Since 1946 and in front of some the league’s most raucous fans, the Boston Celtics have amassed 17 Championships, 21 Conference and 22 Division Titles and retired 22 playing numbers. On the legendary parquet floor of the Boston Garden, the Celtics have been a benchmark franchise and one of the original members of the NBA. The club has been home to NBA greats including Bob Cousy, Red Auerbach, Bill Russell and Larry Bird. But the golden years have faded into (not too) distant memory and the rebuild has been on for a few years. For a town that expects a yearly contender where do the Celtics go from here? And even if there is a path to contender status, is now the time? Can Ainge go all in to make the move to the top of the East? Or does he have to bide his time till Lebron starts to run out of steam? Even if the Cavs can be had, can the Warriors?
In terms of reputation, Danny Ainge has an interesting one, a combination of savant and asshole, ranging through to a cutthroat mastermind. But is that the truth? He has built a monster team and won it all and probably should have had two titles from Boston’s “Big 3”. In 2007, Ainge had Paul Pierce and was in the lottery, landing the 5th overall pick. He managed to turn Wally Szczerbiak’s corpse, Delonte West and the pick into Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen from the Sonics, look that team up millennials). But he wasn’t done, next he flipped Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff and Sebastian Telfair plus a top three protected pick in 2009 to the Minnesota TImberwolves to acquire The Big Ticket (Kevin Garnett). And they were reborn a contender that brought home a title in 2008 and (maybe) should have repeated. In trades, Ainge’s rep was made and he’s made many more clever deals.
However, in the draft he has been more hit and miss. Some of the 1st round highlights since the last Championship window include Avery Bradley (pick 19 in 2010), Marcus Smart (pick 6 in 2014) and Jaylen Brown (pick 3 in 2016). Some of the 1st round misses included Fab Melo (pick 22 in 2012), Jared Sullinger (pick 21 in 2012) and J.R. Giddens (pick 30 in 2008). But let’s be fair, drafting is anyone’s guess. It’s a projection based on many unknowns and a heap of speculation, so I won’t kill him for misusing here and there because everyone has. At this stage of the game, he is a “made” man. And he’s been living off thins now for almost a decade, rightly or wrongly!
Jump to the 2016-17 season, the Celtics finished with a regular season record of 53-29 (a 65% winning percentage), finished 1st in the Atlantic Division and the East and were bounced out of the playoffs in the Conference finals by LeBron (aka the Cleveland Cavaliers). Off the floor, some shrewd trading and roster management have resulted in an asset rich franchise headed by an astute, resourceful and an extremely bright Head Coach in Brad Stevens. Armed with fantastic current and future draft capital and an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, the future looks bright; if the right moves are made! So where to now, and what to do with all these pieces? In a town like Boston, activity will not be mistaken for achievement.
The Cash Game
Let’s start with what they got and what they cost! As of right now, the Celts have around $71.9 million dollars in salaries committed to the 2017-18 season. When you consider the projected cap of $101 million for the 2017-18 NBA season, the Celtics have some room to add real talent. Right now they stand with almost $30 million in cap room without purging any contracts from the books. Al Horford, Jae Crowder and Jaylen Brown are all locked in for a couple of seasons whereas Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas, Tyler Zeller and Marcus Smart are all up for extensions as of next season. With the exception of Bradley all of these guys have real warts that will make judgment calls on their Celtic futures easier in the bigger picture.
IT4 has said that he is happy to wait on his extension so the club can explore adding major talent to upgrade the roster. But how long will this last and when does the impending extension become a distraction? Thomas is probably only going to get one shot at max or near max money and his ailing hip may add some urgency to the situation. Avery Bradley is also an interesting decision in the making. Widely considered a very good two way player he will attract big offers, and at 26 he is most likely entering his true prime.
Really the choice is clear, the defensive disaster that is IT combined with age and body issues offsets his offensive brilliance, and therefore he should be considered expendable. Also he looks like a mini turtle, just saying! Bring back Bradley and make Smart and IT into a real point guard that can fit their needs. What those needs are will depend on what and or who the draft capital can bring to the table.
Break-Ups and Make-Ups
There are decisions to be made about bring back Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, James Young and possibly Gerald Green. In the grand scheme, outside of the big Canadian and Jerebko, nobody on this list really moves the needle. The number they would command on the open market would surely decide their respective fates. I can imagine that some of these guys will remain to provide valuable rotation minutes depending on where the roster is after the Draft and Free Agency periods are complete.
Also there are a slew of prospects stashed in Europe and the D League. These prospects include Guerschon Yabusele (French Draymond Green), Ante Toni Žižić, Rade Zagorac, Demetrius Jackson and Abdel Nader. None of these are household names, but they do represent tradeable assets or low cost labor that could help keep costs down as top end talent is added to roster. Let’s be honest, if they’re lucky they might end up in a trivia question as part of a bigger play at some stage.
Pick or Treat
The trade with the Nets that resulted in the Celtics sitting with the number 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft must make Danny Ainge the happiest man in Boston. Maybe also because they will likely have another high pick in the 2018 Draft as well. But who to take or better yet, how to maximise the value of the assets? Well as it turns out, he traded it to the Sixers for an additional first round selection in the 2018 Draft and the 3rd overall selection in 2017. But picks are potential and at some stage they need to become real contributing players.
