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The Boston Globe

Sports

Christopher L. Gasper

Celtics not your average first-place team

Rodney Harrison had a particular way of letting someone know what they believed was foolish. Harrison would preface his remarks with the phrase, “No disrespect, but . . . ” What followed was usually a strong repudiation or reality check.

So, in the spirit of the tell-it-like-it-is ex-Patriot and current NBC studio analyst, no disrespect, Boston Celtics, but you’re not really a first-place team.

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Yes, the Celtics are on top of the Titanic, err, Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference with a 9-12 mark entering Sunday’s meeting at Madison Square Garden with the New York Knicks. But they’re there by default. No one should get the notion that the Celtics’ rebuilding plan is ahead of schedule based on their current standing in the standings.

The Celtics are a product of their environment, which is the putrid Eastern Conference. As of Saturday, three of the 15 teams in the East were above .500 — the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, and Atlanta Hawks. Comparing the caliber of basketball played in the East to the play in the West right now is like comparing the Model T to a Mustang.

At the start of play on Saturday, the Celtics’ 9-12 record and .429 winning percentage would have placed them 13th out of 15 teams in the Western Conference. Their point differential was minus-2.5 per game, the worst of any of the 16 teams occupying playoff spots.

The speciousness of the Celtics sitting at the No. 4 seed in the East right now does not mean there haven’t been signs of progress or hope from the progeny of the parquet.

They are an enjoyable team to watch, and there are reasons for any keeper of the Green to engage in their season.

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New coach Brad Stevens may resemble a corporate middle manager, but Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge got it right in replacing Doc Rivers.

Stevens has the Celtics playing hard on a consistent basis. He has them believing in the systems they’re running. He has them believing they can and should win.

Most importantly, with the exception of a minor flare-up from Gerald Wallace, Stevens has avoided any carping about playing time on a team without clearly defined roles or stars. That’s impressive for a college coach adjusting to a culture where the coach has to prove himself to the players and not the other way around.

Jared Sullinger is one of the rarest of creatures in today’s NBA — a polished, willing, and skilled low-post operator. He is a part of this team’s future, whether it’s as a member of the core, or as the Al Jefferson piece in a deal that delivers a major piece of Banner No. 18.

Jordan Crawford has morphed from an erratic gunner into a suitable point guard until Rajon Rondo returns from his torn ACL. Crawford is averaging 13.5 points and 5.3 assists per game. The ESPN advanced metric of player efficiency rating (PER), which is supposed to quantify a player’s overall per minute statistical contribution to a team, has Crawford at 18.93. That puts him 46th in the league, one spot ahead of Tim Duncan.

Avery Bradley seems to have regained both his shooting stroke and his confidence.

There are real glimmers of hope for the Celtics’ future, but citing their current fool’s gold first place in the standings as one of them is misguided optimism.

There are some pieces here, but not the pieces.

It was the same way in 2006-07, when the Celtics won 24 games. Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, and Tony Allen were on that team. So were Sebastian Telfair, Ryan Gomes, and Gerald Green.

The Celtics are in first in their division, but they’re not as high in some other NBA rankings.

As of Saturday, the Celtics were dead last in the 30-team NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.12). They were 23d in turnovers per game. They were 25th in points per 100 possessions (98.7). The Green ranked tied for 28th in the league in second-chance points allowed (14.8).

The East is so abominable that the Celtics are probably going to make the playoffs, particularly if Rondo returns before the All-Star break, just by nature of being a high-effort, cohesive, competent bunch.

Forget the T-word, the Celtics aren’t tanking. It’s virtually impossible, not with the East in the tank.

The conference is simply not cooperating with the Celtics, if their plan was to feast from the basketball bounty that is the 2014 NBA draft.

The Knicks, the team who provided the last rites for the Big Three era, have been a massive disappointment, posting a 5-13 mark.

The Nets, who took Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett off the Celtics’ hands, have been an unmitigated disaster with unqualified coach Jason “the Spill of Victory” Kidd.

The Celtics face the Nets on Tuesday in Brooklyn and the idea of a reunion with KG and Pierce, who is out with a fractured hand, feels as emotional as a trip to the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Young teams that were supposed to step up this season, such as Cleveland and Detroit, have fizzled. The meniscus tear that has sidelined Bulls star Derrick Rose for at least the regular season has further contributed to play in the East going south in a hurry.

Where is M.L. Carr when you need him?

Does winning a first-round series and then getting overwhelmed by actual contenders Indiana or Miami in the second round bring the Celtics any closer to being a championship team?

No, it just puts them on a treadmill of mediocrity.

No disrespect, the Celtics might be on top of the standings, but they’re still not close to getting another banner hanging from the top of TD Garden.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and the host of Boston Sports Live. He can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

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