‘Tanking’ vs. ‘building’ a game of semantics


If you can put a little emotional distance between yourself and the events of last week, the nuts and bolts of the situation with the Boston Celtics boils down to a few key points:

  • Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, and Terrence Williams are gone (or will be after July 12)
  • Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans, Kris Joseph, and three first-round picks are coming to the Celtics
  • Kelly Olynyk and Colton Iverson are the team’s draft picks
  • The Celtics are without a coach
  • Rajon Rondo is recovering from knee surgery
  • Up against the salary cap, it’s very unlikely a major free agent is walking through that door

So what happens now? The two paths being shouted most loudly have the Celtics either tanking for a high draft pick or making trades and signing players to fit in around Rondo. Celtics general manager Danny Ainge tried to discredit the first school of thought Monday.

“We are not tanking,” Ainge told the Globe. “That’s ridiculous. This is the Boston Celtics.”


Considering Ainge said in May that Rivers would definitely be returning as his coach, you have to take what he says with a grain of salt. Just because Ainge said he won’t tank the team doesn’t mean it’s true. But it also doesn’t mean the Celtics are building around Rondo. In the offseason of transition, the most likely — and perhaps wholly unsatisfying — truth is that the Celtics are doing something in between.

A lot of it is semantics. In a technical sense, there’s reason to believe Ainge when he says he’s not tanking. The NBA does not reward that strategy in its strictest definition because the team with the worst record is not guaranteed the top pick. The team with the worst record has a 25 percent chance at No. 1. From there through the fifth pick, teams have a 19.9 percent, 15.6 percent, 11.9 percent, and 8.8 percent chance, respectively. You’re much more likely not to get the top pick than to get it if you finish last, and you’ve got a real shot at it if you’re fourth or fifth. It all depends on where the ping pong balls fall.

This is relevant to the Celtics because in the larger discussion about whether they should “tank or compete”, it’s easy to miss the fact that they’re already doing both. Though it’s a prudent long-term move, the Celtics will be worse in the short term without Pierce and Garnett. Is that “tanking”? Sort of. The Celtics didn’t get equal talent in return for their Hall of Famers, at least not yet. They intentionally made themselves worse for now in the hope of getting better later.



Despite the deal, the Celtics have a decent collection of talent (Ainge would call them assets). Jeff Green has started to come into his own, and Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger have their best basketball ahead of them. If they stick on the roster, Humphries, Wallace, and Brooks join Brandon Bass and Courtney Lee as solid NBA players. Rondo is a perennial All-Star. As long as he’s around the Celtics won’t be as bad as some of you may hope.

So what’s the strategy? This is just one opinion, but the guess here is Ainge believes the Celtics can improve without bottoming out. From a business perspective, that makes sense because the team can justify selling tickets at the same prices if fans can watch Rondo, Bradley, and whoever else battle for a playoff spot. From a basketball perspective, it’s a calculated gamble.

The gamble is that Ainge and his staff can better identify talent in upcoming drafts than others can. To an extent it’s worked so far. Rondo (21st), Sullinger (21st), and Bradley (19th) were selected with late picks. Pierce (not Ainge’s pick) fell to 10th in the 1998 draft. The Celtics have had plenty of misses (J.R. Giddens, JaJuan Johnson, and it’s looking like Fab Melo), but with a stockpile of draft picks Ainge has to believe he can add talent.

There’s a precedent here that shows that you don’t have to hit on the next LeBron James or Dwight Howard to draft talent. In 2011, the Spurs drafted Kawhi Leonard with the No. 15 pick. Nikola Vucevic, second in the league in rebounding last season, went the pick after him. Jrue Holiday went No. 17 to the Sixers in 2009.


Of course the Celtics could still actually be a lottery team, and in the lottery the best player isn’t always taken with the No. 1 pick. James Harden was the No. 3 pick in 2009. Stephen Curry was 7th. Paul George was 10th in 2010. LaMarcus Aldridge was drafted second overall by the Chicago Bulls in 2006, then traded to Portland for their pick at No. 4, Tyrus Thomas.

That last trade, and the amount of trading in the first round this season, speaks to the uncertainty of the whole thing. You can target Andrew Wiggins with the No.1 pick next season, but are you certain he’ll save your franchise? Are you certain teams won’t regret passing on Nerlens Noel this season? Greg Oden, Andrea Bargnani, Kwame Brown, and Michael Olowokandi are notable No. 1 picks in the last 15 years who haven’t worked out.

There’s risk with every pick, which is why Ainge’s strategy looks like a good one. You’re not going to nail every pick, so acquiring more top selections gives you better odds. Maybe three of those picks turn into a Harden, a George, and a Curry, and then you’ve really got something. Rondo is already a proven commodity, so don’t expect the team to part ways with him unless the return is substantial. There’s less risk in keeping Rondo than there is trading him and expecting to draft another All-Star point guard.

None of this is going to be easy. The truth is, the Celtics are closer to being bad right now than being good. I don’t envy the Celtics’ marketing department (New team slogan: “I am a Celtic .. unless Danny can get a first-rounder in exchange.”) Maybe a better slogan would be, “Welcome to the transition.”

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