If part of you was bummed out when you heard the Lebron-to-Cleveland news from a Celtics perspective, you're not alone (certainly judging from some of the responses I've read on this site). Yes, that 1st round pick from Cleveland as a result of last week's trade isn't worth much any longer. Yes, Cleveland successfully landing Kevin Love would be tough to swallow. What really gets me down is that I felt that, had Lebron stayed in Miami, given the utter breakdown in Wade's body (I personally think people still haven't caught up to how done be really is), the Heat would have absolutely been a manageable threat in the East over the next few years. On the Cavs, with Irving and (potentially) Love and a decent collection of young talent, that team could be legitimately stacked for years to come.
But I remain optimistic about this team, even as I see a strong possibility that the rebuild takes more than 1-2 years.
First, let me just acknowledge a point that other posters have already raised: We have no idea how good the Cavs will be. Adding Lebron vaulted them into the league's elite, but you need a lot more than talent to win a title. I won't belabor this point.
Here's what I want people to consider... The league's recent rule changes, both in terms of the on-court rules as well as the new CBA, have diminished the importance of the transcendant player. We saw this first hand in the Finals, and simply attributed San Antonio's dominance to the cleverness of their coaching, roster management, and sacrifice of their stars. But lost in the conversation has been that without the changes in the rules, San Antonio doesn't rout Lebron and company like they did.
The NBA got rid of the old illegal defense concept a few years ago, but I think the style of play in the league is only now starting to adapt fully. Last year's Knicks were a perfect example of a team coached in a pre-rule change style: A single superstar (Carmelo) and a collection of other solid athletes and one-on-one players trying to win games with hero ball. With rules that allow teams to, to take one example, double-team a superstar without the ball, the notion of a single dominant one-on-one stud carrying a team through the playoffs is obsolete. You have to move the ball. The Spurs realized this and decided to out-pass and out-team defend their opponents, armed with a couple of all-stars and some solid role players.
The other point is that the new CBA, and specifically the harsh penalties for luxury tax repeaters, makes it really hard for trams to collect 3 max players and maintain a decent bench for more than a couple years. Again, Miami just proved this. LeBron can huff and puff all he likes about the inability of Riley to bring in solid role players for that team, but there's a reason why Miami had such difficulty maintaining a deep team: The CBA just isn't designed for teams to be able to pay three max players and a team of good role players. We should all be grateful.
What's the good news for the Celtics? For one, in my opinion Stevens's style of coaching is very amenable to be modern-day rules of the NBA. Specifically, I'm talking about the premium that Stevens places on passing and movement, which is the only way to have a productive offense these days. Whether or not he has the ability to translate successfully to the NBA remains to be seen after just one season, but I for one remain hopeful.
The other reason to remain upbeat is that the way the Celtics have managed their roster, draft assets, and salary cap flexibility I think is perfect for success long-term in the new CBA. I hear a lot of people talking about how Ainge is trying to duplicate what he pulled off in 2007, which is simply to stockpile assets and then dump them in exchange for superstars. But I don't think that's necessarily what's going on here. What Ainge has accomplished thus far is to establish a great deal of flexibility and freedom for the team going forward, things that I think have become tremendously valuable under the new CBA. Think about this:
A) The Celtics can elect to hold onto Rondo until next off-season, and then, if the opportunity presents itself, pair him with another high-priced acquisition. As we know, they have the cap flexibility as well as the trade chips to pull this off.
B) Should they make the determination that they are best moving forward without Rondo, they have covered this possibility by drafting a player who could potentially be an all star-level point guard in the future. We don't yet know how Smart and Bradley will play together, But we do know that if the Celtics go with this combination, they'd be able to field a defensively tough backcourt, one that would allow Smart to both handle the ball and defend bigger shooting guards (both of which are Bradley's weaknesses). Let's see how these two play together once the season starts, but on paper at least this is a good fit.
Either way the Celtics choose to go, the wealth of draft picks will be huge. If the team is in fact able to climb the ladder to the top of the league in the next couple years without dumping its whole collection of young players and picks, you'll have the ability to replenish the roster and maintain depth with younger, cheaper players, a huge benefit under the new CBA. This is what Miami was unable to do, forced to round out its roster with bottom-of-the-first-round draft picks (Norris Cole) and minimum salary free agents. In the Celtics' case, the remaining Brooklyn assets are a potential gold mine. From 2016-2018, Boston has the right to each of Brooklyn's first rounders, with the possibility of adding lottery-level talent to an already competitive team.
That's how in seeing this. I like to think of myself as an optimist when it comes to the Celtics' future, but I also like to believe that optimism is grounded in reality.