Arena: Boston's Historic Rebuild is Not Over
They already hold the NBA record with 17 championships; their spoiled fans are eagerly anticipating the next. They are one of the final three NBA teams who still have a shot at a championship this year, and they also have the first overall draft pick in what has been touted as the best draft class since 2003. The Boston Celtics are the happiest accident in recent basketball history.
Prior to the 2013-14 season, the Celtics tore down an aging team, expecting a lengthy rebuild filled with losing. Their former head coach Doc Rivers even abandoned ship, refusing to coach for a rebuilding squad.
With such low expectations, the Celtics president of basketball operations, Danny Ainge, traded away the Celtics nucleus to the Brooklyn Nets in what is widely recognized as one of the most lopsided trades ever made in the NBA. Boston traded away Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry for a laundry list of role players and the Nets’ 2014, 2016 and 2018 first round picks with the option to swap picks in 2017.
Though the 2018 draft is still over a year away, the Celtics have already made out like kings in this trade. The Nets have become the worst team in basketball, while the Celtics have risen to the top, defying everyone’s expectations but that of their fans.
While spoiled Boston fanatics have come to expect greatness from the Celtics, fans of some other teams have found themselves holding their breath.
The Philadelphia 76ers began their “process” of rebuilding the same offseason as the Celtics. They shipped off Jrue Holiday to New Orleans in exchange for Nerlens Noel and started a cycle of drafting perennially injured big-men. Philly endured one of the most brutal stretches in the history of the league and still has yet to see the fruits of their labor.
Meanwhile, the Celtics stumbled into a superstar in Isaiah Thomas, swindled the Dallas Mavericks to grab Jae Crowder in exchange for half a season of Rajon Rondo, signed Al Horford to a big money deal and still have maintained the cap flexibility to offer a max contract to a star free agent this offseason. All while they sit back, collect picks from the Nets and watch head coach Brad Stevens assemble a team that is greater than the sum of its parts.
With all this draft capital and theoretical cap space, Celtics fans have been clamoring for a superstar that will get them past LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Many have chastised Ainge for his perceived inability to make a big splash and the apparent rumor that he over-values his own players. Celtics fans were even more upset when rumors picked up that Ainge declined a trade for Jimmy Butler because he did not want to give up Crowder. Celtics fans should not think Ainge is simply sitting on his hands, however. He is merely buying time to pounce on a disgruntled superstar when the price is at its lowest. There is an endless amount of ways this offseason could go for Boston, all of which would result in some form of immediate improvement.
By now it should be apparent that Ainge has mastered the art of simultaneously retooling while contending. If it becomes clear that Boston does not have the fire power to keep up with LeBron and the Cavs, Ainge might consider pursuing the retooling aspect harder, getting younger and biding time while LeBron and the Cavs get older. He could draft Markelle Fultz – the top overall prospect – to form a backcourt tandem with Isaiah Thomas. Boston could continue to play conservative with their cap space, signing role players to one year deals or non-guaranteed contracts like they did with Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko. They could resign Kelly Olynyk to a modest deal and enter the 2017-18 season a year wiser and slightly more talented.
Another approach Boston could take hinges on the decisions of a few offseason free agents. The Celtics are rumored to be smitten with Gordon Hayward, who played for head coach Brad Stevens at the University of Butler. Another big name to watch is Blake Griffin, who might be looking for a change of scenery after a rollercoaster few years in Los Angeles. The Celtics could clear cap space to sign Hayward or Griffin to a max contract by waiving Amir Johnson’s non-guaranteed contract and renouncing the rights to Olynyk. Or they could keep their number one pick and continue to contend while retooling.
The most intriguing scenario, however, involves Boston pushing all their chips to the center of the board. That would include signing Hayward or Griffin, while also trading for a superstar. The Celtics could offer up their No. 1 pick and the 2018 Nets pick and get almost any superstar on the market. Perhaps Jimmy Butler, Paul George or the recently annoyed Kristaps Porzingis?
Boston could possibly assemble a starting five of Thomas, Butler, Crowder, Griffin and Horford. That team would not only challenge the Cavs for the East crown, they would challenge the Warriors for the most talented team in the NBA. They would also still employ Jaylen Brown, Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart off the bench – a fierce threesome of defenders who would take some pressure off the theoretical star-studded lineup.
Whichever scenario takes places, all involve the Celtics improving for next season and beyond. Most teams do not have this luxury. The Warriors and Cavs will be paying historical amounts just to keep their current teams intact, while East teams like the Wizards and Raptors are already capped out and do not have the means to improve, barring some massive internal growth. While those teams stay cap-strapped for the foreseeable future, Boston will be wheeling, dealing, and most importantly – improving.