We've heard multiple key members of the Celtics (most notably Ainge, Stevens, and Sullinger) flatly deny that this team has any intention to "tank" for a high pick in next year's draft, despite the studs expected to be available. I find these signals highly believable. Why? It's not simply because these individuals have too much pride to accept losing a lot of games. (Well, in Sullinger's case I'm sure that applies.) It's that when Ainge, for instance, dismisses "tanking", I think he's dismissing (in capital-letters) "TANKING" while accepting the possibility of (lower-case) "tanking".
When Ainge confronts questions about the T-word, I assume he's associating it with the heavier, upper-case variety. What would TANKING look like for the Celtics? Trading Rondo for 50 cents on the dollar before he can get a chance to prove his knee is healthy; packaging a young player like Bradley along with an ugly contract like that of Wallace in a desperate move to get under the cap; dumping Green for an expiring contract or a pick because of his ability to carry an offense at times. Those are things that a team that is blatantly screaming "we intend to TANK" seek to do. It's exactly the type of thing that motivated the Sixers' trade of Jrue Holiday.
But the Celtics don't need to embark on a full-on TANK job as described above in order to have a chance to draft a game-changing rookie at next year's draft. A milder, lower case tanking would be sufficient, one mild enough that I truly don't believe Ainge considers the "tanking" label to be appropriate. What would this look like? You allow Rondo all the time in be world to get completely healthy; you play the youngsters enough minutes for them to get valuable game experience for the future or showcase themselves as possible trade chips; you hire a solid, rookie head coach out of college who will inevitably have growing pains as he learns the NBA game; and you resist the temptation to sign good players who can contribute now but aren't exactly franchise-changers, like Josh Smith, Al Jefferson, or Paul Milsapp. Note that the last two strategies mentioned in the previous sentence have been employed already. We're still unsure about the first two, but I think the likelihood for both is high.
Ainge's moves this offseason are entirely consistent with what I'd define as "tanking, but not TANKING". The fact that he's got an undrafted free agent as his backup point guard when his star point guard is coming off ACL surgery, and the fact that the best center on the roster is a 25-year-old Brazilian rookie, both support the argument.
This strategy should be a familiar one. That's because Ainge himself tried it just a few years ago, when Paul Pierce was diagnosed with a stress reaction in his foot and the Celtics organization held him out for an extraordinary number of games. What ensued was a dismal record, lowlighted by the infamous 18-game losing streak. We all know the payout: no Oden or Durant, but a high pick (#5) that was a key towards Danny's personnel masterpiece and ultimately, banner 17. That's exactly the game Ainge is playing now, regardless of what name you choose to describe it.