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Can the Boston Celtics Make a Realistic Playoff Push?

Brian Robb@CelticsHubFeatured ColumnistFebruary 7, 2015

Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens draws a play during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets in Boston, Friday Jan. 30, 2015. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Charles Krupa/Associated Press

BOSTON — When the Boston Celtics elected to trade away Rajon Rondo back in December, the team was a mere 1.5 games behind the Miami Heat for the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. Nearly two months later, Boston stands just two games behind that same playoff spot, despite also dealing away its leading scorer Jeff Green in January. 

"We're right there," Brandon Bass said of Boston’s chances. "Everybody's well aware. Coach [Brad Stevens] is well aware. We just have to keep working."

While president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has been busy deconstructing large sections of the team’s roster, making five trades within the past four months, Bass and his teammates have continued to fight. The goal? A chance to take advantage of a lackluster Eastern Conference and get the team’s young core a taste of the postseason.   

The journey has been a tumultuous one for Boston this year, but the team has shown signs of steadying the ship, including a three-game winning streak after a 107-96 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night.

In the midst of constant roster turnover, the Celtics have remained afloat within a crowded race at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. After starting the year with a 9-14 record before the Rondo deal, the Celtics have stayed in the mix with a 10-16 record over the past 26 games. With five other teams and Boston bunched up within three games of each other in the standings, it's still anyone's guess as to who will escape with one of the final two playoff berths in the subpar East.

TeamRecordGames behind 
7. Charlotte Hornets22-27--- 
8. Miami Heat21-281 
8. Brooklyn Nets21-281 
10. Detroit Pistons20-312 
11. Boston Celtics19-302 
12. Indiana Pacers19-323 
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“I think our main thing is it’s not as hard as it seems [to make the playoffs], especially being in the Eastern Conference," Gerald Wallace told Bleacher Report. "The way it's set up, a long winning streak can put you in a great position. I think it would be interesting and fun for a lot of the young guys to experience that, to know what it’s really like to play basketball in the NBA.”

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

For a franchise that has been focused more on collecting future assets than improving the team’s on-court product in recent trades, any talk of postseason play may seem foolish to casual observers. If the playoffs mean damaging the team’s future by lowering the team’s draft pick, just how valuable would that playoff experience be for Boston?

That’s a question for the team’s front office to debate as it continues to tinker with the roster over the next few weeks. For the time being, Ainge remains open to the possibility, as he told A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com last week: 

I would love to see our team in the playoffs, but I don’t want to see us back into the playoffs with a really bad record and not even have a fighting chance. If our team can keep getting better by developing, if we can make some deals at the trade deadline that put us in position to actually get into the playoffs and have a chance to win a playoff series, I think that would be a lot of fun.

While Ainge hedges on the idea for now, make no mistake: In the Celtics locker room, playoff talk is real and encouraged.

"I would hope so,” Stevens said of his players’ recent postseason banter. “You're competitive. You play this game. You grow up playing this game. That's a great thing for them to be talking about right now. I think it's awesome…I’m going to approach every single day with that [postseason] mindset." 

Despite the potential drawbacks, can fans realistically expect a sustained playoff push from Boston over the next two months? It’s actually more feasible than one might think.

  

Trade Deadline Uncertainty? 

With the trade deadline looming on Feb. 19, the first question one should ask about Boston’s postseason prospects is simply this: Who will be left on the roster in two weeks?

Based on Ainge’s track record over the past few months, it’s unclear whether veterans on expiring contracts like Bass, Marcus Thornton and Tayshaun Prince will stick with the team as the deadline approaches. All three players have performed well this season as supporting pieces and could provide a boost for contenders. Bass has been a reliable mid-range shooter and versatile defender. Thornton continues to be an efficient scorer in limited minutes and Prince's wing defense has made up for his offensive shortcomings. Losing any of them would damage Boston’s prospects of making the postseason.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

However, one significant obstacle stands in the way of Ainge potentially trading any of the three players: Money.

As bench players with limited upside, the veteran trio all make fairly high salaries: Thornton's $9.5 million, Prince's $7.7 million and Bass' $6.9 million. Given Ainge’s desire to avoid taking back any lengthy contracts in his dealings this year, it’s hard to find many playoff teams with the need for said players and the expiring contracts plus draft assets to make an offer appealing to Boston. 

As we saw last year when Ainge decided to hold on to Kris Humphries for the duration of the 2013-14 season, Boston’s front office is not going to deal a useful player away for nothing. Unless the Celtics gain something from a transaction (trade exception, draft picks, young talent, etc.), they won’t make a trade.

When you factor these elements into the equation, Boston’s odds of having these experienced players around for a playoff push is higher than most anticipate. ESPN.com’s playoff odds currently peg Boston with a 20 percent chance to make the postseason, but the added benefit of some roster continuity over the next couple months could help that number rise. The expected return after the All-Star break of Kelly Olynyk from a sprained ankle will give the team a boost as well.

A Developing Youth Movement 

Ainge's trading of key pieces like Rajon Rondo in December and Jeff Green in January have caused a tough balancing act for Stevens during the first half of the season. While trying to develop the team's young core and win games, Stevens has also been forced to integrate several new players into Boston’s rotation as a result of the trades. 

“It’s always challenging when you have a lot of moving parts,” assistant coach Walter McCarty explained. “We try to control what we can control, and prepare as best we can with who we have. We try to put a game plan together to win, no matter whom we have. Right now, Brad has done a real good job of doing that.”

Incredibly, Boston’s performance in the win-lose column has not dropped off after trading away Rondo and Green. In fact, Boston has been slightly better since dealing both players: 

Record With Rondo: 8-14

Record Without Rondo: 11-16

Record With Green: 12-21

Record Without Green: 7-9

Winslow Townson/Associated Press

The most encouraging part of those records is how Boston’s younger parts have played a more prominent role in the team’s success during the transition period following the trades. Marcus Smart has played his best basketball of the season in recent weeks, allowing Stevens to reinsert him into the starting lineup against the New York Knicks Tuesday night. James Young has become a regular part of the Stevens rotation, providing a boost to Boston’s offensive production with his shooting.

With both youngsters showing signs of promise in their new enhanced roles, Stevens now has the ability to develop Boston’s youth while giving his team its best chance to win most nights. For a rebuilding franchise that's trying to build a winning culture, that's the best-case scenario to have for a coach.  

As Boston's rotation has stabilized in recent weeks, one look around the rest of the Eastern Conference shows why the playoff possibilities aren't fading away anytime soon. The Celtics' playoff competition includes plenty of question marks.

The Charlotte Hornets are playing better lately, but are without star point guard Kemba Walker (left knee surgery) for at least another month. Dwyane Wade (left hamstring) is out indefinitely for the Miami Heat. The Detroit Pistons lost Brandon Jennings for the season due to a torn left hamstring. Seemingly the entire Brooklyn Nets roster has been the subject of trade rumors in recent weeks, making their playoff chances cloudy at best.

TeamRecordHome/away games remainingGames vs. .500+teams remaining 
7. Charlotte Hornets22-2715/18 14
8. Miami Heat21-2818/15 17
8. Brooklyn Nets21-2816/17 19
10. Detroit Pistons20-3115/16 15
11. Boston Celtics19-3015/18 16
12. Indiana Pacers19-3218/14 17

The Celtics don’t have as much talent as these squads, but they do have a roster and coaching staff committed to surprising everyone by achieving their postseason goal. Ultimately, the team's success will depend on just how much this team can grow up in the next couple months. 

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