In the end, without visibly tanking, without losing the culture established after six years of resounding success, and without the instruction and vision of coach Brad Stevens being tuned out, the Celtics are right where they want to be.
They are headed for a premium draft pick. They spent the season playing youngsters and receiving answers to some lingering questions about veterans while Stevens was allowed to learn the league and himself in a non-pressure environment.
The mission was accomplished in this transition season and most notably, no one accused the Celtics of giving up. The worst fears about Stevens’s message being disregarded by the Celtics’ veterans because of his inexperience never materialized.
Stevens galvanized the locker room and, after a couple of early obstacles such as playing time confusion, maintained his authority.
And it wasn’t easy. The Celtics began the year 12-14, looking like a playoff contender in the junior varsity-like Eastern Conference, then lost 43 of the last 56 games. There have been low points, awful losing streaks, fourth-quarter collapses, and myriad injuries, but the Celtics accomplished their goals.
President of basketball operations Danny Ainge said early in the season that the playoffs were not in the immediate thoughts. The goal was not to shoot for the playoffs. Ainge sought assets for Jordan Crawford — two second-round picks — and ridded the club of the remaining two years of Courtney Lee’s contract.
Ainge allowed Crawford and Lee to increase their value so they could be moved because neither were part of the team’s long-term plans. Ainge essentially worked his roster as if this season was an afterthought, besides the development of rookies and younger players.
Although Ainge has criticized those who have praised this draft as one of the best since 2003, he realizes the importance of having at least one lottery pick to foster the rebuilding plan. It would have been possible to ramp up the roster to try for the eighth seed, but that would have put the organization in long-term purgatory with two mid-first-round picks (the Celtics also have Brooklyn’s selection). Avoiding the playoffs without benching veterans, signing subpar NBA players to 10-day contracts, and trading valuable players was Ainge’s most astute move since the organization decided to reload.
“Yeah, I’ve been very happy with how hard they’ve played,” Ainge said. “[But] sure, this has been very hard. Losing is not fun and we knew the possibility of our team not being a playoff team. We knew the possibility existed but it’s still really a challenge to live and to go through. These kids put in a lot of work. Our coaching staff works really hard and you want to see them get rewards and [the losing] is never fun.”
There has been a vocal group of Celtics fans who have rooted for the team to lose to improve their chances at a higher lottery pick. Their voices have only risen in the past few weeks as the end of the season has approached and those prized freshman players such as Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, and Joel Embiid have declared for the draft.
The pleas followed the Celtics all the way to Wednesday, where a loss would give them a chance to tie Utah for the fourth-worst record. Mission accomplished after the Celtics lost and the Jazz won in OT.
Those sentiments have been heard by Ainge, who has had his share of history banking on the draft lottery to save his organization — Google the 1997 and 2007 draft lotteries.
“There’s all sorts of different opinions on all issues,” Ainge said of the pro-tankers. “And that seems to be a hot topic and I don’t get frustrated or get mad at people with different opinions. Anybody that watches our team play [knows we play hard] and you’ve got to give a lot of credit to Coach Stevens. He’s instilled as much positivity as you can in a [tough] situation, even though I do think there are a lot of positives and a lot of things to build on. I think Brad has done a good job managing a difficult situation.”
The situation is over. The Celtics can’t lose again this season. While 2014-15 may be another rebuilding season, it is the next step in rebuilding. The organization has advanced from the beginning stages and the next step in constructing a successful model will begin Thursday.
So the Celtics can rise from being knocked to the deck, dust themselves off, and move forward from this forgettable season. This year was a necessary part of the process, but it was unquestionably arduous and disappointing.
“We have a lot of work to do this summer,” Ainge said. “There’s always a lot of unanswered questions. This offseason, there’s going to be a lot of work and I’ve been anticipating that all year. It’s important we keep expectations realistic, we don’t panic and that we don’t try to do something to make a splash and win a press conference and that we actually try to do things that are good long term for the Celtics.”
That’s been his plan the whole time.