The Indiana Pacers boast the best record in the NBA with a starting lineup of three drafted players and two off season acquisitions by trade and free agency. The Thunder are made up of two OKC lottery picks, another first rounder, and two role players picked up in mid-season deals. And we all know and watched in prime time the origin story of the two-time defending world champs. There are many ways to bring home the Larry O'Brien and Ainge has a plethora of options to wade through over the next couple of months.
Impatient fans either hope that the next LeBronesque savior comes out of this much touted draft (which Ainge has publicly said is overrated) or demand that Danny trade for a big time star like he's playing NBA 2K. After a season where the Celtics have had losing streaks of six, nine, and currently five games, you can understand why people who are used to The Big Three era are a little upset. Ainge has tried to temper the expectations of sports radio blowhards and the pitchfork people that listen to them and promised to be more active this summer, but the hard truth is that we're probably looking at another rebuilding season.
I don't think anything major happens in June and July. We've heard a lot of rumors in the last few weeks, but the one I tend to believe in is that Ainge is looking to build around Rondo, Sullinger, and Green, at least in the short term. There are 24 games left this season and Ainge (and Brad Stevens) really don't know what they've got with these players. Rondo is the obvious question mark, but we still don't know if he can re-kindle the chemistry he had with Bradley back in 2012 (they played only 97 minutes together so far) or how he co-exists with Jeff Green. This may not be Ainge's ideal situation, but he's got to play the hand that he's got.
Let's not forget what he's already accomplished. He cleared future cap space by dealing a productive Courtney Lee and an unproductive Fab Melo, turned Jordan Crawford and MarShon Brooks into Joel Anthony and potentially another first round pick, and found diamonds in the rough with Vitor Faverani, Phil Pressey, and Chris Johnson.
But those moves don't excite anybody. The promise of promise can only go so far, right? Chill. There's a plan, everybody. Let's look at some dates to keep in mind first:
Follow the bouncing balls on May 20th: The recent 0-fer on the west coast has us plummeting in the standings (this is a great site if you're into tank porn) and even though the difference in percentage points seems marginal, it's not. Remember that the first three spots in the draft are drawn at random. Picks 4-15 are based on record. The difference in finishing the absolute worst vs. the 7th worst is nearly a 50% probability of landing a top-3 pick. Let's just beat the Lakers in something this year and I'll be happy.
The NBA Draft on June 26th*: Nobody knows what will happen. Danny could use the picks and choose to rebuild from the ground up with young players or he could package a pick and acquire a vet. It's anybody's guess--and Ainge has sent mixed signals--but keep this in mind: if the standings hold and the lottery balls bounce as expected and the Celtics pick in that 4-8 range, that'll be right where the tripled-headed power forward monster of Noah Vonleh, Julius Randle, and Aaron Gordon could haunt a GM who already has a stockpile of PF's on his roster. Does Ainge just go with best available here even though he has two birds in hand with Sullinger and Olynyk? There's also point guards Dante Exum, Marcus Smart, and Tyler Ennis. Ainge has vowed to build around Rondo but if he doesn't expect him to sign an extension, would Danny dare draft a PG here?
A College Basketball Guide for Boston Celtics Fans
The Celtics have two picks in what is widely considered one of the deepest drafts in years. Check out who you should be watching with March Madness around the corner.
*We all need to become Cavs and Pistons fans. As you know, we've got the less favorable of Atlanta or Brooklyn's first round draft pick. If Cleveland AND Detroit can somehow vault themselves into the playoffs AND the Hawks and Nets tuck themselves behind the West's worst teams, that second first round pick could go from just outside of the lottery to 8-10. I'd hate to see Pierce and Garnett go out like that, but two picks in the top ten would be huge.
Player options picked up by June 29th: Joel Anthony is due $3.8M next season if he wants it. I can't imagine that he'd turn down that paycheck, but maybe the big man would rather not ride the bench in Boston.
