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Updating the "treadmill of mediocrity" narrative around the Celtics

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That's the narrative that's been attached to this team recently. Is it fair or outdated?

Al Bello/Getty Images

There's a term in NBA lexicon called "the treadmill of mediocrity."  The gist of it is that teams that are good-but-not-great fall into a pattern of not being bad enough to get a great draft pick.  Thus they can never get good enough to be an elite team and just get stuck in the middle.  This is a reasonable fear and I'm sure that this can happen to some teams.  However, I'm having trouble understanding why some people are associating it with the Celtics.

I've seen this crop up in various "power rankings" blurbs and preview articles but I'll pick on Adam Himmelsbach of the Globe for this lead-in to his Celtics preview article.

Ceiling appears limited for Celtics in Eastern Conference - The Boston Globe

As the Celtics start a new season, they find themselves in a kind of basketball purgatory. They have, without question, improved their roster. But they still might not be good enough to climb in the Eastern Conference standings. Instead, they are in the awkward position of being just good enough to make it more difficult to become great. As they learned last year, being in the middle of the pack leads to draft picks in the middle of the pack, which makes it challenging to escape that wormhole. (Of course, the 2016 first-round pick they will get from the Brooklyn Nets could turn out to be a boon.)

First of all, I have to point out that his parenthetical note at the end kind of negates the whole point he's making in the first several sentences.  If the cost of success is missing out on a top draft pick, that cost is offset by the 2 potential lottery picks the Celtics could get from Brooklyn and Dallas.  In fact, the Nets are the gift that keeps giving since we can swap picks with them next year and have their pick the year after.  So we've already got the picks.  More than we know what to do with in fact.  Why waste time being bad for another year just to get our pick a little higher?

All that aside, let's break down the treadmill narrative itself.  Does it really make sense that a team wanting to be good has to first be terrible?  This question was reviewed back in 2012 by the folks at Wages of Wins.

Why teams should try and get on the treadmill of mediocrity | The Wages of Wins Journal

The best option for being a great team is overwhelming to be already a great team! Being on the cusp of breaking out is just slightly better than being in the treadmill of mediocrity. However, once a team gets more than a season out being on a good team is the best option for improvement in the future (outside of already being a great team.) By the time we get four years out we see being on an OK team is about as good for a team’s fortunes as being a 50-54 win team. However, all of these options are much better than being on bad (20-29 win) teams to terrible (less than 20 win) teams.

So basically, there aren't a lot of teams that go from worst-to-contender in a few years.  You have to at least make a step in the right direction by being not-horrible on your way up to contender.  To me, that's what the Celtics did last year - and ahead of schedule no less.

Granted, that success did cost us a shot at Justise Winslow.  Time will tell us how much of a drop there is between Winslow and Terry Rozier but Ainge was clearly willing to package a bunch of draft picks to bridge that gap on draft night.  If Winslow turns out to be the next Wade or Russell Westbrook, then maybe we'll regret that one even more as the years go on.  But every year teams miss out on top talent for any number of reasons (from bad scouting to ping pong bounces to injuries to simple bad luck).  The danger being outlined in the "treadmill" theory is the continued landing in the middle of the pack that costs a team a chance at transcendent greatness.

Currently the Sixers appear to be stuck on the treadmill of tanking.  It will be interesting to see if "trusting the process" ever actually amounts to a real payoff and how long the process actually takes.  The Cavs parlayed several terrible seasons into contender status overnight, but I would put an asterisk on that because landing a perennial MVP candidate doesn't seem like a repeatable process.  For every Presti success story, there's several failed attempts at duplicating that model.

Meanwhile, the Rockets were able to build a contender from the middle.  They had 34 wins in 2012 and have improved every year since.  The Warriors bottomed out with 23 wins in 2012 but jumped to 47, 51, and then 67 wins in the years that followed.  As the analysis above indicates, it is easier to go from good to great than to start at the bottom.

In fact, the only situation where a team is really stuck in mediocrity is when they have veterans who cannot get them over the hump and cannot be moved easily due to their contracts.  The Celtics have neither of those limitations and in fact have a young, growing, improving roster.

Also, being stuck tends to suggest an ongoing pattern.  The Celtics finished near the bottom of the pack in 2014, securing the number 6 overall pick. They proceeded to overachieve for a playoff push this past year.  So basically we've seen one year of being average.  And if you want to split hairs (I do), half of last year was bad and for the rest of the season they were one of the better teams in the East.  Forgive me if I'm not worried about being "stuck" in anything at the moment.

Furthermore, the draft is merely one way in which a team can rebuild.  The Celtics have trade assets and plenty of cap space coming up this summer.  You could debate how valuable our trade assets are and you could correctly point out that most teams will have cap space next year.  Both are valid points, but having those options is still better than not having them.  Which brings me to my next point.

When it comes to signing free agents, if the money is relatively equal, the good ones are going to pick teams that have a solid foundation and a decent chance at competing in the near future and for years to come.  Tanking does nothing to attract free agents.  Having a coach like Brad Stevens, a few very good young players, and a few years of playoff experience might be enough to pique someone's interest.

This team isn't an immediate contender.  They don't have a marquee star locked up like the Pelicans.  They don't have a lot of top-of-the-draft prospects like the Wolves do.  But the Celtics have a good, young, nucleus and a lot of realistic ways to make that leap to contender status in the next couple years.  Like any team it will take a combination of luck and careful planning.  But I like our chances as much as the next team.

In short, I don't see a treadmill.  I see an escalator.