Let’s imagine for a moment that the Boston Celtics’ free fall started just a week or two earlier last season. That instead of losing 24 of their last 34 games, they lost, say, 28 or 29. Or, imagine the Ping-Pong balls simply bounced their way.
Had that happened, Wednesday night’s matchup in Minneapolis might have looked a whole lot different.
Andrew Wiggins, the top pick in the 2014 NBA draft, might still have been wearing the blue, black and gray of a Minnesota Timberwolves team languishing in the basement of the Western Conference.
But the Boston Celtics, who relied Monday on 34-year-old Tayshaun Prince as their primary offensive weapon, might have trotted out the player C’s fans so desperately desired over the summer: Kevin Love.
Love was the apple of Boston’s eye this past offseason — a talent, many believed, that if acquired would allow the Celtics to leap up about 15 rungs in their rebuilding process. Team him with a master facilitator in Rajon Rondo, a streaky yet explosive scorer in Jeff Green and the Celtics’ crop of promising up-and-comers, and you could have something special on your hands.
Love’s desire to leave Minnesota was widely speculated even before last season concluded, but the Timberwolves made it clear they weren’t about to let him go for nothing. For teams desiring the then-25-year-old’s services, this placed even greater importance on the draft, which at the time was touted as one of the strongest in recent memory (though it’s yet to live up to that billing).
The Celtics ended up losing 57 games last season and finishing fifth-to-last in the NBA standings — not optimal lottery position, but much better than a team like the Phoenix Suns, who narrowly missed the playoffs. The lottery draw was not kind to the C’s, however, sticking them with the No. 6 selection and awarding the top pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers, who finished a full eight games ahead of Boston in the standings.
The Cavs, of course, picked Wiggins and subsequently flipped him, Anthony Bennett and a first-rounder for Love, who joined LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to form basketball’s latest Big Three.
Boston, meanwhile, picked up what so far appears to be a solid draft haul, taking point guard Marcus Smart sixth overall and talented but raw swingman James Young at No. 19. Young remains a project, but Smart has made more of an impact than most of his fellow top-10 selections. He’s looked at as the Celtics’ most important piece as they continue their rebuild.
But missing out on Wiggins — and, therefore, Love — assured that the rebuild will, in fact, continue. Had things turned out differently, who knows where the Celtics would be as the unofficial first half of their season winds down.
Would Rondo and Green still be kicking around Causeway Street? Probably. Would the Celtics be aiming for a top playoff spot rather than nipping at the heels of the No. 8 seed in the terrible Eastern Conference? Perhaps.
We’ll never know the answers to those questions. But as the Celtics visit the Wiggins and the T-Wolves on Wednesday to wrap up a six-game road trip, it’s hard not to wonder.
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