by: John Tomase on Wed, 04/12/2017 - 11:23pm

Isaiah Thomas leads the cheers as the Celtics clinch the No. 1 seed in the East on Wednesday. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)The Sacramento Kings haven't posted a winning record since 2006, when they won 44 games in Rick Adelman's final season as head coach. They've had nine coaches and nine top-10 picks since. In 2012 alone, their roster featured DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah Thomas, Hassan Whiteside, and Tyreke Evans. They won 22 games.

The futility stretches a year longer for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who just polished off their 12th straight losing campaign. They've wasted top-10 picks on the likes of Corey Brewer, O.J. Mayo, Johnny Flynn, Wesley Johnson, Derrick Williams, and Trey Burke. They're finally building something around Karl-Anthony Towns. They won 31 games this year.

The Phoenix Suns reached the Western Conference Finals in 2010 and came within a Metta World Peace buzzer-beating putback of possibly taking a 3-2 series lead over the eventual champion Lakers. They haven't made the playoffs since. They've been reduced to feeding guard Devin Booker in blowout losses so he can top 70 points. They won 24 games this year.

Once you start losing in the NBA, it's hard to stop. Turnarounds can take decades, if they happen at all. The Knicks and Lakers, two of the game's most storied franchises, just missed the playoffs by a mile, with no end to their respective misery in sight.

And then there are the Celtics.

Three years ago, they won 25 games. Their best player was probably mercurial forward Jeff Green. They welcomed All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo from knee surgery in January and promptly lost the first six games he played. They dropped 16 of their last 19 under rookie head coach Brad Stevens, who appeared in danger of joining the Never Should've Left College Club alongside Rick Pitino, John Calipari, and Lon Kruger.

The Big Three had walked out that door. Among the 19 players to don green were Vander Blue, Chris Babb, and Vitor Faverani, and I'm not making those names up. Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk were the only keepers.

There might not have been a worse roster in the NBA. See you in 2023, and let's hope the Bruins can give us something to watch during the winter, because the Celtics felt light years from contention.

Three years later, they're the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.

It's tempting to temper any enthusiasm with an acknowledgement of their flaws. Their 53 wins would only rank fourth in the Western Conference. We have no idea if they'll be able to rebound or score at a playoff level. But let's take a breath and recognize what became official on Wednesday night.

The Celtics just finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference, and they did it the right way, overcoming a slow start to blow out the Milwaukee Bucks JVs on Wednesday night to finish two full games ahead of the defending champion Cavaliers.

No one would even pretend the Celtics belong on the same floor as LeBron James and Co. Owner Wyc Grousbeck admitted as much Wednesday in an interview with OM&F. "I don't think we're as good as Cleveland," he said. "If we got a chance to play them in the postseason, I'd love to see it, but I'm not sure how it would turn out."

It hardly matters. What the Celtics have accomplished in the one sport most resistant to NFL-style parity is nothing short of astounding. Piecing together his roster with little more than scrap metal and a blowtorch, Celtics boss Danny Ainge has needed only three years to transform the Boston from laughingstock to landing spot.

He ditched Rondo for blood-and-guts Jae Crowder. He stole Isaiah Thomas from the Suns. He landed Al Horford in free agency and improbably reached the finals with All-Star Kevin Durant. He hit a freaking grand slam with Stevens, who might be the best young coach of any team in any sport.

And so here we are. The Celtics enter their first-round matchup with the Bulls as prohibitive favorites. If the seedings hold, they'll get the eminently beatable Wizards in round two. It's hard to imagine them dethroning the Cavaliers in a hypothetical conference final, but so what?

THEY'RE REBUILDING. This cannot be overstated. They still own two more picks from the Nets, including one this June with more ping pong balls than anyone. They can easily clear space to land a max-contract free agent like Jazz swingman Gordon Hayward. Their rebuild is only entering Phase 2.

This simply isn't supposed to happen. Not in the NBA. Not when so many other clubs blessed with better draft picks and/or resources have floundered for so long with no hope of improvement.

The Celtics should've been one of those teams. They should, at this very moment, be one of those teams.

Instead they're the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, and they're only getting started. It's a helluva thing.