I’ve been writing the same article for over 2.5 years now. In fact, by now any of you could probably write it for me in a sort of Mad Libs format. In fact, here’s your first paragraph:
“The worst kept secret in the NBA is that the Celtics are looking to trade for a star. They have a treasure trove of assets and will be looking to move some of them [on draft night/at the trade deadline/next summer]. Of course, trades are hard to make in the NBA, and trading for stars is even harder. Despite all his efforts, Danny Ainge hasn’t been able to make that “fireworks” deal in the last [1/2/3/etc.] years. Even though he’s got the assets a team would want, he still needs to find a team that is willing to deal their star. One situation to keep an eye on is [Sacramento / Washington / Chicago / New Orleans / Indiana / etc.]...”
You get the picture, and you know the story. A big deal would be ideal, especially if it didn’t deplete the team’s assets completely. But a deal by February is not guaranteed. In fact, despite what some rumormongers (ok, this includes me) might imply, it might not even be likely.
So what happens if there’s no trade this season and we roll into the summer as currently constituted? What if the summer comes and there’s still no major star available? (Note that the new CBA could include even more incentives for stars to stay in their current situations, making trades for stars even less likely.)
Well, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that this current team likely has a limited ceiling. The good news is that there is no ceiling on the future.
The Celtics already have Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford (I’ll save the “are they superstars or just stars?” debate for another article) and a pretty decent core of complimentary rotation players. To reach true contender status, they likely need another star or superstar player (see Mad Libs article template above).
Boston already has a couple of young players who were high draft picks that have at least an outside shot at developing into stars. Marcus Smart needs a consistent jumper to make that leap, and we’re still getting a feel for what Jaylen Brown can be, but there’s at least a chance that one of them reaches our loftiest expectations.
Of course nobody will forget that the Celtics still have the right to swap picks with the Nets this summer and own the Nets 2018 pick outright. So they still have two more legit chances to land a franchise-altering talent through the draft. They just have to be patient enough to wait for them to develop.
There’s the rub. Timing is everything, and the pieces don’t all line up exactly. Horford is 30 years old and was signed this summer because the team is looking to compete sooner rather than later. The rest of the core of this team (Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and let’s throw Kelly Olynyk in there too) are all in their mid 20s and ready to capitalize on the prime years of their careers.
Maybe Smart or Brown can progress faster than expected to push this team over the top in the next year, but that doesn’t seem likely. Even if we win the lottery with the Nets pick this summer, the top pick won’t step in as a star from day one.
As the timeline slips further out, you have to make decisions on giving players like Thomas, Bradley, and Crowder contract extensions that pay them the (much higher) market rates they have earned with their play. Of course, that’s not exactly a doomsday scenario, it just means less flexibility. If the Celtics can’t land a max free agent this summer, they won’t need all that cap flexibility, and they can afford to give the money to their current core. The drafted players will be under rookie contracts for a few years anyway. It also doesn’t prevent the Celtics from swapping those players in trades down the line.
Without a trade for a next-level star, this team seems destined to be a tier or two below legit contender status while the team waits on their next generation of players to be drafted and developed. That’s not going to appease impatient fans looking to hang another banner, but it isn’t a bad Plan B either.
The “treadmill of mediocrity” is a pitfall that teams fall into when they are too good to get high draft picks but not good enough to contend. The cycle can perpetuate for a decade or more if the team doesn’t benefit from some really good luck. However, the Nets picks ensure that the Celtics won’t be in that situation for at least two more years. They can keep winning and reap the benefits of Brooklyn’s struggles.
Besides, you never know when a team just below championship-contender status like the Celtics might catch lightning in a bottle, catch a few teams off guard, and run all the way to the Finals where anything can happen. Just ask the 2011 Mavericks.
In theory: In three years the Celtics could be building around a core of Markelle Fultz, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Guerschon Yabusele, Ante Zizic, and perhaps someone like current high school senior center DeAndre Ayton, all learning under grizzled grey-beards like Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Jae Crowder. Nobody knows if that’s a contender-level squad, but at the moment it doesn’t sound that bad.
We’ve still got all of trade season (unofficially opens Dec. 15) to see if Plan A can be implemented, and we’ll go through all this again in the summer. I just thought I’d point out that standing pat could end up being a pretty good option too.