Let's start with the word "tanking." In the already hyperbolic sports lexicon, "tanking" is a particularly awful descriptor of one way franchises are built in the modern NBA. You're either a winner or a tanker, the anti-tanking folks say. How can you expect to build a winning franchise on a foundation of losing?
That black-and-white way of looking at the way teams are positioning themselves for the 2014 NBA Draft is both simplistic and misleading. It also serves to anger both sides in the debate. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge positively bristles when he's asked whether or not his team is throwing in the towel.
"We are not tanking," Ainge told the Globe in July. "That's ridiculous. This is the Boston Celtics."
Pressed on the subject a couple of weeks ago on the Toucher & Rich show, Ainge said of fans who think the team is tanking, "They're not paying attention. They’re not watching all the games. They’re not watching all the exhibition games and they’re not at practice. That certainly is not the case. Anybody that’s informed that sees what goes on day-to-day would not make those conclusions.”
If the definition of the word is tanking is "trying to lose", Ainge has every right to be indignant. Pay attention long enough and it's clear the Celtics aren't throwing games. They've won two straight on the road. Brad Stevens is a good coach. The roster is full of serviceable NBA talent, from promising second-year big man Jared Sullinger to established veterans like Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries. Despite facing more talented teams, the Celtics have competed in almost every game. That's a testament to Ainge and the character and preparation of the players he's assembled.
There's a large gulf, however, between intending to lose and positioning your resources toward future success rather than immediate rewards. Ainge's actions suggest a long-term approach, from parting with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to signing Stevens to a six-year contract. It doesn't take more than a passing interest in the team to see that the Celtics aren't hell-bent on winning a title this season. Even the most fervent Celtics fans have to acknowledge that it's not going to happen this year.
But there are players on the floor this season who could be part of making it happen in years to come.
In an informal Twitter survey, I asked people who pay attention on a regular basis what constitutes as progress for this group. Here's a sampling of the answers:
@GaryDzen honestly this year I only care about Avery, Sully, Olynyk and to a lesser extent Pressey proving they can be legit pieces— Bill Sall (@WilyMoMoonshot) November 25, 2013
@GaryDzen for players, i'm watching for AB/Crawford/Lee's confidence levels, Olynyk's growth and if Jeff Green can be 1st option every night— BostonJerry (@BostonJerry) November 25, 2013
@GaryDzen all of the above aside from ugly losses. If they hang with teams like pacers, spurs, heat, for stretched in games... I like that— Eric St. Cyr (@EricJsaint) November 25, 2013
@GaryDzen does tanking for a top lottery pick count?— Daniel Solzman (@dsolzman) November 25, 2013
@GaryDzen losing by single digits and developing the young guys who will play with the ping pong ball pick next year— duane douglas (@duane1770) November 25, 2013
Celtics fans, it seems, may not be the irrational, try-or-tank group they've been made out to be. There's nuance in their answers in spite of how it serves Ainge, on one side, to laugh at the idea of tanking, and Felger & Massarotti, on the other, to make it into a "Rig it for [Andrew] Wiggins" game show. The argument that season ticket-holders "deserve" for the team to win has always been bothersome, as if the paying customers weren't sharp enough to navigate the ups and downs of modern professional sports on their own. Of course you want the team to win when you bring your 11-year-old to the game, but if you've made any kind of investment in the team you'd rather they be good 8 of the next 10 years than really good this season and awful for the next nine. This Celtics team has proven to be entertaining enough, win or lose, to keep the ticket holders reasonably happy.
Another bothersome argument in the "anti-tanking" camp is the that losing doesn't guarantee anything. Losing doesn't guarantee the Celtics the top pick, but in a draft where five or six players are projected highly, it's good to be in that mix. In the NBA more than any other league, a handful of top-tier players constitute the difference between winning and losing. Not every No. 1 pick turns into an All-Star, but more of them are taken at the top of the draft than in the middle or at the bottom. Kevin Durant was a No. 2 pick. Kevin Love was taken 5th. James Harden, Steph Curry, and Paul George were taken 3rd, 7th, and 10th respectively. You want those guys.
It's possible for the Celtics to lose a game in which Sullinger, Bradley, and Olynyk play well and see progress in the franchise. They can fade down the stretch vs. Indiana or Oklahoma City but win as a franchise if Jeff Green is an efficient, aggressive scorer. They can finish with 17 wins and chalk it up as a victory if Rondo hits it off with Stevens and looks confident as the team's best player upon the point guard's return. And when the season ends, and the Celtics earn a top-five draft pick, they'll be better for it.
So what do we make of the recent winning? The suddenly streaking Celtics are now 6-10, on pace for 30.75 wins for the season. If the Knicks and Nets can get their acts together, that should leave Boston out of the playoffs and guarantee at least a lottery pick, even in the awful Eastern Conference. Last season, the Minnesota Timberwolves won 31 games for the 9th-worst record in the league. That's still a good pick, though not as high as some would hope. With a stockpile of future picks, perhaps the Celtics can trade up a few spots.
To me, Monday night's Celtics-Bobcats box score is more concerning than the victory. Bradley played just 8:42. Sullinger was 2 for 9. Jeff Green was 5 for 16. Stevens said he was encouraged that the bench won the game for his team, but Celtics fans shouldn't be. At this point, the eye test matters just as much as wins and losses do.
Most Celtics fans aren't actively rooting for losses. It's more nuanced than that. The season has gone essentially as expected. It's what happens in June that will drastically alter the direction of the franchise.