Avery Bradley's June 30th qualifying offer: Back in December, we learned that AB rejected a 4 year/$24M extension because he was looking for something in the $8M range. With Courtney Lee and his remaining two years now in Memphis, they'll probably split the difference and settle at around $7M unless another GM goes overboard and extends Bradley a ridiculous offer sheet. Keep in mind that Danny has that second 1st round pick in his pocket, too. Most mock drafts have a number of shooting guards in the Celtics' range, so if Avery wants to stay in Boston, he might have to offer a hometown discount. Jason Zwerling of Bleacher Report suspects that AB might price himself out, but my hope is that it's not true. The final 24 games are crucial.
Free agency begins July 1st: Although Danny has suggested that he'll be more active this summer, he might find it more difficult to make a deal; he won't have Hump's expiring to dangle in front of cap-clearing GM's, teams interested in Bass as a stretch four in their stretch run for a championship will be done with the playoffs and could look to free agency or the draft to tinker with their roster, and anybody that had serious interest in Rondo will now have 20+ more games to gauge his recovery from knee surgery rather than trade for the promise of Mr. Triple Double.
It seems unlikely that he'll find a taker for either Wallace or Green who are both owed roughly $20M each over the next two years. He might find a taker for either Joel Anthony or Bass, but knowing that he doesn't want to make any salary commitments passed next season, his options will be limited. He'll want to stay in that gray area between the salary cap and the luxury tax line, too.
July 12th's trade exception deadline: Remember this guy? First name "Trade," last name "Exception?" We got him last summer when we gutted the team. He's worth $10.3M and could be really helpful in potentially bringing in a star. Ownership has already committed itself to paying the luxury tax if a great player becomes available and by avoiding it this season, they could be more amenable to paying the repeater tax in the future. Unless something totally blows Danny away, he'll probably let this expire. One player won't make this team a contender overnight and Danny has to keep the long game in mind.
Gerald Wallace, the stretch provision, and August 31st: This is a strong possibility in my opinion. We've eaten one season of Crash's contract and with 2 years left at $20M, Ainge could opt to stretch the remainder over 5 years. Sure, that's a $4M cap hit for over a long stretch of road, but if Danny's set on building on the ground up, most of his key players will be playing under rookie contracts so he could afford to be a little less frugal here. After Avery and Rondo, Sully is the next candidate for an extension and he isn't due one until 2016.
Who's in: We'll have a better sense after these remaining 25 games, but I think Chris Johnson and Phil Pressey will be invited back. They've shown promise and they're cheap. Danny and brother Austin have kept tabs on Colton Iverson's progress in Turkey and by all accounts, they've liked what they've seen. Expect for him to be in camp in October and signing a look-see contract for 2014-2015.
Who's out: As much as I've loved what they've done and appreciated what they've said about wanting to come back and genuinely wanting to rebuild here, I can't see a scenario where Kris Humphries and Jerryd Bayless are re-signed. They've proven to be reliable vets, but they're worth more than the veteran minimum on the open market.
What's interesting is what happens to the remainder of Keith Bogans' non-guaranteed contract. Based on how sour his relationship is with the team right now, he certainly won't dress in Celtic green again, but only the first year of his sweetheart deal was guaranteed so he could be used a trade chip in the off-season.
Ainge hit two home runs in his major league career with the Blue Jays and definitely knocked another out of the park in 2007 when he swung for the fences in landing Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and hung up Banner 17, but that won't be his approach this time around. At least, that's what I hope. Danny has stressed the importance of player development in this rebuild this time around. That's why he signed Babyface Brad Stevens to a six-year deal. That's why he opted for draft picks over players coming into their prime when he finally dismantled the Big Three.
If he sticks with this youth movement and stands pat with the roster, he'll hand Stevens a roster made up of three rookies, four sophomores, a healthy Rondo, and a handful of vets that he's leaned on this year. There could be some moves around the margins, but there's enough guys here to start busting out the hard hats and really making progress on the rebuild.
I have some guarded optimism with what a summer of weight training could do for Sullinger and Olynyk. The spotlight will shift over to the two prized rookies from this year's class and they'll be given more leeway in what we expect from them. And as these younger players start to cement their roles in the lineup, their improvement and consistency will lessen the burden on Green to be a go-to guy every night. Brad Stevens will have a year under his belt as an NBA head coach and Rondo will reap the benefits of a full training camp rather than swimming upstream in his mid-season return.
