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The thin line between playoffs and lottery

What could go wrong? Glad you asked.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Stevens is using a stat to motivate his team to work hard in training camp (and perhaps to temper fans' expectations).

Camp chronicles: Stevens stresses thin line of success - Boston Celtics Blog - ESPN

One of the themes that Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens has repeated in the days leading up to the start of training camp is just how slim the margin was between Boston being a lottery team and a playoff combatant last season. Stevens has noted that the Celtics, despite all their second-half success that propelled the team to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, still finished as close to 12th overall as they did to fourth.

While that's true, I feel like it detracts from the progress the team made throughout the year and the success this current core had after they acquired Isaiah Thomas.  They were 14 games under .500 at the start of February and managed to win 24 of the last 36 games and qualify for the 7th spot in the playoffs.

If the team keeps up that pace for an entire season, they'll finish the year with 55 wins, which doesn't seem all that far fetched.  With that said, Stevens does have a point in that there's very little margin for error in the NBA.  For one thing, a lot of teams in the East have gotten better, so it might be a little harder to make the playoffs this season.  Furthermore, a lot of unforeseen things can go wrong and torpedo an otherwise promising season.

I don't mean to go all Chicken Little on you, but it is only fair to point out a few things to watch out for that could make this season go sideways in a hurry.

1. Injuries: This is a given for any team in any sport in any given year.  Young guys sometimes don't know how to take care of their bodies yet and older gentlemen are sometimes betrayed by the miles put on their tires.  The good news for the Celtics is that they are (currently) very deep.  In fact, it isn't even clear what the rotations will look like yet, so in some cases there wouldn't be a dramatic drop in productivity (in theory).

2. Lack of progress: The thing about a young, rebuilding team is that internal improvement is critical but it is completely unpredictable.  Sometimes top draft picks bust and long shot rookies become steals.  Some guys hit the ground running and others take years to marinate.  The Celtics are counting on several non-rookie-young-players to contribute.  They need Marcus Smart to be a key piece for them.  They need Kelly Olynyk and/or Jared Sullinger to take a step forward this year.  They are counting on Jae Crowder and Tyler Zeller to continue their progress.  If any of those players takes a step back or plateaus this year, the team will need to find improvement elsewhere.  (Note that I'm not counting the rookies or James Young or Perry Jones III in this rundown because anything we get from any of them is gravy to me - this year at least).

3. Bad trades: I don't think I'm alone in waiting for "the other shoe to drop."  Danny Ainge wasn't able to land his biggest targets this offseason but that won't stop him from trying during the season.  Sometimes trades are just what the team needs, sometimes not-so-much (ask the Mavericks).

4. Other: This is a rabbit hole that I'm not going to get pulled into but in theory you could come up with any number of doomsday scenarios.  Chemistry issues, off-court problems, Brad Stevens ditching the NBA to coach in college ball again, etc.   I don't think any of that could happen but sometimes life is weirder than fiction.

All of which is why it is so important for the team to stay focused and working hard.  They can't sit back and assume they'll pick up where they left off as the 7th seed and expect to improve from there.  Every year is a clean slate and nothing is a given.  Camp has started and soon the games will begin and we'll be able to see just how much they've improved and how much they can withstand the speedbumps that occur during any NBA season.

I remain confident about this team's chances to improve upon last seasons' success, but you have to be lucky AND good to win in the NBA.

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