Can Boston Celtics Make 2015 Playoff Push in Weak Eastern Conference?

Matthew SchmidtFeatured ColumnistDecember 26, 2014

Do the Celtics have enough to make the playoffs in the weak East?
Do the Celtics have enough to make the playoffs in the weak East?USA TODAY Sports

Generally speaking, change is never anyone's favorite thing. It can cause stress, strife and indecision. It can make one long for the days prior, when things seemed all too perfect or at least more bearable.

Such winds of change have swept through the Boston Celtics organization over the past year-and-a-half, as the Celtics have gone from a perennial title contender to a team whose fans are debating whether or not it would be beneficial for the ballclub to make the playoffs at all.

It's a jarring adjustment for a franchise that made the postseason six consecutive years from 2008 to 2013, winning an NBA championship and making the finals one other occasion during that span. Even in the four years that Boston did not come out of the Eastern Conference, it was still a force to be reckoned with.

In 2012, the Celtics pushed the eventual champion Miami Heat to seven games in the conference finals. Heck, in 2013, some felt that the injury-plagued, seventh-seeded C's could give the second-seeded New York Knicks a run for their money in the first round, and they did.

But, of course, nothing lasts forever, and the Celtics now find themselves in a transitional period. With Rajon Rondo being traded to the Dallas Mavericks, not a single player remains from the 2008 championship squad. To go a step further, the only holdovers from the 2012 conference finals team are Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass, the latter of whom is a potential trade candidate.

Still, due to the utter ineptitude of the East, Boston is in playoff contention. Yes, a roster whose leading scorer, Jeff Green, is in the hunt for the postseason. And while we can sit here and discuss how this highlights the East's incompetence, there are more pressing issues at hand here. Well, for the Celtics, anyway.

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While Boston is likely talented enough to at least make a playoff push given the quality of the rest of the ballclubs it is fighting with, should it want to qualify for the postseason?

"First of all, this team is going to prepare every day to win games," said head coach Brad Stevens, via Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com.

That's nice and all, but it's difficult to put much stock into that statement. After all, what is a head coach supposed to say?

There are many factors at play here. Let's dive in and take a look.

Will the Roster Hold Up?

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

First of all, there is no guarantee that the C's are going to look the same way at the trade deadline that they do now. As a matter of fact, it seems relatively unlikely.

“I anticipate that there will be a lot of calls coming in in the next little bit, and I think that there will be some activity at the trade deadline,” said Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, via Jay King of MassLive.com. “Whether we do a trade or not, I have no idea. But we’ll continue to try to improve our team.”

Trading Rondo signaled that the Celtics have decided to change gears. No longer is Ainge looking to build the team around his star point guard. Now, it's about collecting even more assets and choosing a direction based off that.

So, with Rondo gone, it doesn't make much sense to keep veterans such as Green, Bass, Marcus Thornton and Evan Turner around.

Green has a $9.2 million player option for next season, and while there is a chance he may pick it up, it doesn't seem very probable based on the year he is having. The 28-year-old is averaging a career-high 18.7 points per game and boasts a career-best true shooting percentage of 56.1 percent.

Jeff Green's 2014-15 vs. Career Numbers

It seems likely that Green will use the contract of a rather comparable forward in Gordon Hayward as a barometer. Hayward was able to land a four-year, $63 million deal with the Utah Jazz this past summer, and while Green is not as versatile as Hayward, you have to think that there may be a team (or teams) out there that will be willing to cough up similar dough for him.

Taking that into consideration, it would be prudent for Ainge to move Green for whatever pieces he can get before the deadline. Again, Green is 28, and he will probably be well into his 30s by the time Boston is ready to win. Why pay an aging veteran $15 million a year to waste away on a rebuilding team?

Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated reported on a potential Green trade a week ago:

Chris Mannix @ChrisMannixYS

Boston still interested in moving Jeff Green, though there is less urgency there. Early offers have not been compelling, per a source.

You would imagine the same goes for guys such as Bass, Thornton and Turner.

None of them are up for a major payday, but it is pointless to keep them around. Not only do they not play a part in the future plans, but they are also taking minutes away from other younger players who do.

Plus, with the C's nabbing Brandan Wright from the Mavericks in the Rondo deal, it's only natural to move Bass to clear the Celtics' massive frontcourt glut which consists of Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Zeller, Bass and Wright.

Bass, Thornton and Turner are all veterans who can help contending teams. To be perfectly honest, I would be surprised if the Celtics don't trade at least one of them.

For Boston to make a serious playoff push, it is going to have to keep these guys or trade them in packages where it improves as a ballclub, and the latter is extremely unlikely.

