With Thursday’s 2:00 trade deadline rapidly approaching, the Celtics find themselves in a unique and dificult spot. Thanks to one of the best team rebuilds in NBA history, Boston is ripe with draft capital and young talent. They are also sitting at second place in the Eastern Conference with a 37-20 record. As it stands, the team seems to be in the middle of an identity crisis, unsure whether to continue building for the future or to push all the chips to the center of the table. GM Danny Ainge has been reluctant to part with the assets at his disposal, but make no mistake: for the Boston Celtics, the future is now.
A little over three years ago, Boston completed one of the biggest heists in NBA history, sending aging Celtic legends Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets for an absurd haul of assets in future drafts. That includes the right to swap picks in the upcoming draft, and a first round pick in the 2018 draft. Though the deal was a hard pill for Celtic fans to swallow at the time, it’s paying massive dividends today. If Brooklyn’s hilariosly bad team is any indication, both picks should easily land inside the top 5.
Enter the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers, two middle of the road teams looking to cash in on star players (Jimmy Butler and Paul George, respectively) to build for the future. The Nets 2017 pick would go a long way in helping both teams achieve their goals, as many NBA insiders believe the upcoming draft is filled with franchise altering talent.
For that reason alone, it’s easy to see why the Celtics would think twice about dealing away a potential #1 overall pick. They could be giving away a future franchise centerpiece, and in return only get two or three years out of a proven star. It’s also true that no matter what the Celtics do right now, it may not be enough to surpass Cleveland. LeBron’s stranglehold on the eastern conference for the past six years has been nothing short of incredible, and by hanging on to draft picks, the Celtics could be positioning themselves nicely to take the reigns from LeBron as he enters his mid-to-late 30’s.
That’s all fine and well, but let’s take a look at the current landscape of the NBA. It’s Golden State, Cleveland, maybe the Spurs, and then everyone else. By trading for George or Butler, the Celtics can immediately place themselves in that upper echelon of great teams in the league. Instead of struggling to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals and getting eliminated by Cleveland for the next few years, they can all but pencil their names into the conference finals, and have a legitimate shot to represent the East in The Finals in 2017 and beyond. That rings especially true this year, when Kevin Love and J.R. Smith will be sidelined well into April due to injury.
Even if Ainge decides to stand pat yet again, it will likely take a while for a rookie to turn into a star player. Since the 2011 draft, only two players selected inside the top five (Kyrie Irving, 2011; Anthony Davis, 2012) have made it to an NBA All Star game. The chances of the Celtics drafting future All Stars in both 2017 and 2018 are probably very slim, but let’s assume they end up with at least one. How long will it take for them to contribute to a contender? Can Ainge be sure that the championship window will still be open by the time a rookie makes the leap from good to great? Al Horford is about to turn 31. Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart, and Avery Bradley are going to need to get paid in 2018. Let’s assume it takes the 2017 pick three seasons to become great. He’ll be playing with a 34 year old Al Horford, and who knows what else. Which leads me to my next point.
Boston hasn’t exactly been an NBA free agent destination through the course of the last decade or two. Outside of Al Horford, who was really just a consolation prize in the Kevin Durant sweepstakes, the Celtics biggest acquisitions have probably been a washed up Rasheed Wallace or a washed up Shaquille O’Neal. Other than that, most great players to wear the Celtic uniform came to the team either via trade or through the draft. Some argue that the Celtics will have the cap space to bring in a big time player in the off season, but we’ll see who they can actually manage to bring in. With Magic Johnson’s Lakers looking to rebuild and the Miami Heat starting to show some signs of life, I wouldn’t bank on great players flocking to Boston just yet.
At the end of the proverbial day, the Boston Celtics are playing with house money. They went from the top of the Eastern Conference to the bottom and back again, all within the span of 4 years. Today, they find themselves in the same place they were when they started: looking up at LeBron James in the Eastern Conference. This time, however, things are different. They can get help. As much as Celtic fans would love the Nets picks to turn into the next coming of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, it just isn’t realistic.
The last team to defeat LeBron in the East was a Celtics squad featuring Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Thanks to a deal featuring those very same players, Boston is primed to do it again in 2017 and beyond, as long as Danny Ainge can resist the temptation of waiting and take a chance on right now.