While all the conjecture regarding the Celtics at Thursday's trade deadline was whether they would make a move to improve their playoff prospects, it was a move not made by an entirely different that team may have helped Boston the most.
The biggest blockbuster on the NBA's most active day of wheeling and dealing was the trade the Orlando Magic did not make. Dwight Howard officially waived his early termination clause, which means he will not become a free agent this summer and will play at least one more season beyond this one in Orlando.
The Magic were ecstatic, of course, to learn they won't lose their franchise player as they had feared. At a news conference Thursday, both Howard and Magic management talked tough about making a push for a championship this season, while general manager Otis Smith presumably began to look for ways to improve the roster this offseason to convince Howard to stay beyond next year.
The biggest hoots and hollers probably should have originated a little farther North, though, as Howard's decision opened a golden opportunity for the Celtics.
For two months the Celtics have been trying to dig themselves out of the seventh or eighth spot in the Eastern Conference. Those seeds would mean first-round meetings with the Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls, neither of whom would have much trouble dispatching the Celtics. The unlucky winners of the final two playoff spots in the East would therefore be in a lose-lose situation. They would have virtually no chance of advancing in the postseason, yet would not qualify for the draft lottery in what is expected to be a deep and promising draft.
When a team employs uber-competitors like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo, tanking for the sake of better draft position is not an option. As long as those four remained in green (albeit for only another 24 games) the Celtics would make every game count, even if that meant crawling into the playoffs and getting swept by Miami.
The Celtics' only hope of making it beyond the first round therefore was to overtake Atlanta for the sixth seed, earning the right to play the Magic, or to catch up with Philadelphia for the Atlantic Division crown and the No. 4 seed, granting the Celtics a first-round home series. The NBA playoffs are all about matchups, and from a matchup standpoint, the Celtics are best structured to beat the Magic, as they have in both their meetings this season.
The Celtics trail the Hawks by only a half-game, and they are tied in the loss column. Boston trails Philly by a 1 1/2 games and is behind one game in the loss column, which is the really troublesome factor for the C's — a team can always make up wins, but it can't un-lose games.
Had Orlando traded Howard, the Celtics' seeding situation would have gotten even more daunting. Without Howard, the Magic certainly would have fallen out of the third spot in the East. The Indiana Pacers, who soundly defeated the Celtics twice this season, would be poised to slide up from fifth to third. That would have made the eighth, seventh and sixth seeds toxic for the Celtics and left only one avenue to avoid certain first-round death: The Philadelphia 76ers and the division title.
Having more options is always preferable, and even though the Sixers have gone just 5-5 in their last 10 games while the Celtics have gone 8-2, the Celtics have to feel more comfortable knowing that if they fall short of catching Philly, they could still fall into the seventh seed and a favorable matchup with Orlando.
Suffice to say Orlando isn't thinking this way. Magic owner Rich DeVos did not respond to the news of Howard staying put by exclaiming, "Yes! Now the Celtics have a better chance at making it out of the first round!" But the Magic also failed to make any additions to their team at the trade deadline, which means they could head into the playoffs with the same crew that lost by 31 points to the Celtics on Jan. 23 and gave away a 27-point lead to the Celtics on Jan. 26.
The memory of that disastrous week will not easily escape the minds of the Magic players. Retaining Howard was a gain for the Magic, but if the Celtics seize the opportunity, it could be a gain for the C's as well.