After three years of rebuilding and consistent improvement, the Boston Celtics find themselves in an almost unprecedented situation; having the unique ability to contend for titles in the present while developing a roster to compete for more in the future. The last time any team finishing with more than 48 wins picked in the top three of an NBA draft was, coincidentally, the 1986 Boston Celtics, where they selected Len Bias second overall. Bias, along with 1987 draft pick Reggie Lewis, were to be the next generation of a Boston dynasty, rebuilding on the fly, as the big three of Bird, Parish, and McHale entered the twilight of their careers. Sadly, Bias and Lewis both suffered tragic deaths before they could make their mark on the franchise. Fast forward to 2017, where the Celtics find themselves in a rare, but familiar position, with the potential to compete in the present, while still having the assets to create a bright future. Despite the promising outlook and direction of the team, they must be cautious, as one wrong move could erase years of patience and preparation and leave them without a present or a future.
In a place like Boston, where patience isn’t always found in abundance, the demand for a competitive and compelling product year in and year out couldn’t be higher. In markets like these, often teams will make the mistake of signing older veteran players to large contracts in the hopes of staying competitive and satisfying the fans with a playoff appearance. The Celtics were gifted with the ability to bypass this issue, as Isaiah Thomas’ arrival just a year and a half after trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett thrust them back into the playoff mix and headed back in the right direction. With the acquisition of Al Horford this past summer and the development of other players on the roster such as Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart, the team looks to be missing one go-to star to be able to compete with the likes of Cleveland and Golden State. But that’s where the problem lies. Danny Ainge has done a fantastic job of building this team and positioning himself for the “big fish” in free agency or via trade. The Brooklyn picks are looking as valuable as ever and the team is as attractive as any on the open market, but that doesn’t make it any easier to pry away a superstar from their current team. Paul George, Demarcus Cousins, and Jimmy Butler are always the first three names that pop up when Celtics trade targets are discussed. They would all be great fits on paper, but the larger issue is what it would take to acquire them, and what that would mean in the big picture as no potential trade comes without baggage.
Of the superstars that are traded, an overwhelming majority of them are dealt due to an upcoming contract issue where he will not sign with his current team long term and they feel compelled to get something for him rather than let him leave for nothing in free agency. Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard were the last two true superstars to be traded during their primes, with Melo heading to the Knicks and Howard to the Lakers. Although the old saying “the team who receives the best player wins the trade” has some merit, when dealing with players of Anthony and Howard’s (or Cousins, Butler, and George’s) talent, it isn’t always the case. In the Anthony trade, the Knicks had to gut their young and talented roster to bring him in, selling their future to compete in the present. This resulted in a couple of early playoff exits before Stoudemire’s body failed him and the team fell apart. Furthermore, it isn’t always a guarantee that the player will affect the team the way they should on paper, which is what makes trading for one of these players so risky. In the Howard trade, the Lakers gave up Andrew Bynum, an All-Star center at the time and multiple first round picks for Dwight. Dwight and Kobe never got along and the fit wasn’t perfect, as the Lakers went from a prospective super team to a dysfunctional, expensive first round exit. After the season Howard subsequently left the Lakers with nothing but an aging roster and little future assets and they are heading for yet another lottery season.
When examining the Celtics roster and their future assets, they have the ability to make any trade that they want, but the question that remains is whether they should or not. With Cousins off the table after his recent extension, Butler and George are the only two possible players that fit the star mold that Boston is looking for who have the possibility of being dealt. However, despite the tantalizing impact that they could have on the team currently constructed, it is important to realize that the team Butler or George would be joining would be quite different than it is now. Stars aren’t traded for just draft picks, so trade proposals starting with just the Nets 2017 pick swap and the 2018 Nets pick would be a non-starter, as the Bulls or Pacers want to be sure that they are receiving an impact player in return. Any potential deal for Butler or George would have to begin with at least one Nets pick, Marcus Smart or Avery Bradley, and possibly even Jaylen Brown. A trade such as this would improve the team in the short term, but it severely handcuff them moving forwards. If the Brown, Smart, and a Nets pick are sent in the deal, the Celtics will have clearly defined their championship window to fit the age and career timelines of Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford, and either Butler or George or whatever star they hypothetically bring in. By taking this route, the Celtics will lose the flexibility that they have worked hard to maintain and they will have taken the same risks that the Knicks and Lakers both took when acquiring Anthony and Howard. In addition to these concerns, will this new roster overtake Cleveland or the Warriors in a seven game series? For an organization that prides itself on its winning tradition and has repeatedly stated that a championship is the ultimate goal, a trade that could jeopardize the long term future of the team and won’t firmly entrench the Celtics in the championship chase in the present isn’t going to tempt Ainge and Stevens.
Instead of cashing in on their assets for the chances of winning now, the Celtics can compete both now and in the future using the promising draft picks of the Nets as well as free agency to acquire difference makers. The idea of an age timeline for the core players of a championship team is a little overplayed with the prominence of teams like the Thunder, Warriors, and Miami Heat’s big three. The concept that each major player has to be a young superstar at the age of 26 or 27 to be able to compete for championships is very overstated and is something that the 76ers have taken to the extreme. It is something that each young, rebuilding team looks to emulate as they try to construct their championship roster from scratch. However, for most championship teams, there exists a balance of young, talented stars and impactful veterans. For the Celtics in 2008, while Garnett, Pierce, and Allen were all in their early 30s, Rajon Rondo was only 21 years old. For the Spurs in 2013, the big three of Parker, Duncan, and Ginobli were supported by the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green who were 22 and 26, respectively. Fast-forwarding three years and Leonard is now the leader of that team and looks to be for the rest of his career. The key for these teams was a blend of veterans and young players that worked together to deliver the ultimate goal, and with the current path of the team, the Celtics will have a second chance at what could have been following the 1986 NBA Championship team. With a top three or even top two team in the conference this season that will only get better by the year with the development of Jaylen Brown and the next two high lottery picks, these players will have a chance to grow in a winning culture and contribute to a team that is on the cusp of winning already with the likes of Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford. Whether they do or not in the short term isn’t as important, but by not trading all of their assets for a shot to compete with Golden State and Cleveland in their primes, the Celtics are keeping their championship window open for the next decade rather than for the next four or five years at most. Compound the internal development of these young players and the still possible free agent signings in both 2017 and 2018, and this team isn’t really as far away from competing as they seem. Armed with the flexibility to capitalize on almost any opportunity that arises and the young talent to succeed the older veterans, the Boston Celtics are positioned to compete for their 18th banner for a very long time.