The Boston Celtics are back in the NBA playoffs after a brief one-year absence. However, given the Celtics’ commitment to a long-term rebuild, one wonders whether a trip to the playoffs may hinder those rebuilding efforts.
Boston clinched its first postseason berth since the 2012-13 season after the Brooklyn Nets’ 113-86 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Monday night. The Celtics solidified their position as the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference with Tuesday night’s thrilling 95-93 victory over the Toronto Raptors.
Last night’s win also earned the Celtics a date with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round. The Cavs are on the short list of teams favored to win the NBA title, so it’s easy to question how a presumably swift playoff exit could benefit the young Celtics.
Making the playoffs will obviously have a negative impact on Boston’s position in this year’s draft. While conventional wisdom holds that earlier draft picks are more valuable, I’m not sure that the Celtics hurt themselves at all this year.
Even before Boston’s recent 23-12 surge that has propelled the team into the postseason, the Celtics weren’t exactly on pace to earn an enviable draft position. As of February 19, this season’s NBA trade deadline, they had the league’s 11th-worst winning percentage.
So even before the Celtics acquired Isaiah Thomas from the Phoenix Suns, the team was unlikely to have a pick high enough to select a high-impact player in this year’s draft (or a player as valuable to its future as Thomas). It would have required a minor miracle for the C’s to earn a shot at drafting a player like Karl-Anthony Towns (Kentucky), Jahlil Okafor (Duke) or D’Angelo Russell (Ohio State).
If Boston’s own pick in this year’s draft were better, it could potentially be included in a trade package used to move up and get a player like Towns, Okafor or Russell. But the Celtics have so many first-round picks over the next four years that they can still assemble an attractive trade offer if they so choose.
Danny Ainge—Boston’s president of basketball operations—has done a masterful job of turning players on expiring contracts and other valuable assets into future first-round draft picks. And Ainge could certainly use many of those picks to add more young talent to the roster through the draft.
However, those picks are just as valuable as trade chips used to acquire more undervalued assets—like Thomas—or an established star who would be hard to attract in free agency.
Let’s not forget that the “Big Three” era that brought the most recent NBA title to Boston was made possible because of two trades that eventually turned Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen into Celtics legends. Acquiring Garnett and Allen would have been nearly impossible if they weren’t convinced the team could compete for a championship in the near future.
KG and Allen were highly motivated by the presence of Paul Pierce, but the current Celtics don’t have an existing star like Pierce on the roster. Boston’s 2015 postseason berth could be the carrot needed to entice the Celtics’ next big trade or free-agent target (I’m looking at you, Kevin Durant and Kevin Love) to join the team.
And let’s not understate how valuable a little bit of postseason experience can be for the current Celtics players and their coach, Brad Stevens.
It may be another two or three years before the Celtics are back to being legitimate title contenders. But when that time comes, it’d be nice to know that young players like Marcus Smart, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller aren’t going through the playoff ringer for the first time.
Stevens, likewise, will benefit from learning what it’s like to coach in the NBA playoffs.
He has quickly established himself as arguably the best young coach in this league. Even four or five games of playoff experience will help Stevens’ development, not to mention serve as a well-deserved reward for the challenge he has undertaken in restoring the Celtics to their former glory.
While a 2015 playoff berth may not have been in the team's preseason plans, Ainge, Stevens and Celtics fans should be happy that Boston’s rebuild appears to be on the fast track to success. Even if a first-round sweep at the hands of King James temporarily kills some of that joy, just remember that it could be worse.