Being patient sucks — ask Boston Celtics fans. A first round knockout by Rajon Rondo and the Chicago Bulls would’ve probably led to general manager Danny Ainge interviewing for the Atlanta Hawks open president position. Losing to the Washington Wizards likely would’ve restarted the chorus of “Why didn’t we go after (insert possibly available recent NBA All-Star here) with all these assets?” However, here we are, the Celtics are the 1 seed in the Eastern Conference Finals and patience definitely got them there.
Well, patience and another team’s offer. The 2013 trade with the Brooklyn Nets included most of the other NYC team’s upcoming first round picks for 3 players, who were all over 30. The Nets wanted to go for it. They added stars seeking a championship, since it wasn’t coming fast enough. And it still didn’t work. They landed in the playoffs as a 6 seed, and declined further from there.
For Boston, they took the opposite route. Adding Brad Stevens and trading away their lead stars meant the team was stepping back. They rebuilt slowly, letting a new coach learn during the rigors of the 82 game season. They learned their way in 2013–14 to a 25–57 record, but they were competitive. Stevens showed intelligent decision making and that the wins were going to come.
In accord, Ainge did what he knows best; he made deals. The former Celtic built a vault of assets, in several ways. First, he brought in 9 draft picks that go until 2020. Set salaries attached to rookies mean they’re not as expensive as a veteran, who’s already played say 4 or more years. With the deals being thrown around, if a team wants to save some cash, they’re going to go younger and develop their own players. Look at Philadelphia, trusting the process, but also saving cash for whenever they should choose to use it.
As well, he brought in the right players. The likes of Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas were acquired via trades from Dallas and Phoenix, respectively, and don’t have ridiculous contracts attached to them. These assets and cap-friendly deals allowed the team to sign Al Horford to a max deal, away from Atlanta.
And now, here we are, the Celtics are a 53–27 team, the 1 seed in the East, and behind the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers 3–1 in the Eastern Conference Finals. Conventional logic has said all year that the team needs another all-star. And thanks to Ainge’s maneuvers, there is still enough room.
And to note — no one is safe. Maybe Avery Bradley, but Ainge probably hasn’t heard the right deal yet. Ainge is always seeking the best deal possible, as he should. If he has to give up too much or there isn’t enough coming back, he’s doesn’t do it. There have been rumors he considered moving Thomas last offseason, a traitorous move to Celtics fans, surely. However, if they still land a top 3 seed in the playoffs, Ainge is a genius.
One question — who could they add? They have no shortage of options. Whenever a top player is linked with moving, the Celtics are close behind. They have the cap room, players that work well in different systems, and draft picks, so they’ll always have a hand to play.
Maybe Ainge trades for Indiana Pacers’ star Paul George. With the team currently in flux and on the last year of his contract, he is available. A combination including the number 1 pick, Crowder, Marcus Smart and/or Jaylen Brown could tempt the midwesterners. Nonetheless, Los Angeles native George has Laker dreams, so you need him to sign on long term. No one year rentals.
There’s still the free agents on the table. Gordon Hayward is the most prominent name linked with the Celtics. Apart from his connection with Stevens as his former player during their Butler days, he’s a wing who can hit 3 point shots efficiently and was a first time All-Star this year. Does he make the team better? Yes. The Celtics could use 3 point shooting. As well, since most teams will be offering similar max deals, he honestly could go anywhere.
They also need rebounding. Are they going to bring Everett native and Dallas Mavericks’ center Nerlens Noel home? Or go after Memphis Grizzlies power forward JaMychal Green? They’re both young, solid rebounders who could play alongside Al Horford. They’re also restricted free agents, so their current teams could match the Cs offer.
Never forget, there’s still the draft pick. Yes, from this year’s 20–62 Nets. This puts the team in rare air, as both a 1 seed in the playoffs and possessing the 1st pick in June’s draft. The obvious choice is Washington guard Markelle Fultz. He’s shown an ability to play off the ball, but projects to be a point guard in the pros.
Boston has an all-star point guard though, don’t they? Thomas is injured but he’s not dead. However, he is underpaid and wants the brinks truck dropping off his next deal. And he deserves it. Then again, should you build a team around a 5’9” guard who plays minimal defense? Especially when you can get a younger, taller player who plays similarly for a lower value? All while keeping your ability to sign other players?
It’s an odd dilemma, with no distinctly wrong answer. What do you do when you’re good enough to make a run but not enough to win it all? Do you move enough players and assets to bring someone in and run with that? Or do they stand pat, and keep building, banking on developing until a championship window opens again?
I stand for that later option, but with a twist. This is the age of LeBron James and you won’t always have a chance at a future building block like Fultz. Moving Thomas at some point may become necessary, especially if the team doesn’t want to resign him. A Nerlens Noel sign-and-trade is strong move, since he’s only 23 years old and a four year veteran. As well, the team is adding Ante Zizic & Guerschon Yabusele from last year’s draft, to an already deep bench. This will leave room to tinker, using their assets.
Patience got them here. It gave them time to find assets, but also time to develop a team. Now that they’re seeing solid results, it’d be odd to abandon it, wouldn’t it?