The Boston Celtics have endured a long, tough 2013-14 season as the team adjusts to life after the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett era. Currently on a five-game losing streak, the Celtics have slumped to a 19-39 record, which is the fourth worst in the league with just over a quarter of the season remaining. The return of point guard Rajon Rondo to the lineup has yielded mixed results so far, earlier in February the Celtics strung together three straight victories but have since dropped six of the next seven games. With the playoffs seeming more and more like an impossibility for the Celtics this season, the attention turns towards the offseason, the NBA Draft and how the team is positioning itself for the rest of the season. Recent losses may be hard to watch, but could mean a significant difference in where the Celtics end up drafting in June and in turn, how quickly general manager Danny Ainge can return the franchise to its former glory.
The current five-game losing streak has consisted entirely of Western Conference opponents, the last four coming on the road. The numbers throughout the streak have been as consistent as the result itself. No loss has been by greater than 12 points or closer than seven, in each of the losses the opposition have exceeded the 100-point plateau while the Celtics have remained in the 90s, and in each game Boston has shown stretches where they looked like they could pull out a victory, but over the course of the 48 minutes the team has simply been outclassed and outworked on every occasion. A home loss to an undermanned San Antonio Spurs started the streak and road losses against the Suns, Lakers, Kings and Jazz have followed.
It’s not all bad for the Celtics, there have been some positives coming from the games despite the underwhelming results. Firstly Rondo appears to be slowly but surely returning to his All-Star form. In three of the four games he has played in during the streak he reached double digits in assists and is trying to adjust to his new teammates as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, rookie Kelly Olynyk is seeing an increase in his playing time and is putting together impressive performances with more regularity. He had 15 points and 10 rebounds against the Spurs, while in Monday’s loss to the Jazz he led the Celtics with 21 points, eight rebounds and four assists against a strong front line.
More specifically though, and while the players would hate to hear it, the losses, especially those against the Lakers, Kings and Jazz could be invaluable to the Celtics down the road as the draft lottery approaches. After the Milwaukee Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers, who seemingly have the two worst records in the league all but wrapped up, there are a number of teams that are now competing for all-important lottery balls anywhere between the third- and eighth-worst records. The difference, when it comes time to draw the balls in May could be dramatic, with the difference between having the fourth-worst record having a significantly higher chance than say, sixth or seventh. Right now the odds of the Celtics landing a top-three pick in the much hyped 2014 draft is 37.8 percent, that would more than half if they were to climb just two positions in the overall rankings. The highest pick that Ainge has had the opportunity to make in his more than decade-long tenure as general manager was fifth in 2007. That pick (Jeff Green) was then shipped as part of the deal to get Ray Allen to Boston, which led to the Kevin Garnett acquisition and the 2007-08 NBA championship. Fans, as well as Ainge himself must be excited at the prospects of what a cerebral mind like his could do with a valuable top three selection.
The Celtics have one game remaining in February, Wednesday against the Atlanta Hawks, who will be without Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Pero Antic. It will be an opportunity for the team to register a victory before they stare down the barrel of a terror run in March. With 15 games on the schedule next month, all but three come against playoff teams and even those outliers (Knicks, Pistons, Pelicans) will be a tough outing for this Celtics squad. They will face the league-leading Indiana Pacers twice, the defending champion Miami Heat, face a back-to-back against the Chicago Bulls and two games against the Nets, who have been the hottest team in the league since the new year. The Celtics faced an equally tough challenge in January, where they were able to register just two victories and a similar result in March could go a long way towards Boston moving towards the third-worst record in the NBA. The end of the season cannot come soon enough for the Celtics, who will be one of the most active and exciting teams to watch as they re-tool in the offseason. Ainge is likely to try and return his team to its former glory as quickly as possible but in the meantime fans need to understand that as painful as they may be, these losses may inevitably end up being for the greater good.