But let's look at the even bigger picture and go beyond what might happen in the next few months. There's Jeff Green's player option in 2015. $9.2M is a huge chunk of change, but would he consider refusing the final year of his contract to sign an extension to stay with the Celtics as they start getting back into contention? Doubtful, but possible. If he picks up his option, his expiring contract--along with Gerald Wallace's--become pretty big chips if Danny decides to try and bring in a star via trade. Green could take less for more years and maybe finally fulfill his role as a #3-#5 on a contending team. Again, it's doubtful, but possible. The team would have his Bird rights and could afford to bring him back on a fair deal. The same goes for Brandon Bass. If he could somehow survive another season of trade rumors, he could serve as a 20-25 MPG energizer off the bench, the role he was initially cast in back in 2012.
There have been rumblings that Ainge has his eyes on 2015 for a franchise shifting game changer. Free agents Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, and Roy Hibbert could all be available and the Celtics will presumably still have first round draft picks to trade and large expiring contracts (Wallace, if he isn't stretched) to deal.
On the surface, a deal like this sounds great. We remember how it felt when there was this renewed hope when we got Kevin Garnett. The Celtics went from worst-to-first in one season and made several deep playoff runs after that championship season in 2008. But let's take a breath here. The Celtics have never been a favorite landing spot for free agents and they'll be in competition with some of the largest markets in the league. Even if Danny has the opportunity to make a big deal, he needs to be very cautious. Building a super team in the current CBA climate can be very risky. Large contracts are much more difficult to get out of and could handcuff teams with long term commitments. Ideally, you want to draft smart, spend smarter, and control your destiny by managing your homegrown talent.
So maybe next summer, nothing happens. Maybe the team is doing well enough that they won't need that marquee name to push them over the top. So far, Oklahoma City hasn't brought in a closer. The Spurs have maintained a very high and prolonged level of excellence by drafting smart and finding the perfect role players that fit their system. Brooklyn could soon be heading into a nose dive and their picks could all be lottery bound over the next few years. Likening the rebuilding process to putting up a house may not even be the best analogy; it's probably more apt to compare it to a self-sustaining farmer who plants his seeds and patiently waits until they bear fruit.
Let's play a little armchair GM. I made this infographic as a championship blueprint for Banner 18:
First of all, a few assumptions:
1) No trades: as mentioned, if something major happens, it won't go down until next next season when both Green and Wallace are in their final years.
2) Rondo and Bradley re-sign with the Celtics: I think the final handful of games this year will prove that they're the back court of the immediate future in Boston and next season will convince Rondo to take less than a max contract for the duration of his career. Tom Westerholm over at CelticsHub pegs Rondo's value at around $15M per, too.
3) Sullinger is the real deal and Olynyk will need a little more time to mature: Sully may never reach Kevin Love's level, but he'll be in that double-double range for the rest of his rookie contract. Kelly remains an enigma, drawing early comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki and more recently Rondo and also Love. He'll play much more next year, but if he's going to make a star turn, I'll predict that it happens in his junior season just like at Gonzaga.
4) Rookie salaries: I got the numbers from RealGM's rookie scale chart and took the mean with these assumed picks: 2014 own is top-10, 2014 BKN/ATL falls at #20-30, 2015 own is top-10, 2015 LAC falls at #20-30, 2016 own is top-10, 2016 BKN falls at #20-30, and 2017 own/BKN is top-10.
So, we could be back by 2015, but my eyes are more focused on the start of 2016. That's the sweet spot. If the draft picks progress as expected and Danny spends wisely in the free agent market, we'll be peaking in an Eastern Conference that could see the Pacers in decline and a 32-year-old LeBron James on the downslide of his prime. It's hard to predict the rest of the NBA landscape, but there isn't a team more prepared for the future than these Boston Celtics. Ainge has given himself so many strikes and so many outs over the next couple of years, but he'll have to be a patient hitter and wait for the right pitch.