There is a concern with some fans, a hope for others, that the Celtics would sacrifice this season and focus on development more than winning and possibly reap the benefit with a high pick in 2014.
The draft is already being touted as the best in a decade, with standouts including Andrew Wiggins, whose talent has drawn raves from Kevin Durant; Jabari Parker, perhaps the most fundamentally sound and skilled player to come out in five years; and Marcus Smart, the standout swingman from Oklahoma State who stunned NBA executives by returning for his sophomore year.
Any of those three would look lovely in green and immediately become the central figure in Danny Ainge’s rebuilding plan, but there is no guarantee that even if the Celtics were to “develop” this season that they would land a precious top-five pick.
If you recall, the Celtics have tried their lottery luck twice before and the results were not what they hoped. In 1997, they finished with the second-worst record, a mere 15 wins, and were crushed on lottery night when they were awarded the third pick. A trade had also netted the sixth pick and the Celtics walked away with Chauncey Billups, who would take five years to become “Mr. Big Shot”, and Ron Mercer, an overrated prep wonder from Kentucky who was out of the NBA by 28. Meanwhile, the Spurs, who also focused on earning a premium pick, scored big with Tim Duncan as the No. 1 overall selection.
In 2007, the Celtics finished with the second-worst record to the Grizzlies and the No. 1 pick was handed to the Trail Blazers, who picked Greg Oden, with the SuperSonics getting the second pick and Durant. The Celtics took Jeff Green at No. 5 and he was traded to Seattle as Ainge began forming the new Big Three.
So if banking on the fortunes of the lottery has failed miserably twice before, why would Ainge try again? There is much debate among the Celtics faithful as whether they should “tank” the season, meaning fans would get long looks at Fab Melo and Colton Iverson and more than a handful of games will be over before the fourth quarter, bringing the Celtics back to the bad old days of the mid-2000s, all for the sake of rebuilding.
Ainge was asked whether he planned on sacrificing this season to improve those lottery chances and he was bewildered.
“Tanking, I think, is ridiculous,” he said. “This is the Boston Celtics and we have a tradition and we have a culture that we’re trying to create. A culture of winning and a culture of work and developing these young men as winners and as pros, and so it’s too early to know what type of team we’re going to have. That’s a conversation that I can’t even have with anybody realistically until Oct. 1 when we have a summer to figure out where we are.
“I would never tank.”
That leads those skeptics to point to 2006-07, when the Celtics began by losing six of their first seven, 13 of their first 18, and then a nauseating 18-game losing streak that nearly cost Doc Rivers his job.
“We ran into a situation in 2006 where [Paul] Pierce got hurt and we had a couple of other injuries as well and we had a lot of young players,” Ainge said. “That was not tanking. We lost our best players and suddenly guys that weren’t ready to win were forced into a role to win. Our objective is to show up in training camp and prepare to win opening night, to prepare to win eight of our first 10 games. That’s our objective and you see how the season goes. We have a lot of young guys but we have a lot of guys that are hungry and hungry for an opportunity to show what they can do.
“They know that on paper the Chicagos and Brooklyns and Miamis and Indianas will be the top of the tier and we won’t be there and I believe our guys will have the pride to make a name for themselves as a new group.”
Just as notable, it’s practically impossible to tank in the NBA. In a salary-cap league, you can’t go 2013 Miami Marlins and trade your best players for prospects and run them out there to get embarrassed. You have to receive an equal return to what you trade, meaning a player such as Gerald Wallace, nicknamed “Crash” for his reckless style of play, is going to go just as hard in Boston as he did in Brooklyn.
Kris Humphries, in a contract year, is not going to pare down his aggressiveness for the sake of Wiggins. He doesn’t care. The Magic, in their quest to win the lottery, were “fortunate” enough to lose their top four players — Glen Davis, Arron Afflalo, Jameer Nelson, and Hedo Turkoglu — to injuries and intelligently encouraged them to rehabilitate meticulously. None were around for the end of the season but the Magic still didn’t win the lottery, drafting Victor Oladipo second overall.
The art of tanking requires a great deal of bad luck and misfortune. It sends a discouraging message to your fan base. It’s playing games with the Basketball Gods and the Celtics have finished with snake eyes in their previous two attempts. So hopefully Ainge has learned his lesson, and will use this season to give younger players opportunities, establish a workmanlike culture, play an entertaining brand of basketball, and when the draft comes, choose wisely.
Will it be Wiggins or Parker? Likely neither, but there are many teams bucking for those precious top picks with a fraction of the talent of the Celtics. So the quest to sink into oblivion is a fruitless one.