Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 26, 2015

Celtics Play To The End, As Every Team Should

To the surprise of no one but the most devoted of Celtics fans, the Cleveland Cavaliers swept Boston out of the NBA playoffs Sunday afternoon. In Boston, the four quick losses by the 7th seeded Celtics to the Eastern Conference’s 2nd seed rekindled the old debate about the value of fringe teams making the playoffs. In both the NBA and NHL teams that miss the playoffs have a chance in the draft lottery to garner a top pick, perhaps even the number one selection in the ensuing entry draft. There are fans and pundits around every franchise on the borderline of playoff contention in both leagues who openly root for their team to lose games, miss the playoffs, and in so doing perhaps score the rights to sign their sport’s next great superstar.

Perhaps the argument that a team should tank on a season makes some theoretical sense for the basement dwellers in each league. It was clear from this season’s earliest days that the Timberwolves, Knicks and 76ers where never going to finish within shouting distance of the NBA playoffs. The same was readily apparent about the Sabres and Coyotes in the NHL. With little to offer fans in the present, why not aim for a different kind of first place finish, namely in the draft lottery, and thus offer the faithful who fill the arena night after night some hope for the future?

But even where there is some logic to the idea, it’s easier said than done. Irrespective of the sport no player makes it to the pinnacle of professional play by trying to lose or enjoying defeat. Even if a roster looks more suited to the NBA Development League or the American Hockey League, the players who make it up are by their very nature going to do everything within their perhaps limited ability to win every time they take the court or ice. With the NBA’s worst record and thus the best shot at the number one pick in the draft seemingly within their grasp, the Knicks played .500 ball over the season’s final ten days, including winning two of their last three contests. As a result, it will be Minnesota rather than New York with the greatest chance of winning the lottery.

Apart from the competitive nature of professional athletes, the role of chance dictates that just as in life, in both the NBA and NHL it’s a bad idea to plan one’s future around winning the lottery. Last year’s NBA draft lottery was won by Cleveland, who with the 9th worst regular season record had just a 1.7% chance of obtaining the top pick. In the end Milwaukee’s 25% chance and Philadelphia 19.9% probability of winning the lottery meant nothing more than a pair of discarded losing scratch tickets. While this year’s NHL Entry Draft won’t be held until late June, the lottery took place last week. The best laid plans of the Buffalo Sabres, the team with the worst regular season record, came a cropper when the Edmonton Oilers won the first pick, leapfrogging both Buffalo and Phoenix for the right to sign Connor McDavid, the 18-year old phenom from Richmond Hill, Ontario.

For all the praise being lavished on McDavid, and all of the expectations that underlie the gushing assessments of his ability, it’s rare that one player can single-handedly change the fortunes of a franchise. A year ago it was the Florida Panthers who had the first pick in the NHL Draft. They used it, wisely in the judgment of most pundits, on then 18-year old defenseman Aaron Ekblad. The teenager had a fine rookie season, scoring 39 points and being named to the All-Star Game. But the Panthers still missed the playoffs. The Cavaliers used their lottery good fortune to pick Andrew Wiggins, who left Kansas after his freshman year. After the draft Cleveland traded Wiggins to Minnesota, and just like his NHL counterpart the number one pick had a solid first year as a pro. But the Timberwolves still finished with the worst record in the NBA.

Cleveland’s decision to trade Wiggins highlights the limits of what any one player can do. A dozen years ago the Cavaliers had the first pick in the draft, and used it on a high school star. LeBron James went on to set a raft of franchise records, but he alone couldn’t carry Cleveland to a title. It wasn’t until he teamed up with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami that the Big Three won back to back championships. Now the face of the NBA and in his second act on the shores of Lake Erie, King James understands the importance of the entire team. The Wiggins trade added Kevin Love to a Cleveland roster that already had the 2012 Rookie of the Year and two-time All Star Kyrie Irving. After taking several weeks in the early part of the season to adjust to one another, this new threesome has made the Cavaliers a popular pick to win this year’s title.

To do that first they had to get by the Celtics. While Cleveland did that in four straight, it is to Boston’s credit that each of the games was competitive. Coach Brad Stevens knew his players weren’t as talented as their opponents, but he kept them playing as a team and working hard from the opening tip to the final buzzer. The first game was decided by 13 points, each of the final three by just 8. Even in the final minute of the final game, Boston made a pair of plays to cut a 10 point lead to 6. There is inestimable long-term value in gaining playoff experience and learning that one can keep up with an admittedly superior foe. The Celtics now have that, which will likely prove more valuable than some slim chance in the draft lottery.

While it was not the case for Boston this year, there is of course one other rather significant reason for teams to make the playoffs. Sometimes even those on the fringe can go far. That probably won’t happen in the NBA this year, where Cleveland and Golden State have already advanced, and Houston leads Dallas three games to none. Of the series between the top and bottom two seeds in each conference, only Atlanta’s battle with Brooklyn is close.

But in the NHL there is at least one team that looks ready to try on Cinderella’s slipper. In their 14 previous seasons the Minnesota Wild missed the playoffs more often than they made them. In mid-January this year looked to be no different. But after acquiring goaltender Devan Dubnyk in a trade the Wild finished the season 28-9-3, a record that included a streak of 12 straight road wins. Sunday afternoon the Vezina Trophy finalist Dubnyk and his Minnesota teammates, who entered the Stanley Cup playoffs as the 7th seed in the Western Conference, dispatched 2nd seed St. Louis 4 games to 2. Now they move on to play Chicago.

Odds are that weeks from now, when the NBA Finals tip-off and when the first puck drops in the Stanley Cup Finals, the contestants will be the expected ones. Cleveland versus Golden State in one league perhaps, the Rangers or Canadiens versus the Ducks in the other. But they still have to play the games, and one never knows. That remains the best reason for every player on every team doing everything they can every year to make the postseason.  Otherwise, why play at all?

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