Rome wasn't built in a day and the rebuilding effort for the Boston Celtics won't happen overnight either. While fans are clamoring for the team to make a big splash, the goal isn't to win free agency this summer, it's to build a sustainable contender that can win a championship.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has followed a plan to gather assets and hoard cap space to put his team in position to make a big move when the opportune moment arrives. He tried to move up in the draft to grab a potential franchise player, and was even willing to overpay to do it, but he failed. He talked about entering the free agency period with the cap space to sign an impact player, but that seems to be failing as several big names flew off the board on Day 1 and the stars left on the market are already narrowing their choices to destinations other than Boston.
That doesn't mean the plan is failing. The direction Ainge has taken the rebuilding process in has afforded him the flexibility to have several options. Some of those haven't worked out, but he's far from done.
The early stages of free agency seem underwhelming so far, as the Celtics have retained a pair of their own free agents and signed another role player. These aren't flashy moves, but they are great values. Jae Crowder's 5-year, $35 million deal could be a steal if the 24-year old continues to develop entering his prime, especially considering the average annual value of the contract is essentially going to be the equivalent of the mid-level exception once the salary cap skyrockets over the next few years. Jonas Jerebko and Amir Johnson were signed to two-year deals for a combined $34 million that could be bargains, but each is only guaranteed for one year. If they don't work out or if the Celtics need to free up space to make other moves, they can let them walk after next season.
Also: Maddening as it is in Boston to have an uneventful last couple of weeks, Danny Ainge is being smart. Keeping options/flexibility open.— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) July 2, 2015
This flexibility is important to the plan. While Ainge stated that one of the goals is to "try to get really good players," he was also clear to point out that they need to be responsible with their salary cap management.
"We need to manage our payroll and our cap," Ainge told the Boston Herald earlier this week. "We want to get better right now, but we can't put ourselves in a bad position where we can't make a move we really need to down the line."
There are a number of second-tier free agents that could improve the talent on this team, but none of them are going to put the Celtics over the top to turn them into a contender. Ainge has resisted the urge to sign lucrative long term deals for those types of players in order to retain flexibility to pull off bigger moves down the line.
As far as luring a top free agent like LaMarcus Aldridge or Kevin Love, that was never realistic. There are too many other teams with cap space that are closer to contention, which makes them more desirable options. Stars want to play with other stars, and right now the Celtics don't have one to use as bait to lure in a big fish on the free agent market.
While we're on the subject, I'm sick of hearing that star free agents will never come to Boston because we aren't a glamour market or warm weather city. That's garbage. Those pessimists that point to the Celtics history of never signing star free agents overlook the fact that the team hasn't had max level cap space to sign such a player in nearly 20 years!
"Free agents will come here," Ainge said this week when presented with the notion that free agents don't consider Boston a desirable location. "But we have to create an environment that makes players want to be here. I think we have a fantastic ownership group, we have a fantastic head coach, we have a lot of quality young players. So free agents that would fit, that see themselves fitting in with our culture and our team, they'll come."
Part of creating that environment that would entice a star free agent to come here is building a winning culture. Ainge has retained the core of a team that had the second best record in the East from February on. That group will now have a full training camp to gel together, while their young players continue to improve. This is a team trending in the right direction, even if it's not moving along as quickly as we'd hoped.
Ainge is preaching patience to a fan base that has never been known to show an ounce of it, but he's not going to risk the chemistry this team has worked hard to build by making a headline grabbing move for the sake of it if the player isn't the right fit.
This isn't about blindly following the "In Danny We Trust" motto, it's about believing in the plan. It hasn't worked out yet, but that doesn't mean it was the wrong choice.