- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Boston Celtics are in first place in the Atlantic Division. If the playoffs started today, they'd be a top-four seed in a shambled Eastern Conference. And yet part of Boston's fan base could not be more miserable.
To some, there is only one blueprint to a rebuild: You have to be bad and you actually have to try to be even worse. But there's a problem this season and it's the fact everyone in the East not named Miami or Indiana is average or worse (more the latter). So even though Boston is four games under .500 at 8-12 through the first quarter of the season, that's good enough at the moment to compete for a division title and a lofty playoff berth.
This is distressing to some Celtics fans, who see a loaded 2014 draft class and want the slice of the franchise-altering pie they thought they were getting when the team dealt Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn. Instead, it'll be Boston with the better overall record among those two teams when they meet in Brooklyn next Tuesday night.
What the Tank or Bust sector of the Celtics' fan base must keep in mind is that there's no surefire path back to contending for a title. Pinning your hopes to pingpong balls doesn't always work (right, Rick Pitino?) and sometimes you still need to call an audible along the way (hey there, Kevin Garnett trade).
Listen, there's no guarantee that Boston will win the division or even earn a playoff spot playing .400 basketball (though the East is trying its damnedest to make that stand up). You have to think some of these underachieving teams like Brooklyn will find their way eventually, right? Right?!
Then again, the Celtics navigated an absolutely brutal November schedule and managed to keep their heads above water. They'll soon get an All-Star-caliber jolt when Rajon Rondo is able to return from ACL rehab. You can make the case that Boston will only get better the more comfortable the C's get under first-year coach Brad Stevens.
So our advice to Celtics fans is simple: Embrace winning. Isn't it better to establish a winning culture and identify the known building blocks for the team's future rather than roll the dice for a mere chance at the unknown?
Remember that the Celtics have enough draft picks -- nine first-rounders over the next five years -- and young assets that if they desire to trade their way up the draft board in the future, they might even be able to do it. They've got tradable assets and trade exceptions that will let them infuse talent into their core.
And one look at Boston's starting lineup ought to remind us that you don't necessarily need to win the lottery to find talent in the draft. When Rondo returns, here's how Boston's top rotation players were picked:
Avery Bradley: 19th pick in the 2010 draft. Boston won a four-way tiebreaker after finishing 50-32 and shimmied up to 19, where Bradley slipped to them after being injured in a pre-draft workout.
Jeff Green: fifth pick in the 2007 draft. The Celtics missed out on the big prizes that year (Greg Oden, Kevin Durant) when the pingpong balls defied them. Boston instead used the No. 5 pick to secure Ray Allen from Seattle. Boston later got Green back in a swap that sent Kendrick Perkins (the 27th pick in the 2003 draft) to Oklahoma City.
Jared Sullinger: 21st pick in the 2012 draft. Concerns about Sullinger's back allowed him to slide straight from the lottery to Boston's lap.
Then just look at Boston's key role players. Courtney Lee was the 22nd pick in the 2008 draft, Jordan Crawford was 27th in 2010. Rookie Kelly Olynyk was Boston's highest selection since Green as the team shuffled up to No. 13 to snag him, and he's shown promise early in his NBA career. Fellow summer acquisitions Phil Pressey and Vitor Faverani were both undrafted.
Yes, in the NBA talent is king. If you can snag a LeBron James or a Kevin Durant, you put your team in premium position to be a long-term contender. Maybe Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker will do the same for their teams soon, but there are simply no guarantees.
The Celtics built their last contender by maximizing their assets. Even those players who were sent out in the Garnett deal were not high selections. Al Jefferson (15th in 2004), Gerald Green (18th in 2005) and Ryan Gomes (50th in 2005) were not lottery picks. Jefferson was drafted after the Celtics got bounced in the first round of the playoffs during the 2003-04 season. The Celtics did give up two future first-round picks, one of which was the 6th overall pick in 2009 (Jonny Flynn), and they've got plenty of picks now to work with now.
If a team trusts its talent evaluators and maximizes its assets, there are ways to rebuild other than tanking. Some would say it's even less of a crapshoot that way. You're not left clinging to lucky charms as the pingpong balls dance in late May.
Of course, mid-round guys are no lock, either. For every Sullinger, you get a Fab Melo. For every Bradley, there's a JaJuan Johnson.
But if you find a mid-first-rounder with talent, those guys often come in with a chip on their shoulders. As Sullinger said, "You can look at somebody like Rondo or Courtney, guys that got picked late. Now look at them. It's motivation, you want to prove everybody wrong. 'You should have picked me, you should have taken me higher.' ... All the stuff I heard coming out of college -- I'm not athletic enough, I'm not big enough to play a certain position, I'm not quick enough -- that's just one of my motivations to prove everybody wrong."
And Boston's new coach knows a thing or two about getting the most out of a group of players with a chip on their shoulder.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said his team has no desire to tank. Stevens can't even fathom trying to do anything else besides win the next game. Sullinger wants everyone in the Tank Camp to "kiss our butts."
When ESPN.com debuted Hollinger's Playoff Odds on Wednesday, Boston had a coin-flip's chance of making the playoffs (50.8 percent). The Celtics had only a 2.9 percent chance of winning the lottery. But the difference between the potential best record (52-30) and worst (18-64) tells the story. It's far too early to know which way this season is trending.
The Tank crew might still get their wish. We'll know better in another month. But if Boston keeps winning (and the rest of the East keeps losing), Tanksters should embrace the victories.
Boston has positioned itself to return to contender status without banking on the lottery.
Tanksters who settled on a lost Celtics season need to reevaluate.