Why standing pat was the right move for Celtics

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Chris Mannix
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As Boston engaged teams in trade talks the last few days, the message was unmistakable: value our assets appropriately. The Celtics were eager to add a superstar to their talented core and were willing to pay a premium to do it. Brooklyn’s 2017 first-round pick was in play — if teams properly assessed it. Boston saw the pick as No. 1, as Markelle Fultz, as the kind of transcendent young player rebuilding teams salivate over. You could have it, the Celtics said, but don’t go trying to gouge us for a whole lot more.

Indiana didn’t bite, Chicago either, and the Celtics will open the second half of the season tomorrow night with the same group that cruised through the first. It’s impossible to mask the disappointment among Bostonians — it’s a star-driven town eager to shed anonymous future picks for established players — but the Celtics’ refusal to gut the team of assets may have just postponed a promising future.

Indiana didn’t make a long-term commitment to Paul George this week, while Chicago didn’t pledge allegiance to Jimmy Butler. The Pacers were always more buyers than sellers, more interested in dangling a five-year, designated max-level extension in front of George this summer than trading him. “Right now, today, Jimmy is on our roster,” Bulls vice president John Paxson said Thursday, and does that sound like a committed executive to you? Chicago didn’t feel any urgency to move Butler, not with two team-friendly years left on his contract. Boston’s opportunity to acquire either established All-Star didn’t end — it was just pushed back.

There’s a risk, of course. The Nets — an NBA-worst 9-47, losers of 14 straight and about to embark on a season-crippling eight-game road trip — will have the best odds of landing the top pick, but only five times since 1994 has the team with the best odds claimed it. Counting on ping-pong balls is dangerous, and Boston knows a slide down to No. 4 will destabilize its bargaining position.

Celtics GM Danny Ainge wasn’t interested in sacrificing the team’s immense assets on Thursday. (AP)
Celtics GM Danny Ainge wasn’t interested in sacrificing the team’s immense assets on Thursday. (AP)

But Boston didn’t bow to that pressure because it knew there was another scenario. The ping-pong balls come up right, No. 1 falls into its lap and it can re-enter negotiations with both teams in a far stronger position. Should George reject an extension, Indiana’s bargaining position will be weakened; should the Bulls — a jumbled mess clinging to the seventh playoff spot — deteriorate further, the pressure will ratchet up on Chicago to build a winner around Butler — and the clock is ticking — or move him.

Patience isn’t big in Boston, but really: Did anyone expect this? The Celtics are 37-20, three games back of Cleveland and loaded with assets to deal. The Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett era ended in 2013 and Boston spent all of one season — a 25-57 2013-14 campaign — bottoming out. Isaiah Thomas is an All-Star, Al Horford is locked in to a long-term deal and Avery Bradley — sidelined for most of the last two months with an Achilles’ injury — represents a sort of midseason acquisition that will help Boston keep pace with Toronto and Washington in the East.

Beating Cleveland is a pipe dream, and really: Should Boston be thinking that far? Back-to-back playoff appearances have restored credibility but perhaps a trip to the second round or the conference finals should be made before we start printing Celtics-Warriors T-shirts. Boston is a combined 2-4 against the Raptors and Wizards this season; they represent the bar the Celtics should be trying to hurdle, not Cleveland.

A trade is coming eventually. Oh, you will hear a lot about Fultz, Washington’s freshman point guard, about his offensive prowess, about how a Thomas-Fultz backcourt could terrorize the East for years to come. But Boston isn’t going to waste Thomas’ prime years grooming a replacement, and at 30, Horford only has a few prime years left. Celtics president Danny Ainge has built a team that is one LeBron James turned ankle away from being a conference contender, and he won’t waste an opportunity to construct a post-James heir. A star will come available, be it George, Butler or someone else, and Trader Danny will be ready to pounce.

Besides, the best trades are often the ones you don’t make, and Boston knows this well. In 2015 the Celtics were willing to part with four first-round picks — including one of the Nets’ — to move up in the draft to nab Justise Winslow. Charlotte, picking ninth, passed and drafted Frank Kaminsky. Winslow went a pick later, and while he has emerged as a solid player, would anyone do that deal today? Boston’s pool of assets is too deep for someone not to come calling. The hunt for another star may have stalled on Thursday. But it’s far from over.

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