Nov 20, 2013; San Antonio, TX, USA; Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens watches the action during the first half against the San Antonio Spurs at AT

Boston Celtics: Tanking their way to first place

When the Boston Celtics shipped former championship cogs Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets, it was inescapably clear that the recently-stacked roster was in the midst of being bludgeoned by the front office. It really felt like 55+ games could be lost in the quest for a high draft pick in next June’s talent-rich NBA draft.

Shortly thereafter, the Celtics hired 37-year old University of Butler head coach Brad Stevens to patrol the sidelines for Beantown’s hoops squad. The move came out of the blue, and the length of his contract (six years) implied the obvious: the Celtics, along with their new coach, were in it for the long haul. ‘It”, of course, was tanking. Losing on purpose. Getting worse before they got better.

Stevens would never outright admit it, of course. That’s simply not plausible. And not only that, but no coach will admit to wanting, (or even trying) to lose. That would be chaos; the height of competitive anarchy. But we all smile and nod as we see Danny Ainge and Co. crossing their fingers for the likes of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, or Julius Randle. There’s really no way around it, so NBA fans as a whole have accepted the “art” of tanking.

And this year is the big one. With Wiggins/Parker/Randle/etc.-mania looming immediately after the 2014 NBA Finals, an unprecedented number of clubs seemed to be vying to be as bad as they can be. Teams with new-ish general managers that understood what needed to be done: Philadelphia, Phoenix, Orlando, Utah, Toronto, and Boston.

The trick, of course, is all of those pesky teams that are so very incompetent, that they’re losing on accident. You know, losing while trying to win. A noble concept, and not one that is widely deployed in today’s NBA. It shouldn’t be all too difficult to tread water, a la the Milwaukee Bucks or Utah Jazz of last season, or the Joe Johnson-era Atlanta Hawks. It isn’t productive, of course, but it really shouldn’t be that hard to accomplish.

Ironically, teams that tried to be decent and compete for a playoff spot (or, laughably, contend) have been absolutely awful so far. The Knicks and Nets were supposed to be legitimate contenders, although anyone with a slide rule and a pocket protector could have warned you of the Knickerbockers pending downfall. Teams like Charlotte, Washington, Detroit, and the Lakers have been predictably average, despite unrealistically yearning for more.

So what happens to teams that are manned by basketball minds such as Brad Stevens? Well, they win on accident. It must be nice, right? Of course, Stevens wouldn’t admit to it, as he’s clearly trying to win. But it sure appears as though Ainge didn’t really want that to happen.

Stevens has somehow coaxed legitimate production out of the enigmatic and volatile Jordan Crawford. Kris Humphries, Courtney Lee, and and Brandon Bass have been the predictable, solid veterans that one might expect them to be. Jeff Green hasn’t exactly made the leap that the Celtics were hoping they’d see out of him, especially after coming on strong late last season.

Jared Sullinger has been even better than expected after recovering from more back issues. At just 6′ 9″, he’s been decent playing center in the Celtics best defensive lineup, although one can understand why Boston has apparently identified Houston big man Omer Asik as an ideal fit to protect the paint.

At the same time, players like disgruntled veteran Gerald Wallace and rookie center Kelly Olynyk have had disappointing campaigns to this point, but the team has managed to play decent overall basketball and win games while still handing minutes to unproductive players.

Yes, the Celtics are in first place, but it’s also a function of how weak the Eastern Conference is, and how embarrassingly thin the Atlantic Division is. The Nets are old and depleted. The Knicks are old, depleted, and bad. The Sixers were supposed to be the worst team in the league, and have indeed proven to be abysmal in recent weeks. And the Raptors are the only other team that has shown much life, even if they’re doing their best to tank, too.

So what to make of Stevens and his rag-tag Celtics? It’s impossible to ignore the coaching job that he’s done. Obviously, attitude and culture plays a huge and largely immeasurable role in turning a team’s outlook around. But the rate at which Celtics bigs have sagged on high screens rather than showing hard this season is different, as well as the increased focus on rebounding by back court players such as Bradley.

In other words, it isn’t all just a magical, feel-good story. Stevens has had a serious effect on every aspect of the Celtics’ on-court product. Rajon Rondo is still recovering from last season’s ACL tear, and he may not return during the current campaign. The dynamic between Stevens and Rondo will be intriguing to keep an eye on, and being armed with a true point guard and not a revamped Crawford will only make Stevens’ squad that much more dangerous.

Don’t be surprised if the Celtics fall out of the playoff race down the stretch, but they won’t fall too far. Stevens has his group playing too well, and there’s enough talent on the roster to maintain competitive in the talent-barren Atlantic and in the East as a whole.

Then again, it’s hard to argue that the Celtics won’t finish ahead of the awful Knicks and Sixers, and probably the Nets. A tank/first-place battle between the Raptors and Celtics down the stretch in March and April? That could make for some compelling television.

Tags: Avery Bradley Boston Celtics Brad Stevens Jared Sullinger NBA Rajon Rondo

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