- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Things are so cutthroat, so cynical in the modern NBA that we’re left to worry even over what should be the most warming and potential-laden of situations. The Boston Celtics manage to be both, currently, surprising many with its all-out team play down the stretch of what was supposed to be another lost season, earning a playoff berth while still managing to add significant assets along the way. All while declining to surrender a significant asset of their own.
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
(Unless you think the 2019 NBA draft, laden with teenagers born around the fin de siècle – gulp – will change the NBA. I wouldn’t care to know how this year’s freshman class of high schoolers are doing, and we’ll get to this later.)
Boston won 40 games in 2014-15 and was close to a victory in many more, the complete opposite of a 2013-14 campaign that saw them (understandably) sleepwalking right from the get-go, unable to even shake things up late in Rajon Rondo’s return from injury, even losing two games down the stretch to the tankable Philadelphia 76ers.
This year’s C’s started slowly, understandable given its roster and the uncertainty surrounding its two “best players,” guys in Jeff Green and Rajon Rondo who seemed out of step with a young and fitful roster. Green and Rondo weren’t sloughing off the campaign or denying fans effort, far from it, they just had no place on a team that was looking to turn the corner in 2017 or maybe even later. As a result, both were traded midseason.
Then, almost shockingly, the Celtics neared that corner.
They didn’t turn it, not yet, but behind some of the fellas – and not future assets – taken from the Green and Rondo deals, Boston started to pile up wins. Jae Crowder had Celtics fans giddy from the outset. Brandan Wright surprisingly failed to find a place in Boston (and just as surprisingly failed in Phoenix following his release), but Tayshaun Prince actually played damn good basketball for Boston before being dealt to Detroit for a package including Jonas Jerebko – a forward who immediately paid dividends on both ends for coach Brad Stevens.
Then the big swing hit. After over a year and a half of declining to trade for veteran cornerstones that will be part of that next wave (Gerald Wallace and Keith Bogans don’t count, Evan Turner was a signee), Boston general manager Danny Ainge tossed an unprotected 2019 pick to Phoenix for Isaiah Thomas. Thomas, “already” 26 and coming off of dismissals from two teams that weren’t exactly smitten with his influence and play, is just 5-9 and he doesn’t even start.
Yet he helped shift Boston into a top gear they didn’t know was down there. Stuck at 20-33 after an embarrassing overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers three days following the Thomas deal, the C’s ended the season on a 20-9 run. They roared into a playoff berth absolutely nobody outside of Celtics message boards had them even competing for, and the team gave all the Cavaliers they could handle even in a first round series that ended with a 4-0 sweep.
What’s next is as tricky as they come.
This isn’t a typical rebuild. Ainge’s team isn’t bottoming out for the highest of high-end draft picks, and he didn’t take advantage of teams looking to ship disgruntled superstars by dealing them actual would-be stars he already has on his roster. The Celtics entered a terrible 2013-14 season without the benefit of a high end lottery pick on its team, and they played themselves right out of the lottery this season under coach Stevens and his irascible, well-spaced crew. The 2014 lottery pick, guard Marcus Smart, still has a lot to iron out.
The draft assets Ainge has acquired are legend, but what to do with them?
You might know most of the list. The Celtics are owed the Clippers low first-round pick this year in the exchange that allowed Doc Rivers to become Clipper coach. Due to the Rondo trade, the Celtics will either get Dallas’ completely unprotected 2021 pick, or more likely a first-round pick in any year before that starting in 2016. With Dirk Nowitzki slowing, Tyson Chandler aging, Rondo definitely gone (though that clearly helps Dallas more than hurts it) and Chandler Parsons possibly undergoing a significant knee surgery, that pick (only protected 1-through-7 in each year) could be a killer.
The Celtics probably won’t get a first round pick from Minnesota next year, unless you think the Wolves aren’t long for the lottery (protected 1-through-12), but they will get Brooklyn’s completely unprotected selection. They will be able to swap picks (the team already is working with a better record than the Nets) with Billy King’s team in 2017, and they’ll get another unprotected pick in 2018. An upcoming Memphis pick could hit as high as the low lottery in 2018, with restrictions falling as the years move along, and the Celtics own all their first-round picks until 2019.
That’s an incredible bounty, but it’s all numbers and invisible men at this point. There are no people involved, yet, and though it’s safe to assume aging teams in Brooklyn, Dallas, and Memphis will all fall off in years to come, stranger things have happened in this league. Just look at Boston, for one.
If all cap holds are extinguished (no sure thing with hearty types like Jerebko and Brandon Bass’ free agency looming, Boston might want to bring them back) the Celtics will have over $20 million in cap space this summer once its two first-round picks are accounted for. The team could have even more if it could convince Philadelphia to take on the last year of Gerald Wallace’s $10 million-plus contract in exchange for the Clipper pick – GW was a fantastic locker room guy this season in spite of playing just 286 minutes. He was well compensated, to be sure, but in any job it’s not always fun to remain a team player even after being forced into silent partnership.
Moving in on a star will be tricky, considering the current paucity of options and the varying agendas present.
Ainge made his own fortune through skilled transactions – make no mistake – but he was also incredibly lucky that teams were willing to move Ray Allen (securing him only with a top five pick while still retaining his largest expiring contract) and Kevin Garnett (after years of declining overtures from Chicago, Phoenix and other teams) in 2007. Signing someone like Kevin Love to a maximum contract, and we respect the heck out of Love’s game (he was a former AAU teammate and childhood friend of Thomas’), may not even shift the needle all that much even in the terrible East. The question of Love’s interest in the Kelly Olynyk-featurin’ Boston locker room is also in question.
There is the sense that Boston needs to strike now, what with seemingly every team allowed a massive line of credit in 2016, but how many teams will be willing stars for even part of Boston’s impressive array of picks?
More importantly, let’s lose the hypotheticals here – which teams would be willing to make a move like that? Who should Boston specifically be going after, this offseason and next? Which teams are going to be the ones to enhance Boston’s next championship effort by choosing two in Brooklyn’s bush instead of the star in hand? At times, even in the draft pick-obsessed modern NBA, it seems as if only Boston would. If only Danny Ainge could trade with himself.
The hope here, as Ainge acolytes dot the NBA’s general manager ranks, is that he would be coming about as close to that ideal as he could.
That he would either be able to find like-minded builders, or out and out friends (as former Minnesota GM Kevin McHale was, though McHale made what should have been a great trade with KG) in order to scratch some backs. However, the lack of actual names in play – Isaiah Thomas-hatin’ DeMarcus Cousins? Maybe anachronistic Roy Hibbert? The potentially-unhappy but also nearly-30 LaMarcus Aldridge – is worrying.
And that’s how fast the cycles turn. From a smiling NBA surprise success story to “come on, Danny, hurry up and order” within two days.
Or, Ainge can just fall back and wait to pounce. He could see each and every one of those draft picks over, turning even Thomas and his manageable (in this NBA economy or the next one) contract over to a new team. He could keep flexibility and show patience – as he did with a Boston Celtics team that heard catcalls as far back as 2004 to trade it all away prior to that wonderful summer of 2007. All while knowing that, under Stevens, he’ll have a team that will compete for a playoff seed even while going piecemeal and “only” picking 16th in this year’s draft.
He’s earned out patience, but you can’t deny that his perpetually-interesting approach has also earned a bit of slight concern.
- - - - - - -