SAN ANTONIO — Thursday may have been a difficult day for Celtics fans consumed with the NBA Draft and convinced the quickest way to foster a rebuilding effort is through a lottery pick this summer.
Players such as D’Angelo Russell of Ohio State, Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein of Kentucky, and Arizona’s Stanley Johnson made their NCAA Tournament debuts. All are expected to be drafted in the top 10 and would look rather imposing in green.
That’s until you realize the Celtics likely won’t be drafting in the top 10 this year. Entering Thursday, the Celtics’ 30-37 record is tied with two other teams for 11th worst in the league. Their draft position would slip to 15th at best if they reach the postseason.
Teams that don’t reach the playoffs are included in the draft lottery, regardless of record. The losers of the race for eighth in the Western Conference — perhaps New Orleans and Phoenix — become lottery teams despite having a better record than some playoff teams in the East.
So the Celtics are looking at the second tier of prospects, such as Kentucky’s Devin Booker, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, UCLA’s Kevon Looney, and Arizona’s Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. And that is an acceptable settlement.
The Celtics’ rebirth has occurred sooner than expected, and their playoff chances are legitimate. There are four other teams — Indiana, Charlotte, Miami, and Brooklyn — vying for the final two spots in the East, and the Celtics are tied for the second-best record in that group.
There also has been Milwaukee’s sudden slide at the sixth spot — it is 4-11 since the All-Star Break — a decline that could continue with Brooklyn, Cleveland, Miami, Indiana, Golden State, Atlanta, and Chicago on the schedule before the Bucks come to Boston April 3.
So there could be three spots available since the Celtics are only 2½ games behind the Bucks.
What the Celtics’ push for the postseason is doing is making them a priority again in Boston. They have been buried behind the Patriots, Red Sox, and Bruins since Danny Ainge traded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, but their resurgence has come faster than most of the faithful expected, with the team’s impressive play at home (18-16) making this season a success.
Although there may have been concern early in Brad Stevens’s inaugural season that he wasn’t the right coach for the franchise, he has quickly emerged as one of the league’s rising leaders, especially with his uncanny knack for calling successful plays after timeouts.
The players have developed expeditiously, especially Marcus Smart, who dropped a career-high 25 on Oklahoma City on Wednesday, and Avery Bradley, who is averaging 16.2 points since the All-Star break. The new additions have sparkled, including point guard Isaiah Thomas, who was averaging more than 21 points with the team before his lower back injury.
The foundation isn’t set, but a younger core has been built, and Ainge is astute enough to capitalize on their mid-first round pick as well as the Clippers’ first-round pick (in exchange for Doc Rivers), which is currently at No. 25.
The Celtics’ focus should be as much on free agency — or restricted free agency — as the draft. Although another two prospects would blend in nicely to the Celtics’ version of a boy band, there is a more pressing need for an established free agent to make the team a legitimate contender next season.
Whomever the Celtics decide to draft, they will be carefully developed by the organization, and this current crop is so deep there will be quality players from Nos. 15-25. Players such as Thursday’s Georgia State hero R.J. Hunter, Virginia’s Justin Anderson, and Texas’s beefy big man Myles Turner could all be available, potentially giving Boston even more depth.
When Ainge flipped the roster beginning with the Pierce-Garnett trade, he was able to load up on youth, and the trade that acquired Tyler Zeller, a rather overlooked 7-footer who has turned into a productive starter, was one of his best deals recently.
Of course, the Celtics have played this season without much contribution from 17th pick James Young, who is still a 19-year-old, and with injury-plagued seasons from Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger.
In other words, while the Celtics would love to have Towns, Cauley-Stein, or Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, there was little chance they were going to finish with that poor of a record. They are not Philadelphia, Minnesota, the Knicks, Orlando, Sacramento, or the Lakers.
They are beyond those organizations. They bounced back from adversity quicker because of savvy management and a bright young coach. And the faithful should keep faith that the Celtics will make due with their first non-flashy first-round picks, a load of salary cap space, and the growth of a roster that is gaining confidence and experience as this playoff run progresses.
So it’s actually a good day for Celtics fans. There is enough depth in this year’s draft to bring two quality players to Boston, and Ainge’s real work will begin this summer, when he attempts to reel in a premium free agent.