Markelle Fultz' shoulder, Joel Embiid's face, and Boston's playoff picture

I wouldn't blame you if you thought dealing with Danny Ainge was one step above making a deal with the devil.
So many of his trades turn out to be robberies, it gives rival GMs pause - and after the latest Markelle Fultz-related injury, you might even convince me Danny is cursed. From almost the opening tip of the season, we saw how his trades carried surprises on-court nobody could have foreseen.

From Gordon Hayward's freak accident and trading point guards with leg issues to moving the top pick for a rookie some worried might not be able to hit from deep for a guy who seemed able to hit anywhere, the Boston Celtics' season has been tied to two Eastern Conference foes via highly unusual deals - the Cleveland Cavaliers via the Kyrie Irving-for-Isaiah-Thomas deal, and the Philadelphia 76ers via the Markelle-Fultz-for-Jayson-Tatum deal.

The Fultz deal was unusual in that very few NBA teams ever trade back from a top-three pick, but also in that the contemporary wisdom on both was off the mark in ways you'd earnestly have to be either psychic or lucky as hell, as Fultz' mysterious shoulder/shooting issues was only weirder than Tatum leading the league in three-point efficiency for a significant stretch of the season.

Add in the injury situation murking up the Eastern Conference playoff picture, and we could be in for a wild ride the last two weeks of the regular season into the first round of the playoffs. You see, the Fultz-for-Tatum deal just got even weirder, after Fultz finally came back from the mystery ailment messing up his shoulder and his game for most of his rookie season - and promptly planted said shoulder into the face of the one person the 76ers simply cannot afford to lose.
That accident literally broke poor Joel Embiid's face, fracturing his orbital bone and concussing a player playing as close to a full season as we may ever see from the perennially-injured big man who has carried, along with Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons, the tankiest tankers of all time back into the postseason. While Philly may be able to survive his projected two to four-week recovery, it's pretty hard to tell where the team will fall to in his absence.

With John Wall returning to the Washington Wizards after a free-fall, that team may or may not end up rising or falling depending on how well they play in his return as much as on who they feel might match up best in the first round against them. With the Cavs still sorting out team chemistry after their own recent injuries (Kevin Love, fresh back from a broken hand missed games after an elbow to the face) and Philly something of an unknown in Embiid's absence, all three teams might conceivably desire a series against Boston given the spate of injuries the team is currently dealing with.

The Celtics are currently in the second seed, without starter Kyrie Irving until at least part-way through the first round, and Marcus Smart until the second (and Gordon Hayward an unknown), along with several players out with lesser injuries that could still be an issue by the post-season. They would face the seventh seed in the first round, and the winner the of the sixth and third seed contest in the next round. Boston could still be in play for the first seed, but without a win versus the Toronto Raptors tonight, that will be off the table and is still unlikely even with one.
The 76ers, however, are currently in fourth place. A half-game separates them from the Indiana Pacers, four from the Wizards, and four-and-a-half from both the Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks, tied for the last two playoff spots with only the Detroit Pistons left in the running. With 5.5 games needed to catch up, it seems very unlikely they'll make it.

This leaves Miami or the Bucks are the safest bets for Boston in the first round. However, intentional, uh, "player development and rest" could also see Philly, Indiana, or Washington end up in the Cs' range. With the Cavs in third place and little incentive to drop further than fourth given how much this shakiest of LeBron James teams has been, it's increasingly looking like a second-round matchup with Cleveland is in the works if they can get by the sixth seed.

Right now, that's held by John Wall's squad, but it could also end up being a more desirable draw of playing the fifth seed in the first round (currently the Pacers, but quite likely Philly), which would see Boston facing the Cavs no earlier than the Conference Finals, should both teams survive that long. It all boils down to how each respective team thinks of its goals, and how available rosters perform in the rest of the season.

Rarely has a rookie's shoulder played such a massive role in an NBA season, and never so strangely.

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Image: Rick Bowmer/AP
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