Going into the season, Brad Stevens may as well have been pointing at the standings and saying that the Boston Celtics were expected to finish right near the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
After all, they had nothing to play for, except a better shot at drafting Andrew Wiggins (or whoever else you think will emerge at the top of the 2014 NBA draft class).
Or so we thought.
Maybe the Celtics shouldn't tank after all. They've been remarkably competitive during the early portion of the 2013-14 season, remaining at .500 through the first eight games and showcasing one of the better defensive units in the NBA.
All of a sudden, Boston is looking like it should reverse course and actually compete for one of those eight coveted playoff spots.
Oh, how the beginning of a season can change things.
Going into the 2013-14 season, it was widely assumed that the Boston Celtics were (at least) a tier below the teams that would actually be competing for the final couple spots in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
The Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks seemed guaranteed to lock up the top five seeds in some particular order, and the Atlanta Hawks felt like a near lock for No. 6.
But other than the Pacers, no team has emerged as a truly dominant force thus far, and the playing field is as wide open as can be. At the beginning of the third week of the 2013-14 campaign, Boston's 4-4 record is good enough for the C's to hold down the No. 4 seed in the East.
Seriously. That's how much parity there's been in this conference, and it's made for a lot of entertaining basketball.
Each of the aforementioned candidates for the final spots currently sits below .500, and none of them have looked particularly promising when hoping for an early-season turnaround. Of the bunch, the Wizards look the best because they're still phasing in Marcin Gortat and Emeka Okafor.
But even if we assume that the Wizards will figure into the playoff mix, that's still only one more team in a conference that has completely lacked consistency. If Boston can sneak into the postseason—or even earn a solid seed—anything can happen.
The Celtics weren't supposed to have this much talent on the roster.
Without Rajon Rondo (more on that later), there was Jeff Green and a bunch of spare parts, as the C's were essentially hoping that they could just hold on until the All-Star point guard returned to the lineup. Little did they know—or maybe they did—that the first handful of games would allow some players to emerge as quality rotation guys.
Green has been unsurprisingly solid, but we've seen Vitor Faverani and Jordan Crawford assert themselves as long-term keepers.
Although Faverani came back to earth after his torrid start to his rookie season, he's still been a solid defender and a great shot-blocker. It's quite clear that he has plenty of professional experience, as he's well ahead of the rookie curve in terms of rotations and defensive assignments.
The development of Crawford has been even more surprising. Whereas Faverani was an unknown commodity, Crawford had earned a much-deserved reputation as a conscienceless gunner.
So much for that.
During Crawford's first four games as a starter, he averaged 12.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game while shooting 47.7 percent from the field. The highlight was a 16-point, 10-assist outing against the Orlando Magic that showed off just how much court vision he actually has.
This isn't going to be a flash in the pan, though expecting double-doubles would be a foolhardy desire for Boston fans.
There still isn't much star potential on the roster, but it's already abundantly clear that there's more talent than expected going into the season.
Rajon Rondo isn't going to be out forever.
According to Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald, Rondo is a bit ahead of schedule, and it's been the decision of the point guard to accelerate his rehab. Here's what general manager Danny Ainge had to say, via Murphy:
He played 3-on-3 three weeks ago when he wasn't supposed to. But I asked (the training staff) if it was OK for him to be playing one-on-one, and the answer was yes. Of course playing one-on-one is one thing. It doesn't mean he's ready to play to the NBA standard.
That's the last we've heard about Rondo's recovery from a torn ACL. There isn't a timetable for his return, nor do we even have a general idea at this point. Christmas? New Year's? February?
But one thing is certain: Rondo will eventually return, and the team will be much better when he's on the court.
With the talented floor general running the show, things open up because he has nearly unmatched court vision. Jordan Crawford may be showing off some newfound passing skills—and look how much better the C's looked when he was distributing the rock well—but he can't hold a candle to Rondo.
Few, if any, can.
If the Celtics are in the hunt for a playoff spot, Rondo is a piece capable of pushing them over the top and making them one of those teams that absolutely no one wants to face in the postseason.
The Celtics still have to figure out what Brad Stevens brings to the table.
How does he respond to losing a key part of the rotation? What does he do if a bench player suddenly starts playing at a much higher level and is almost forcing his way into the lineup?
Those personnel decisions aren't as important if winning isn't the ultimate goal. If Stevens is committing to tanking, then he's inherently limiting what he can show to the Boston management. And while he already has a long-term deal, that doesn't mean much in the NBA world.
Plus, Stevens showing off his promise as a coach could help out during the offseason when players are deciding where they want to spend the next couple years.
The former Butler head coach is one of the most promising parts of this organization, and it's just as important to evaluate him as it is to figure out the long-term upside of the guys who actually spend time on the court.
Tanking doesn't allow that to happen with as high a degree of accuracy.
The historical appeal of this franchise is still present, even during a supposed down season. That's what happens when the rafters boast plenty of homages to championship-winning teams and Hall of Fame players.
When the average person thinks of the NBA, the first two franchises to come to mind are generally the Los Angeles Lakers and the Celtics. I apologize for the generalization, but the history and popularity of those two organizations is just light-years ahead of every other team's.
Because of that, the draft isn't as big a concern for the Celtics.
They can lean on that appeal and lure in marquee free agents, kind of like the Lakers always try to do. Rebuilds are inherently easier because players have no qualms about becoming a member of the Celtics organization.
And if the draft isn't as important, then neither is tanking. And if tanking isn't as important...
Well, you can see where this is going.