The Boston Celtics don’t have one specific plan regarding how they want to attack the future.
Instead, they’re well positioned to pick and choose from a long list of scenarios over the next few years, pending several fluctuations.
One of those fluctuations ends with the Celtics making the playoffs this season. The expectation heading into 2014 was that Boston would crumble before the opening tip on opening night.
But they didn’t crumble, and they haven’t shown a slight hint of doing so from here on out.
If their one specific plan was to lose games on purpose in an attempt to get the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft, they would start Gerald Wallace at center, restrict Jared Sullinger’s minutes and encourage Avery Bradley to work on his post game.
They aren’t doing any of that. They’re playing hard every night, with a top-10 defense and an offense that’s improving in the absence of Rajon Rondo, one of basketball’s great point guards.
The Celtics are getting better by the week.
While every team in the Eastern Conference—save the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers—is playing troublesome basketball, the Celtics are one of the better “bad” teams and, nearly a third of the way through the season, find themselves leading the Atlantic Division with a 12-15 record.
A lot of basketball is left to be played, making it a bit premature to speculate on which teams will or won’t make the postseason. Health and trades, relating to Boston as well as other teams in the conference, will have their say.
But if the Celtics do make the playoffs, their rebuild will assume a different form. It’ll still be a rebuild, of course, because a playoff berth in a pitiful conference doesn’t make you a title contender, which is the goal.
However, making the playoffs will affect their standing in the lottery and force Danny Ainge to play a different hand.
The team will kiss Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Jabari Parker, Dante Exum and Joel Embiid goodbye, as all are top-10 picks.
From this angle, making the playoffs could speed up Boston’s timetable. It’ll eliminate the path that so many other teams are trying to take, slowly building around a teenager with the hopeful promise of one day competing for a championship.
If they make the playoffs, and no major trades happen before the deadline to shake up the team’s young core, it’ll mean that Jared Sullinger, Avery Bradley and Jeff Green have made significant strides, and that Brad Stevens is a candidate for Coach of the Year.
None of that is bad.
Headed into next summer, the team would have Rondo at point guard, several attractive assets (including Kelly Olynyk, who’s shown legitimate improvement since early November), cap flexibility courtesy of the $10.3 million trade exception (via The Boston Globe) Boston received in the Paul Pierce trade and two mid- to late-first-round picks in an incredibly deep draft.
When Boston traded Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Doc Rivers for four unprotected first-round picks over the next four years (and the right to swap with the Brooklyn Nets in 2017), they put themselves in a position to rebuild at their own pace.
That’s eight draft picks until 2018, including their own four over the next four years. That’s liquid gold currency among NBA general managers.
Boston has one of the league’s most intelligent hierarchies in place, from ownership down to Stevens. They’re a patient bunch, willing to go whichever way will give them the strongest likelihood of winning a title.
They won’t mortgage the future to do it, but with all the draft picks and young talent in place, they don’t need to. If they make the playoffs this season, then they make the playoffs.
Doing so won’t have any impact on the end game, but it will tweak the way Boston will have to get there.
It is not problematic, just different than what was initially expected.
Michael Pina has bylines at Bleacher Report, Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Sports On Earth and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.