Well, this is the end, my friends.
Tonight at the TD Garden — after five-plus months, 81 games, 25 wins and 15 million references to tanks, tanking, tankinis, Frank the Tank and Tank Girl starring Ice-T and Lori Petty — the Boston Celtics will host the Washington Wizards and finally close the book on this long and frustrating season.
Long and frustrating? Yeah, that about covers it. I could sit here and say that it feels like yesterday that the Celtics jogged out of the tunnel on Opening Night against the Raptors. That the season just flew by after that! But it’s doesn’t. And it didn’t. None of that is true.
What’s true is that the Celtics began this year at the base of NBA Everest, and for most of the season, it felt like they were climbing in place; just freezing their asses off and staring patiently at the peak. And that wasn’t easy. It made time pass more slowly and more painfully. Even knowing that patience was probably the best course of action.
A long and frustrating season. That’s all you have to say. A long and frustrating season.
Not disappointing, though. I wouldn’t call it that. That might sound crazy considering this team has already lost more games than all but two Celtics squads in franchise history, but the truth is that it’s hard to disappoint when there are no expectations.
You can’t fall short of the bar when the bar doesn’t exist. And ultimately, the absence of that bar haunted this season. The absence of those expectations is what made it so long and frustrating. You know, just knowing that there was nothing to play for. That while individual and certain combinations of players made strides and had tangible goals, the Celtics — the team, the brand, the franchise — were disjointed, stuck in irrelevant NBA limbo and will now spend the playoffs chilling on beaches across Mexico and the Bahamas or raving on the Ibiza club circuit (I’m looking at you, Brad Stevens).
But again, this was the plan. This team wasn’t built to make the postseason. Every time one of the players even mentioned the playoffs, his words were met with nervous laughter and a stink eye. You had to respect the sentiment, but hope like hell that it never materialized. And that felt dirty. But such is life in Adam Silver’s NBA.
(I know it’s not Silver’s fault, but it’s becoming kind of fun to blame him for everything.)
In a weird twist, after a relatively meaningless season, there is something on the line tonight against Washington. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the Celtics have something to play for (record-wise), but this game is more than just a schedule-filler. For one, with a win, the Wizards will clinch the sixth seed in the East — a pretty cool achievement for a team and a fan base that hasn’t made the postseason since 2008, and (before this season) hadn’t even been over .500 since 2009. But for Boston, this game is all about what the whole year was about. Losing. The Lottery. Ping Pong Balls. Sucking today for a brighter tomorrow and all that fun stuff.
Right now, the Celtics have 25 wins, and the fifth-worst record in the league. They’re one game worse (in the classic sense) than the Lakers and one game better than the Jazz, and tonight’s schedule (all three teams are in action) leaves the door open for three possible outcomes. With a Celtics loss and a Jazz win, Boston and Utah will finish tied for fourth. With a Celtics win and a Lakers loss, Boston and LA will finish tied for fifth. And if they all lose (the most likely outcome) the Celtics will finish where they are now; all alone in fifth, with an 8.8 percent chance of grabbing the top pick and a 29.1 percent chance of landing in the top three.
Depending on how tonight shakes out, and then how the actual lottery shakes out, the Celtics could be in a position to pick anywhere between first and ninth in this summer’s draft. That’s quite a little spectrum, and this Wizards game will have something to say about how it all unfolds.
As a result, the tanking crew will be out in full force tonight. People are going to have a lot of fun rooting for the Celtics to lose. It’s going to be one grand tanking finale. And I get it. Odds are odds. Math is math — a stubborn cuss that doesn’t care about our feelings. The more ping pong balls the better, right?
Right. But honestly, I don’t know. For some reason, I’m feeling a little differently today. Maybe it’s nostalgia over the end of another Celtics season. Or maybe I just feel like after all this team has gone through — playing consistently hard through borderline helpless conditions — they deserve to go out like winners. Whatever it is, I think I’d rather see them do that tonight — win —than slightly improve their odds in the lottery.
It’s one thing if they were playing for the worst record in the league. But the difference between tied for fourth and tied for fifth? Again, odds are odds but the lottery is such a crapshoot.
Do you know that it’s been 10 years since the team with the worst record won the lottery? That it’s been 18 years since the team with the second-worst record won?
In the nine years since the worst came out on top, the fifth and third worst records have each won twice. The fourth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth have all won, too.
And here’s how the top three picks have broken down over the last nine years:
2005: 6 – 4 – 1
2006: 5 – 2 – 3
2007: 7 – 5 – 4
2008: 9 – 1 – 3
2009: 3 – 6 – 4
2010: 5 – 6 – 1
2011: 8 – 1 – 6
2012: 4 – 1 – 2
2013: 3 – 1 – 8
The worst team finished in the Top 3 six times, but that doesn’t concern the Celtics this year. More importantly: The sixth spot ended up in the Top 3 four times, which is tied with the third spot for second most. The four and five spots have been in the Top 3 three times. The eighth and second (!!) spots have been there twice. Seven and nine have each cracked the Top 3 once.
It’s all over the place.
Not to mention, the draft is an even bigger crapshoot than the lottery. Getting lucky in May doesn’t ensure good fortune in June. The same way that getting screwed in the lottery doesn’t guarantee that you’re screwed for draft.
In 2005, the Hornets had the second-worst record in the league, dropped from second to fourth and landed Chris Paul. In 2006, the Raptors jumped from fifth to first and landed Andrea Bargnani.
In 2007, the Blazers jumped from seventh to first and grabbed Greg Oden. The Sonics jumped from fifth to second and had to settle for one of the best players in NBA history. Meanwhile, the Bulls had the ninth-worst record, stayed at nine and then sat back as Mike Conley, Jeff Green, Jianlian Yi, Corey Brewer and Brandan Wright were selected and Joakim Noah fell into their lap.
In 2008, Seattle fell from second to fourth, and ended up with Russell Westbrook. In 2009, the Clippers jumped from third to first and landed Blake Griffin, the Grizzlies jumped from sixth to second and landed Hasheem Thabeet. The Warriors were seventh, stayed at seven and had to settle for Stephen Curry.
In 2010, the Kings had the third worst record, dropped down to fifth and ended up with DeMarcus Cousins. Five picks later, the Pacers grabbed Paul George at No. 10.
And OK, you get my point. You just never know. At this stage in the game, one win or loss will certainly change the Celtics future. It’s another key moment in how this will all unfold. But we can’t be sure that it will change things for the better. The Celtics could finish tied for fourth, win the lottery and draft the next Greg Oden. They could finish tied for fifth, draft eighth, and end up with next Steph Curry, Joakim Noah or Paul George. It’s a toss up.
But a win is a win. Walking off the court with their heads high is lasting. It’s forever. These guys are still Celtics. They still deserve that. So for one last night: Let’s go Celtics! Let’s see them come out on top.
But let’s not forget one important thing:
They’re probably going to lose.
After all, that’s what this season was all about. They’ve lost more games than all but two teams in Celtics history.
As bad as it’s been, the end is still bittersweet. Having the Celtics around in any shape or form is better than not having them at all. It’s going to be a while until we see the Green again. More than sixth months until basketball’s back in Boston.
But at the same time, it is time. The end of this season, win or lose, is a very good thing for the Celtics. It means that, no matter how long it takes for them to re-scale Everest, that they’re a year closer to the top. Another step closer to a critical draft and offseason. Maybe even on the verge of reacquiring some expectations, installing some kind of bar; something to strive for other than trying hard and losing games. You know, real basketball stuff. It’s coming. It’s exciting.
And win or lose tonight, it’s time to turn the page.
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine
Well, this is the end, my friends.