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It’s not time for the Celtics to tank

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Boston lost one of their leaders, but it’s not time to give up

Miami Heat Vs Boston Celtics At TD Garden Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Scene: Boston Celtics locker room

(Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens enter the room to address the players sitting at their lockers)

Ainge: Hey fellas. So, we all know Jaylen is out for the season. Because of that, we’re going to make some hard decisions the rest of the way. Brad? Why don’t you take it from here?

Stevens (surprised): Well…ahhh…ok. So, Jayson, Marcus and Kemba, you’re all going to sit the rest of the way. Jayson and Marcus, we know you’ve both fought through some injuries this year to help the team. And Kemba, we managed your knee to a place where you are feeling great. But you’re going to sit.

(Players all begin to express disappointment)

Marcus Smart: But why? We can still make the playoffs. We made a run without Hayward last year. We can do it again.

Stevens: I know you can. I believe in you guys. But…(trails off)

Ainge: Look, the reality is, you guys aren’t good enough without Jaylen to do anything in the playoffs. This team isn’t going anywhere. So, the guys we care about, or need to preserve their trade value, will sit. Everyone else can play. Good experience for you young guys and the rest of you…well…yeah.

Jayson Tatum: We aren’t good enough? Can we have a private conversation?

Dallas Mavericks v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

The above is the scene I imagine when I hear and read the comment “The Celtics should just tank the rest of the season and get in the lottery”.

To be fair, it would probably go more like “You guys are banged up and we don’t want to risk you getting hurt the rest of this season. And this is great experience for the younger players.” But the underlying message would still be the same: We don’t think you are good enough without Jaylen Brown to go anywhere.

Have the 2020-21 Boston Celtics played poorly and underperformed compared to expectations? Absolutely. Are there some valid reasons for that? Again, the answer is yes. Has this group always played with 100% effort on every play of every game? No. Does any team in the NBA play that way? No. Especially not this season.

The Celtics have fought this year. It’s not always visible on the court from game to game or even play to play, but they have battled. Jayson Tatum, Evan Fournier and Tristan Thompson all fought back from COVID to play. Tatum and Fournier have been very candid about the aftereffects they’ve had that have lasted weeks and months after their returns.

Kemba Walker looked like he was at a turning point in his career, but he worked back from knee surgery. An aggressive injury management plan has Walker playing as well right now as he has at any point in his Celtics tenure.

Marcus Smart strained his calf so bad, most thought he tore his Achilles’. He rehabbed and got back as quick as he could. Robert Williams has battled through a myriad of different injuries this season. Other players have dealt with bumps and bruises throughout the season as well.

Now, it’s Jaylen Brown who is down. And he’s not coming back this season. That’s a sad, but true reality. Brown was having the best season of his career individually, and his production and attitude will be sorely missed. But the schedule doesn’t stop. The Celtics can’t press pause.

When it’s suggested that Boston should sit Tatum (so he doesn’t get hurt) or Smart and Walker or others (so they don’t get hurt and wreck trade value), it’s an insult to them and the rest of the roster.

In that situation, the team is sending the message to those players that they aren’t good enough to even try without Brown. That their efforts this season haven’t been enough. That it is better to prioritize an extremely small change at moving up in the lottery, than it is to continue to fight this season.

It has a trickle-down effect too. Those players sit, but what about the others? They can continue to play because their value to the Celtics isn’t enough that it matters if they get hurt or not? Can you imagine delivering that message to the team? You anger them by saying they aren’t good enough without Brown, while also managing to let over half of the roster know they aren’t important enough for it to matter if they get injured.

It’s beyond nonsensical.

“But they’ll get it. They’ll understand it’s for their own good and the good of the team. And if they don’t, who cares?” is the common response already. Let’s pick that apart.

First, professional athletes are competitors. It’s easy to tweet from the couch things like “If they don’t care, why should I?” But that sort of thing lacks the understanding that they do care. Greatly. It’s rare to find a player that has given up and no longer cares. For this Celtics team, it’s part of why they keep coming back. Call them “fake” comebacks if you want, but the players are playing hard and pushing to win.

Related to the above: It’s incredibly important to differentiate playing poorly from not caring. At no point has Boston not cared. At many points Boston has played poorly. There is a major difference.

Back to reasons for tanking…The players aren’t going to understand. They want to play. Basketball players largely want to play basketball. Look at the NBA’s worst teams. They are sitting out players who desperately want to play. Tanking is something an organization does. Not players.

As for the “…who cares?” part, the answer is simple: Everyone. If you quit on a season, it doesn’t go away with the start of training camp the next season. The players will remember. The thought is now in their minds that if they don’t play well, it’s time to sit guys again.

The response to this may be “If they don’t get it, trade them.” That’s about as dumb as suggesting the coach make the team run suicides in practice or scream in their faces and throw things or bench guys on a whim. This is the NBA. It’s not your high school JV team. These are grown men. You treat them as such, or you end up having problems. And as far as trading them, are you going to trade the whole roster?

None of this is to suggest optimism that this Jaylen Brown-less version of the Celtics will make some miracle playoff run. That would be even more stunning than the 2018 team getting to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

What’s likely is Boston ends up the 7th seed and in the Play-In Tournament. Even without Brown, and possibly Robert Williams, the Celtics should still be able to beat the Hornets, Pacers or Wizards. If not in the first game of the Play-In, but the second.

From there it’s a first round matchup with a much better team. The chances Boston can beat Philadelphia, Brooklyn or Milwaukee are almost infinitesimal. With Brown, and everyone else healthy, you could talk yourself into it. Without Brown, those odds are just too long.

Here’s where the replies of “So, all that for a first round exit? I’d rather be in the lottery.” come in.

As it stands today, and likely will when the regular season ends on Sunday, Boston will be the second-best team in the Play-In Tournament. Unless the Los Angeles Lakers (or less likely, the Portland Trail Blazers) also lose and fall out during the play-in, Boston would hit the lottery with the 14th best odds of winning the top pick.

For reference: the team slotted in at #14 would have a 0.5% chance at winning the #1 overall pick and a 2.4% chance of moving into the top-4 in the draft.

On the flip side, if Boston makes it to the playoffs as the 7th seed (still the most likely scenario), they’d have the 17th pick.

Now, we ask the question: Is that worth tanking? Boston’s lottery luck from deep in the draw has never been very good. But really, it’s not luck. It’s just math. So, in all effect, the most likely tanking scenario would see the team move from the 17th pick to the 14th. All while telling the team they aren’t good enough and leaving in doubt their future with the organization.

It’s not time for the 2020-21 Boston Celtics to tank. They owe it to themselves, the work they’ve put in and the fans to play this one out. Let the chips fall where they may. It’ll probably be a first round playoff exit. Heck, maybe they don’t even make it out of the Play-In Tournament. But they have to at least try.

There are at least six games left in this season. Four regular season games and two games in the Play-In Tournament. The Celtics deserve the opportunity to go down swinging. And you should be there cheering them on as they do.