11/15/13: Celtics Swimming in a Big Tank

Photo by Neale_Monks via Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday night’s loss to the Charlotte Bobcats should put to rest concerns of the Boston Celtics’ ascent to the top of the Atlantic Division. For much of the week, radio windbags and water cooler GMs decried the team’s recent four game winning streak an affront to the honorable tradition of tanking for the #1 pick in the NBA Draft. Even when Boston’s little-engine-that-could lineup was doing everything right, knocking off defending champion Miami on a Jeff Green buzzer beater three off a beautiful skip pass from Gerald Wallace, the C’s were doing everything wrong.

Widespread panic gripped the Hub. The fleeting smiles of a few November wins increased the chances the Celtics would be outside the velvet rope for Tank-a-Palooza. We can’t have that. The city’s basketball future rests squarely #RigginForWiggins, or #RigginForParker, or #RigginForRandle, or on some other college freshman we haven’t yet identified.

Not to fear, Celtics fans. The stumble against Charlotte on the Garden parquet was a revealing case study: the Celtics are not a good team. And they’ve already lost to several bad ones: the aforementioned Bobcats, Detroit, Milwaukee and Toronto. Aside from Miami, they’ve defeated lowly Utah and Orlando (twice). Not exactly a collection of prized pelts. They don’t have to fundamentally alter their team philosophy and tank. The Green will have an assortment of ping pong balls in next year’s lottery. In the NBA Draft, that’s all that matters.

Let’s climb into the Way Back Machine and journey back to the winter of 2007. Three things stand out for me about that year: Paul Pierce going on the shelf, Tony Allen being Tony Allen and blowing out his knee going for a huge dunk after the whistle, and me regularly calling the venerable “Celtics Pride” radio program to shout down the idea of trading Al Jefferson for Pau Gasol.

The C’s effectively tanked, finishing at 24–58 with the second worst record in the league. The draft prize that year? Greg Oden. The consolation prize? Kevin Durant. Neither wound up in Boston (nor Memphis, the team with the worst record).

The draft day fate of the 2006–07 Celtics mirrored that of M.L. Carr’s 1996–97 squad, which tanked to 15 wins in Todd Day’s last hurrah. That team didn’t get Tim Duncan; they didn’t even get Keith Van Horn (who went to a New Jersey organization that won 11 more games than the Celtics that year). They got a not-ready-for-prime-time Chauncey Billups with the third pick.

The 2007 Celtics wound up with the fifth pick and Jeff Green, shipping him off to Seattle later that evening in a package for Ray Allen. That move and Danny Ainge’s prior accumulation of young talent and expiring contracts set in motion the trade for Kevin Garnett. The rest is history: Banner 17.

Ainge has accumulated enough assets that there will be talent, young and otherwise, joining the Celtics over the next several years. Coach Brad Stevens sometimes looks like Fred Flintstone trying to get the car started as he works out a rotation, but ultimately, that rotation will showcase the trade chips: Brandon Bass, maybe Jeff Green. Kris Humphies has an expiring deal. Heck, Washington got Ainge to bite on Jordan Crawford last year. Who’s to say the current floor general of the C’s won’t draw interest from someone at this year’s trade deadline? As the contracts go out the door, new pieces and picks will come in. And there will probably be some losing streaks left in the cold February snow.

Meanwhile, other players will develop. That’s what we want — Ainge and Stevens, as Ainge and Doc Rivers once did, need to identify the pieces of the next great Celtics team who are already on the roster, be they potential stars or valuable role players. That 2006–07 team had relatively unknown quantities in Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Tony Allen and Leon Powe, all of whom contributed to the championship run in 2008.

The Celtics may not get Andrew Wiggins. Or, maybe they will. Who cares? There’s a game tonight, and the Portland Trail Blazers are coming to town. You know, Greg Oden’s Blazers. Sam Bowie’s Blazers? You mean to say the #1 pick doesn’t guarantee success?

Relax. Enjoy the game.

This post was originally published to The Fox Hole on WordPress, November 15, 2013.

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