surplus could give Boston the ability to maneuver around the board a bit (even if it's just a couple of spots) and nab the players it feels are most likely to enhance the roster. Yet again, you have to trust Boston's ability to scout and draft talent. If nothing else, Boston's treasure trove of picks gives Ainge more swings of the bat.
If Boston was to miss the postseason this year, it would likely end up somewhere from the ninth worst record in basketball to the 12th (though likely closer to the latter). In the 12th spot they'd occupy if the season ended today, the Celtics would own a 2.5 percent chance at a top-three pick and a 0.7 percent chance at the top overall pick. You'll wear out the trackpad on your computer trying to generate a scenario in which Boston vaults to a top spot from that location.
So the question becomes: Are those tiny odds reason enough to spend the next eight games rooting against Boston (or at least muttering under your breath if it wins)? Is that more valuable than allowing Stevens and the young players that might comprise a portion of this future roster to get their feet wet together in the postseason?
Listen, since early February I've been on #TeamEightSeed. Maybe Doc Rivers said it best on Sunday when he offered his (somewhat biased) opinion on Boston's rebuild.
"I don’t know if I expected it or didn't -- I just think they’re ahead of all the other, quote-unquote, rebuilding teams because of all the things they have," Rivers said. "When you look at their team, they have good players, they have assets in players and youth, they have draft picks, and they have money. A lot of teams have one of those. None of the teams have all of those. I think Danny, what does he have, 1,200 draft picks over the next three years? Plus the players, plus the money. I think they’re set up to be pretty good pretty quick."
There's this notion that the only true way to rebuild is to hit bottom and slowly build back up. The Celtics are challenging that notion and that makes some uncomfortable. It shouldn't.
The Celtics are trying a different path. One that gives a team like this year's group the opportunity to compete for a playoff berth without fear that it will hinder them down the road.
Enjoy the final eight games of the season. Enjoy scoreboard watching each night and checking Boston's lottery odds every morning. Please remember that last April was dreadful. This April could be a lot different if you embrace the playoff push.