Why Making the Playoffs Is a Good Idea

The answer here is simple: The young players would gain valuable postseason experience that could end up paying off if and when the C's truly become a contender over the next several years.

Sure, having to execute plays in the closing minutes of regular-season games builds character, but there is nothing like the playoff atmosphere.

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Also, it may really give the Celtics a chance to see what they have. Stars are frequently made in the postseason, and to quote Kevin Garnett, you get to see if you have any "plastic people" who will melt under the pressure.

While playoff performance is not a end-all-be-all in terms of deciding a player's future, it is certainly helpful in evaluating your talent and seeing what your guys are made of.

Not only that, but qualifying for the dance could have a positive impact in free agency.

Free agents generally do not want to sign with a team that isn't producing wins. They would much prefer to sign with a ballclub that is either already contending or on the come-up.

Not that making the playoffs in the Eastern Conference is indicative of anything other than the fact that you just happened to not be bad enough to miss out, but it at least signifies that you aren't that far away.

That could end up mattering for Ainge, who is likely to have some cap room to add free agents in the near future.

Why Making the Playoffs Is a Bad Idea

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Tankers, start your engines.

While it may seem difficult to envision making the playoffs as a bad thing on the surface, there are certainly repercussions for some squads.

Squads like the Celtics.

Let's be honest here: If Boston gets to the postseason, it will more than likely be eliminated in the first round by a team such as the Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls or Washington Wizards. So, even if the young guns get there, their stay will be a short one.

And you know the rule: If you make the playoffs, you don't get a chance to take part in the draft lottery. That means you have no chance of a No. 1 pick, and you won't even have a selection in the top 14 (unless, of course, you own another club's draft choice).

Is getting blasted in the opening round a good tradeoff for losing a lottery pick?

Forsberg breaks down the dilemma:

The Celtics, by virtue of a dilapidated Eastern Conference, remain on the fringe of the postseason putting green, a mere 1 ½ games behind both Brooklyn and Miami. There remains a chance that, even as Boston makes moves with the future in mind, this team could remain in the playoff hunt.

And while that might come at the expense of loftier draft position, it's unlikely the team would fight the idea of learning how to win games and getting a much-needed taste of postseason basketball. 

But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. These Celtics, as currently constituted, have a flawed roster that's overcrowded at multiple positions. More moves seem inevitable and those tweaks are likely to only further encourage the team to lean heavily on its youngest players for the sake of development. 

Forsberg closed the article with the following:

The Celtics were honest in their evaluation; this isn't where they want to be at Christmas. Sometimes the hardest part in getting where you want to go is admitting the current path isn't the best way to get there.

That's where the divide occurs among fans.

There are those who will support wins no matter what and who think their team should always aim for the postseason. It's what the sport is about, they say.

Then, you have the other side. The tankers, if you will.

They fear being a dreaded "treadmill" team. You know—too good to miss the playoffs or get a decent draft selection but not good enough to actually do anything in the playoffs.

Think of the Josh Smith-era Atlanta Hawks as an example. They made the postseason regularly, only to get bounced early every year. The Hawks have made the postseason seven consecutive seasons (including last season without Smith), and not once have they made it to the conference finals.

Nobody wants to be that kind of ballclub.

That's why a large number of fans would prefer to see their beloved team take a chance in the lottery and either land a star through the draft or package the pick in a trade for an already-established NBA star. Better that than watching your boys get shellacked in the first round.

I am not necessarily advocating either of these two sides, because both have their obvious pros and cons, but I am not going to lie: As nice as it would be to get back to the playoffs, it may not be in the best interest of the Celtics' future.

But Really...Can They Make It?

Boston has been a fickle team, to say the least.

It has done things like beat the Bulls on the road, torch the Wizards and nearly rally from 31 points down on the road against the Dallas Mavericks. But then, it has lost games to the New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets and a Heat squad that was missing Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The C's have also blown numerous big leads, including a 23-point edge versus Atlanta.

Alan Diaz/Associated Press

Those things are normally not marks of a playoff team. The only saving grace for the Celtics is that they play in arguably one of the most woeful conferences in NBA history, but even that may not be enough for them to play in May.

Even if Boston does hold onto Green, Bass and the rest of its potential trade pieces, there remains a strong possibility that it will be on the outside looking in come the postseason.

After all, it seems hard to imagine the Heat or the Brooklyn Nets missing the playoffs if they are able to get healthy and stay healthy, and the disappointing Hornets have been making a bit of a charge.

The question is, will Ainge even allow any of that to matter?

It remains to be seen, but my money is on no.

Expect Ainge to aggressively shop some of his veterans before the deadline and expect the Boston Celtics to look quite a bit different once the dust settles on Feb. 19.

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