The guys in the Boston Celtics' front office aren't stupid. In fact, Danny Ainge and Co. are doing something very smart: They're lying.
That's right—the Celtics are going to tank. But they're going to continue vehemently denying the truth.
Is the practice technically dishonest? Yes.
Is it necessary? Also yes.
Here's the Deal
The Celtics can't acquire the top-end talent they need to start their next era without tearing down the team and reconstructing it through the draft. The franchise has a remarkable legacy of not attracting free agents, and a blockbuster trade is pretty much out of the question.
In the last successful iteration of the Celtics, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen came over in two major trades. But circumstances have changed in Boston in a way that makes duplicating that model of roster construction impossible.
For one thing, the Celtics don't have the assets to pull off a pair of deals like the ones that snared Garnett and Allen. Remember, it took Al Jefferson and a handful of lottery selections (one of which was Jeff Green, who, ironically, is now back on the Celtics) to make those separate deals work in 2007. Not only that, but Garnett's arrival might have been aided by Celtics great Kevin McHale's soft spot for Boston.
McHale was making the personnel decisions for the Minnesota Timberwolves when Boston swung the deal for KG, and it's always fun to wonder whether it still would have happened without him ultimately pulling the trigger.
I'm not saying he engineered a sweetheart deal, but I'm also not refuting that.
The Celtics also probably don't want to trade Rajon Rondo—their only highly desirable asset—this year because it would be almost impossible to get equal value in return. He is still relatively young, on a reasonable contract and coming off an ACL injury.
Teams won't be lining up to offer enticing packages this season, so it's probably best for Boston to hang onto its point guard for now.
So, the Celtics have no other choice. They have to tank.
The Tricky Part
Boston can't admit it's going to tank for a couple of reasons.
First, nobody actually comes out and says, "Hey fans, guess what: We're going to lose as many games as possible, but we'd still appreciate it if you'd continue paying for tickets, merchandise and parking. Thanks!"
It just doesn't work that way. There's too much money to lose and too many NBA league-office feathers to ruffle.
Granted, some teams are less apologetic in their efforts than others. And sometimes, guys like Marcin Gortat call it like it is. But nobody outwardly admits they're giving up on the season; it's just too damaging to the franchise's image and bottom line.
Plenty of code words indicate a team's real intentions, however. You know, terms like "rebuilding" or "getting younger." But that's about as far as it goes.
Plus, the Celtics are in a unique situation that makes a tanking admission even less likely.
Boston is a historic franchise with 17 championship banners hanging in the rafters. For a fanbase so accustomed to a legacy of winning, the purposeful effort to lose would sit poorly.
Well, the smart Celtics fans would probably be happy because they'd know it's the surest way to get back to respectability. But by and large, Boston loyalists would be upset.
Not only that, but the Celtics have a particularly poor recent history when it comes to gunning for the lottery. Rotten luck cost them Tim Duncan in 1998, and another bout of misfortune meant they missed out on Kevin Durant in 2007. So it's understandable that the front office would be leery of telling fans that it's basing its strategy on the hope that the third time will be the charm.
So, the Celtics are being careful. They're choosing their words wisely, bristling exaggeratedly whenever confronted with the option of tanking and generally pretending as though there's a chance that they'll be happy with the No. 8 spot in the East.
That's the smart approach, but we all know what's really going on here.
If Boston is anywhere near .500 at the trade deadline, expect to see veterans and every nonessential asset on the block. The rumor mill will start cranking, and before you know it, Courtney Lee, Brandon Bass and Gerald Wallace will be gone.
The Celtics might not have to strip away all of their assets if they have a satisfactory number of losses midway through the season, but they'll sell off everything if things aren't going according to plan.
Deadline moves will hint at the team's true goals, but we may have already seen the clearest sign of Boston's intent to sacrifice the season: the hiring of Brad Stevens.
He's not a guy you put in charge if you have designs on winning right away. By all accounts, Stevens is a brilliant basketball mind who'll one day be among the league's most accomplished strategists. But he's a long-term project whom Boston wants to see grow in an environment free of pressure.
The Celtics will need to surround their college coach with college players. And do you know where college players come from?
That's right: the draft.
That Sneaky Ainge
Finally, Ainge's consistent disparagement of the 2014 draft class is a novel one. But it points to a desire to tank, all the same.
Usually, general managers like to throw rival executives off the scent by saying they don't like certain players—when the very guys they're denigrating are the ones they want the most. In this instance, Ainge has gone all in, claiming he doesn't like any of the talent in this draft.
If Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was out there to change your franchise forever, or Tim Duncan was going to change your franchise for 15 years? That might be a different story. I don't see that player out there.
Kudos to you, Ainge. Well played. Now nobody will suspect you of tanking.
This is clearly a smoke screen. Boston wants—or most certainly should want—Andrew Wiggins. And if it can't get him, it'll gladly take Julius Randle, Dante Exum, Jabari Parker or whichever stud is available in the draft.
So, Ainge and the Celtics can talk all they want about winning games and preserving the integrity of Boston. But the truth is that they're much too smart to do either of those things.
Tank on, Boston. Tank on.