Sometimes in life you need to go for it all. You have to take risks in order to get what you want and find happiness, whether it's a trip across the world, a woman that caught your eye, or the job of your dreams. After reflecting on the state of the Boston Celtics as we approach the February 19 trade deadline, I now believe that the front office should do everything in their power to make a push for the playoffs.
"I would love to see our team in the playoffs, but I don't want to see us back into the playoffs with a really bad record and not even have a fighting chance," Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge recently admitted to CSNNE's A. Sherrod Blakely. "If our team can keep getting better by developing, if we can make some deals at the trade deadline that put us in position to actually get into the playoffs and have a chance to win a playoff series, I think that would be a lot of fun."
Boston is 4-3 since that quote was published and is now only 1.5 games behind the seventh and eighth playoff seeds in the Eastern Conference. Ainge said he would need to see development from his team and it appears he's getting it with a trademark comeback win over Atlanta and three competitive losses that were against playoff opponents.
"You have to create a culture, you have to create credibility with your organization and your staff and trust," Ainge also told CSNNE. "You have to see how players, how they perform. They have to learn how to win. You can't just flip a switch and ‘now let's try to win. You have to learn how to win in this league."
Despite a 20-31 record, Boston has certainly started to learn how to win this year. They have crumbled and blown leads in the fourth quarter, gotten off to embarrassing slow starts and have sometimes fought back, and as of late, they have actually closed games out and won. But still, that experience pales in comparison to what could be gained if the Celtics go down to the wire for a playoff seed and eventually clinch one.
Playoff experience matters, especially for the Celtics who are currently the ninth-youngest team in the NBA. Sure, Boston might not have what it takes to win a series against Atlanta or Toronto, but they might be good enough to make it a fight. Youngsters like Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk, and Jared Sullinger would get reps playing heavy minutes on the big stage, and Brad Stevens would get experience drawing up a game plan and coaching a playoff series.
Ainge also spoke about building credibility and trust with the staff, which may be an underrated storyline this week, since Stevens has been open with the media saying he wants the current roster to stay the same and that they are determined to compete. I'm sure Stevens wouldn't be against a trade that improves the team, but it is pretty apparent that thinks his group can make the playoffs.
Whether or not the Celtics make a trade at the deadline, they'll probably be in the playoff conversation come mid-April, with six teams (Charlotte, Miami, Brooklyn, Boston, Detroit, and Indiana) likely fighting for the last two playoff seeds down the stretch. I don't find it too unrealistic for the Celtics to be one of the teams to make it, especially since they have the second-easiest schedule remaining of those teams.
Even though no move is guaranteed, Ainge's quotes sure do suggest that something will happen. It could just be that a veteran like Brandon Bass, Tayshaun Prince, and/or Marcus Thornton could be dealt away to a contender. But it could also mean that he's ready to react to an opportunity for a player that can make an immediate impact, increasing their chances at the playoffs.
It's difficult to speculate about which players the Celtics could pursue if they're looking to add talent to the roster, but it's easy to put read between the lines and assume Phoenix Suns point guard Isaiah Thomas might be on their radar. Thomas himself admitted that Ainge was the first person to call him when free agency opened last summer, so why wouldn't the Celtics still have interest?
The 26-year-old point guard has an extremely team-friendly contract with 3 years and just $19.7 million total remaining, which means he wouldn't compromise Boston's hopes of making a splash in free agency. And more importantly, Thomas would instantly give Boston's offense exactly what they need with his tenacious scoring ability in the pick-and-roll.
The Celtics have had success scoring out of the pick-and-roll when passing to the screener (they rank 12th, according to Synergy), but they have been dismal when the ball handler retains possession, with only 0.69 points per possession scored, per Synergy. And they turn the ball over at an alarming rate, which could be even more concerning in a slower-paced playoff series.
Thomas would solve Boston's pick-and-roll scoring issues, as he has been one of the league's best guards the past two seasons in the NBA. Thomas scores consistently and efficiently, but maybe most encouraging of all is that he gets to the free throw line. Boston draws the second-fewest fouls per 100 possessions in the NBA and could use a player who can penetrate and get to the charity stripe.
If Phoenix is actually shopping Thomas, then Boston could potentially be a favorite to meet their needs and acquire him for a valuable yet expendable big man like Brandon Bass along with future draft picks (either one first round draft pick or multiple second rounders). Acquiring Isaiah Thomas would exponentially increase not just Boston's chances of making the playoffs, but their chances of winning a series.
Many fans are still riding the tank and hope the Celtics mail it in the rest of the season with the hopes of increasing their chances in the draft lottery. But how much worse can Boston really get? They have one of the league's easier remaining schedules and a Net Rating close to the league average (Net Rating the difference between offensive and defensive rating), and with a roster that appears to be improving each week, could they really drop much further in the standings from where their currently stand?
Maybe they'd fall from 11th down to seventh, but it's hard to foresee them sliding any further, meaning their draft pick wouldn't be that much different. And even if the Celtics make the playoffs, they'll have the 15th or 16th pick, not a large difference from their current spot.
There could be a player in the back of the top 10 you fans have your eyes set on, but I'm not even as worried about that considering the amount of assets Boston has at their disposal. If the front office really wants to trade up and draft a specific player in the 7-to-14 range, they could easily come up with a package and move up for the player they're targeting.
Unless they trade one of the picks before the deadline, they'll have four picks in the top 35 and possibly five in the top 45. I simply don't think Boston making the playoffs or not will drastically change their strategy come draft night. They'll be looking to wheel and deal regardless of where their picks are.
The fact is that the Boston Celtics are in an extremely unique position this week. They could go so many different directions, which may ultimately decide their destiny, making this a very important time in Celtics history, even if we don't realize it right now.