Markelle Fultz appears to be the kid that the Sixers have traded for. But if they are so in love with Fultz, how did Ainge only pull one more pick back in the trade. Surely there was another smaller piece or asset he could have taken back to address some shortcoming on his roster (Richuan Holmes?). There is a school of thought that this is one of the deepest drafts (at the top end) since the late 90’s, meaning great value can still be had in the lower slots, and the attaining another pick is a good result. Maybe Ainge liked another guy he felt he could get at the 3rd slot, as again adding another future high draft pick may have been the prudent move here.
The Celts have as many as 3 additional 1st round picks (with various protections) coming in the Sixers, Lakers, Sacramento, the Clippers and the Grizzlies between 2018 and 2020. That’s not counting the picks they will have earned themselves. The assets keep on rolling in but this isn’t the new season of the Bachelor, even if Danny does have a bunch of roses to hand out. In the end, one of the picks have to be his long term basketball soulmate!
They have a heap of picks! Congrats! But again these will have to become players at some stage to have any real value. This is the new car you buy that loses value the second you drive it off the lot. My gut is that Ainge doesn’t really want to make all of these picks, but rather he is looking to package them to land a big fish. Maybe an Anthony Davis type that is stuck captaining the Titanic in New Orleans! We know Ainge is ballsy enough to take a shot at something big, but the question is only how big. There are a couple of intriguing players out there right now that may be realistic, especially for some juicy draft picks.
- Jimmy Butler
Jimmy Buckets is a premier two way player in the NBA and nasty competitor. The report of some friction between he and the famously weird Chicago ownership may mean he is available for the right price. The Bulls must be looking at a roster reset and the one asset they have of real value is Jimmy, but he is young and essentially he would be traded for the chance to draft a player just like him. He is under contract so he will be pricey and ‘apparently’ is happy enough in Chicago.
- Paul George
George wants to be in LA, but he is an almost irresistible talent. He is a two-way monster, but what do you pay for what might be a rental. His comments to the Pacers about moving on after his contract ends would sure scare away most of his suitors other than the Lakers and Clippers. Trading a potential franchise changer or ten year player for a malcontent may prove too expensive even for a gun slinger like Ainge.
- Kristaps Porzingis
Word on the street is that the Zen master is open to talking about KP. Danny would be on that like “white on rice, in a glass of milk, on a paper plate in a snow storm” to quote the great Major Payne. And who could blame him really. His rare combination of size, shooting range and rim protection. It would be very tempting and his age makes him part of the current (and next great) Celtics teams in terms of timeline. Now if Phil does this I’ll be pooping in a brown paper bag, setting it on fire and putting it on his door step every day for the rest of his life! Get your hands off my Latvian!
The NBA is a talent accumulation business. For all the clichés about hustle and strategy, the key to winning is having the best guys and that costs money or future assets/young players! Of course, they have these things and could potentially augment their team massively via Free Agency or trade. For arguments sake, I’ve narrowed the potential free agent targets down to the two (I think) are most likely on the Celtic’s radar.
- Gordon Hayward
The link between Gordon Hayward and Brad Steven is an obvious one. He is right at the beginning of his prime and has trended up very year he’s been in the league. Having averaged 21.9 points and shooting 47% from the floor and almost 40% for threes, he projects as another flexible roster piece that could guard multiple positions.
- Blake Griffin
The playmaking big? What is Blake at this stage? He certainly commands a max deal, but he is also transitioning to a jump shooting 4 man with improving range. He is also a gifted passer and to some degree his playmaking is masked by CP3’s ball domination. He averaged his career low rebound numbers this season, but that could be Jordan cleaning the glass and denying opportunities. Health issues and diminishing bounce would be a real worry when offering Blake a long term deal.
Surely Hayward will be tempted by Stevens and maybe dancing in public, besides he didn’t get that lady killer hair style for nothing! Then again a wife and two children combined with a love of video games may be enough to keep him in Salt Lake City. Recent reports have suggested that Griffin is their main free agent target at the moment. The question is can Blake become a small-ball 5 man? Does he want mix it up, is he made of paper and will he punch any Celtics staff members? Lots of question here, and not many real answers!
All Good Things
Twiddle those thumbs Danny. The Warrior juggernaut is just about to hit full speed! Unless there is some injury or player unrest, we may be looking at domination for the next few years. Signing Durant didn’t make the Warriors better as much as it made all the other teams less relevant when it comes to title contention. Those Boston crazies won’t be happy with being one of the also rans!
Here’s the good news. With the picks and young players he has, combined with the cap flexibility, Ainge can plan for the long term without tanking. He may actually be able to compete without jeopardising the future contention or roster composition. The swirling rumours about LBJ going to LA at some stage (maybe in the next couple of years) would provide a perfect timeline for the Celtics to plan their ascension to the top of the East. But the Baby Bucks and the Wizards may also have something to say about that in the years to come. Discretion may indeed be the better part of Valour for the Boston front office this off-season.
Overall I think Danny Ainge likes the idea of everyone wondering what he’s’ up to. On some level he must like “all eyes on him” and would feel like he driving a lot of movement of talent around the Association (outside of the Warrior induced panic moves). He has done it before. The KG, Rondo, Ray and Truth group came through with the good and remains the resume builder for this front office. Surely this can’t go on forever. I mean, what have you done for us lately Danny?
All in all, the organisation, the roster and the future are looking good. There will come a time that the move will have to be made to take over the Eastern Conference, but that time is not now. That opportunity will coincide with the end of the Cavs as decided by LeBron James. Until then the game of cat and mouse should continue. The trick for Danny Ange and the Celtics will be not to throw all of their resources at the first attractive prospect, like an 18 year old at a strip club.