With two games left in the regular season, the Celtics are currently seventh in the Eastern Conference with a one-game lead over the Pacers and Nets. If the Celtics win one of their next two, or if either Indiana or Brooklyn loses one of their next two, Boston will make the playoffs and play either Atlanta or Cleveland in the first round. The Celtics would be huge underdogs in either of those series, and few people would pick them to win four out of seven against either team. The question becomes: is it good for the Celtics to make the playoffs this year?
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a Celtics fan, so naturally I believe that Brad Stevens is a wizard who will break down the Hawks’ system, and that the Cavs’ individually talented players will be no match for some good old fashioned team basketball. From there, it’s just a matter of waltzing through the terrible East and then who knows what can happen in the finals. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend I’m an objective observer and go with the “popular” notion that regular-season records are indicative of playoff success and that the Celtics will lose in the first round to either of these teams. Does this benefit them to make the playoffs and lose instead of missing the playoffs as the ninth team in the East and taking a few ping pong balls into the lottery?
A first-round playoff exit isn’t a success, a second-round playoff exit isn’t a success; the only team that succeeds at the end of the year is the team that wins the final game. Granted, a team can have a great year and do very well without winning a championship; no one ever says that a conference finalist is a bad team, and no one’s clamoring for those teams to blow up their rosters. The Celtics winning in the first round would be a major overachievement for a team that many thought would be tanking this season, but they’re not winning the championship this year. This team isn’t good enough yet to contend for championships, so everything they do moving forward should be geared towards making them a better team.
Making the playoffs will hurt Boston’s draft position, so naturally, you’d think I’d encourage them to tank the next two games, and pick up a lottery ticket. While it’s true that the Celtics’ draft position would improve by missing the playoffs, their position wouldn’t improve much. If the Celtics miss the playoffs, they’d have slightly less than a three percent chance at a top three pick, so let’s assume they don’t win the lottery and pick where their record would indicate at 11th or 12th. If the Celtics make the playoffs as the seven seed, they’d be picking 16th overall. Four spots isn’t a negligible amount, but there’s also value in playoff experience for a team’s young, promising assets. For the Celtics, that young prospect is Brad Stevens.
Stevens is the best thing the Celtics have going right now. He gets the team to play hard night after night and has pushed a sub-par roster into the playoffs. We saw some of this last year, where the Celtics got off to a strong start, but fizzled off when they just didn’t have the pieces to win games. You could tell that Stevens hated losing; he was fairly open about his frustration without throwing his players under the bus. Making the playoffs is a big step in the coach’s development. The games change in the playoffs. Defense picks up, game planning and scouting become more refined with playing the same opponent several times in a row. It’s something Stevens will have to learn as the long-term coach of a contending Celtics team.
That’s the other concern with missing the playoffs. If Stevens doesn’t feel that the Celtics are going anywhere, he could be lured back to the college game as some rumors have already sprung up. Giving Stevens a taste of playoff basketball could help suppress his wandering eye and help give him necessary experience coaching in the postseason. Even if they lose in the first round, the playoff experience for Stevens and the players is worth moving down in the draft from 12 to 16.