The Boston Celtics Dilemma: To Tank or to Be Swept?

The Celtics’ season ended in a sweep courtesy of the Cavaliers. Was going for the playoffs the right choice?

After watching the Boston Celtics get swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in convincing fashion, I couldn’t shake the idea of tanking -- what was really the benefit of going for the 7 or 8 seed if it just means a beatdown by a vastly superior team?

I was talking to a buddy and he made a good point: the Knicks and the Celtics ended with the same number of playoff wins, except the Knicks get a top pick in the draft and a potentially franchise-changing player.

People will make arguments about creating a winning culture and not sucking for the fans, but when it’s all said and done, it does leave a little bitter taste. If you can’t contend for a title or even a first-round series, is there any reason to try to make the playoffs?

The tanking idea is one that is heavily discussed in today’s NBA -- more so than in previous years it seems, although that could just be my being too young to remember. And there are reasons why it’s more prevalent today -- a larger number of teams in the league, much more talent, and stricter salary cap restrictions, to name a few.

To look more into this, I looked at teams from 1990 to 2010 and how six specific ones each year fared in future years: the East’s seven and eight seeds (E7 and E8), the West’s seven and eight seeds (W7 and W8), and then the two bottom teams (B2 and B1) in the NBA. The number in each box is how many years it took for that team to have a top-four record in their conference, if ever.


From 1990 to 2000, it was really hard to go from a bottom team to a contender. On average, it took teams over 10 years to get to a top-four record in their conference after posting a league-worst one. However, since 2000, teams have jumped from worst to contending in less than 3.5 years on average. That’s a major change. No wonder the Sixers are in full tank mode.

Why could this be? I’m not really sure, but I’ll posit a couple of ideas.

First, I think scouting and evaluation of high school and college players have gotten much better. The NBA Draft is still a crapshoot, but it’s much less of one at the top than it used to be. We had Joe Smith, Michael Olowokandi, Kenyon Martin, and Kwame Brown all go number one in their respective drafts. Look at the last seven years, though Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, Anthony Bennett, and Andrew Wiggins.

Other than Bennett (Gilbert!), all of those guys are current or future superstars. In the draft, you used to hope you could get a franchise-changing player in the top three picks. Now with the talent coming into the NBA (Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, D’Angelo Russell, and Justise Winslow are even more examples of this), it’s a foregone conclusion every year that there will be future superstars available.

Another reason could be free agency. We’ve seen in the past seven or eight years teams from the bottom -- the Celtics and Heat, specifically -- leverage assets, picks, and other factors into drawing big name free agents in Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh. We even had a number-one overall pick get traded (two, actually, with Bennett) before even playing an NBA game. I’m not sure that would have happened 20 years ago.

With the cap expected to jump up to crazy-high numbers in the next couple of years, top picks and rookies will be valued even more, especially if the players don’t renegotiate the CBA to increase rookie salaries to adjust for the cap. Superstar players even at max contracts are still one of the best deals in the NBA. But a superstar on a rookie deal when the cap is almost $100 million? That’s easily the most valuable asset in the NBA.

And that’s what a team like the Sixers is banking on -- that one of their young guys will turn into a superstar and they’ll have him for cheap.

The question will be whether they can take advantage of that time, pair them with good free agents, and contend quickly. As you can see by the table above, it’s common recently to get to contention from the bottom. It will certainly be interesting to track teams like the Celtics and Nets who are starting from the 7- and 8-seed range in comparison with teams like the Sixers and Knicks.

Who will get to title contention first?