Stop me when you've heard this narrative before. The Celtics are winning too much because it hurts their draft position (you've already yelled "stop!" haven't you?). This, however, is not a "tanking" debate article. That ship sailed and took all the eye rolling debates with it out into the deep Atlantic ocean (where the Sixers are drifting listlessly).
The Celtics incredibly got better when they traded away their two highest skilled players. Yes, they got the dynamic Isaiah Thomas at the deadline, but they also maintained their success with him sidelined. Credit for that goes to Brad Stevens who is living up to all the hype he had entering the league (and then some).
But that success has indeed taken the Celtics out of high lottery land where we might be able to secure a top tier talent in the draft. There are other paths to getting those kinds of stars and other models to follow (Warriors, Hawks) but as Zach Lowe details in his long article on the Celtics, the top 5 pick is usually the best way.
Boston has to navigate its path without the best team-building tool available: a top-five pick. Heck, the Hawks are nowhere today without Al Horford — the no. 3 pick in 2007. This season’s Celtics are a nice story, and Ainge has amassed an arsenal of picks. But big-time success is never a sure thing. Boston’s front office has run circles around the Lakers, Knicks, Nets, and other teams with big dreams, but that doesn’t guarantee a way out of the middle class.
I find it hard to argue with that logic but I also find it hard to fault Danny Ainge in any of the moves he's made recently, including trading for Isaiah Thomas. I would love to have a top 5 draft pick but they don't grow on trees. Maybe Stevens and Thomas and our lovable new-age Ubuntu warriors are costing us that chance. But even a top 5 pick is no guarantee of success.
That's what all of this really boils down to. Varying degrees of risks and opportunities. You increase your chances of success with a top pick but it isn't sure fire. You can get stars lower in the draft, but it is rare. You can trade for stars but you need the stars to align properly to make that happen. You might even be able to gather the perfect storm of overachievers who are greater than the sum of their parts, but history has always favored the superstars.
Bottom line in all of this is that the Celtics need to be both lucky and good. I have a high degree of confidence in Danny Ainge to maximize his opportunities and assets but he's going to have to take some gambles. Some of them will work out and some will not (and we'll be happy to debate each one endlessly on this blog).
I still believe that there's an intrinsic value in teaching the guys that we have right now how to win consistently. Even if some of those guys will move on this summer. Winning breeds winning and Stevens is building a culture in Boston that everyone around the league can see.
The ultimate fear is that we get stuck in a cycle of being too good to get a star but not good enough to contend for a title. That's always a danger, but I think you can overcome that with the right infrastructure. The Celtics have a fantastic coach, a successful GM, a supportive and bright ownership group. They need to continue the process, make good decisions, and get a little lucky.