This year’s Celtics have been straightforward in their willingness to sacrifice a season to retooling for the future. The team’s efforts to reposition itself — for instance, by letting go of aging stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce — were never likely to yield many victories this year. Under new coach Brad Stevens, the Celtics started off an unsurprising 0-4. Since then, they’ve improved a bit, but only to 8-12.
Somehow, though, this was enough to claim first place this week. One big advantage to playing in the lowly Atlantic Division, the NBA’s worst, is that even a .400 team can shine. The Celtics are two games ahead of Brooklyn, where Pierce and Garnett now reside. The 37-year-old Stevens, who led tiny Butler College to two national championship games, has if nothing else instilled a scrappy style in his team.
Stevens himself has no illusions. “It’s not like we’re lighting the world on fire,” he said. Some fans no doubt saw hope in failure: A truly awful record would yield a one-in-seven lottery chance at the top draft pick next year, which could yield a superstar to build a new team around. But these Celtics deserve credit for actually trying to win, even if it puts hopes for a lottery pick on hold. Previously unthinkable, a playoff appearance looks like at least a mathematical possibility — and would be a reward of its own.