The step back.
Fake like you're going hard toward the basket and quickly step back and fade away for a shot. Rather than forcing something contested, it creates enough space for a clean look. For the last three years, the Celtics have been aggressively improving and driving hard towards Banner 18, but with their first true crossroads coming this summer, they could choose to take a step back and look for a better shot at contention later in the future.
This season, the Celtics tied for third in the Eastern Conference at 48-34 with the Heat, Hawks, and Hornets and got bounced by Atlanta in a nightmare matchup with the team reeling from injury. Getting to the conference semis for a rematch with the Cavaliers would have been a better measure of their steady improvement, but there's little doubt that this is a good team and, more importantly, a good team on the rise. They've improved from 25 to 40 to 48 wins since the Big Three era. That's the second largest two-year turnaround to Cleveland's 24 wins since 2014, and Boston didn't add LeBron James and Kevin Love. What's truly remarkable is that they haven't really utilized the building blocks for which they traded.
In effect, it's been a rebuild in layaway so far. Ainge has done well by adding Evan Turner, trading for new All-Star Isaiah Thomas, and re-signing Jae Crowder, but the rebuilding truly starts this summer when all the draft picks come into play. Tanking teams like the Sixers and Lakers have reloaded with young talent over the same period of time with consecutive years of
futility tanking "trusting the process." Having the fourth-worst record in 2014 did land the Celtics Marcus Smart, but in reality, they haven't benefited from tearing down the team when Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were traded to Brooklyn and when Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green were dealt a year later. The Celtics have five additional first-round picks (including next year's pick swap with the Nets) plus their own over the next three drafts. The wait has been long, but we're finally here.
It's not like the last three seasons have been for naught. There are arguably other teams that can boast more talented young rosters (the Bucks, Magic, Timberwolves, Jazz, Sixers, and even the Lakers) but none of them have built anything yet. Sure, there isn't exactly four walls or a roof, but the Celtics have been laying down a strong foundation. With Brad Stevens at the helm and "chip on their shoulder" players like Crowder, Thomas, Smart, Evan, Turner, Jonas Jerebko, and Avery Bradley in the locker room, the Celtics have created an identity for themselves. That shouldn't be taken for granted, especially for a team steeped in tradition. Celtics Pride and the Celtics way are real things. They're not at the Spurs' level yet, but I think they're nearing a reputation around the league as a franchise that players want to play for without the PowerPoint presentation about ancillary income streams or Photoshopped billboards.
With all that in mind, there's been a contagious optimism growing in Celtics fans that this could (finally) be the summer that propels the team back into true championship contention. For the last season and a half, they've been a spunky overachieving bunch, but not legit playoff threats. Now, Ainge has a winning team, a players' coach, cap space, a lottery pick, and a bevy of other assets at his disposal. This is it.
But what if nothing happens?
Many have predicted this summer as a potential series of falling dominoes, but what if none of them fall? What if free agent du jour Al Horford stays in Atlanta and then isn't the draw for Kevin Durant to leave Oklahoma City? At this point, neither seem like they're leaving their current teams, and with another bump to the salary cap expected next summer, other free agents are more likely to sign 1-plus-1 deals rather than long-term ones. What if GMs are leery of trading with Ainge and he's stuck with eight draft picks in June? If the rumors three months ago were accurate, he had a few deals fall apart before the trade deadline, and the same could happen in July.
So if Ainge can't make a splash or set off fireworks or whatever we're calling it now, it could behoove management to take a step back to eventually take two steps forward later. Let's not forget that this is still a very young team and we're still in the blueprint phase of the rebuild. Isaiah Thomas is 27, and Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley will be 26 at the start of next year's season. Kelly Olynyk and Marcus Smart are still locked into their rookie contracts, and potential returning Celtics like Evan Turner (27), Tyler Zeller (26), and Jared Sullinger (24) still fit in the team's age profile with the 2015 rookie class plus James Young all between 20 and 22.
And of course, there's this year's draft class, particularly the #3 pick from the Nets. Ainge will do his due diligence and field calls for it, but my gut tells me he'll keep it. He'll more than likely package other first- and second-rounders together to try and move up from #16 and #23 (like he did last summer in attempt to draft Justise Winslow), but the market value of the lottery pick probably can't net him a star. Is there even one available? Consider the most likely candidates to date: Jimmy Butler, Paul George, and DeMarcus Cousins. George and Cousins will both be playing for new coaches next year, and the price tag on Butler could include a fan favorite like Crowder or Bradley.
Frankly, I don't buy that this narrative that there isn't a star outside of Brandon Ingram and Ben Simmons. I'll leave it to Kevin to break down the rest of the draft, but tell me guys like Buddy Hield, Jamal Murray, Dragan Bender, Jaylen Brown, and Kris Dunn don't have star qualities? More than half those guys aren't even 20 years old yet, and if there's a coach that can bring out the best in players, it's Brad Stevens. Maybe the Celtics won't draft a surefire "transcendental star" at #3, but they'll be able to add potentially two immediate impact players through the draft that will grow with the team.
This is why Ainge signed Stevens to a six-year deal. He wanted a coach that could relate to this generation of players, and he wanted to build something that would last. Quick fixes like the one in 2007 can raise banners, but anything worth doing takes time. Ainge knows that. Stevens knows that. Smart will work hard this summer after a star-making turn in the playoffs. Olynyk's shoulder will be healed by October. Terry Rozier, R.J. Hunter, and Jordan Mickey will crack the rotation next season. Ainge will again be careful in free agency and only strike when timing and opportunity intersect.
Personally, I just don't think it's now. For one, very few Celtics have reached their potential and don't exactly make attractive trade bait. Also, I don't think that even the most optimistic tic-tac-toe of transactions could compete with the Cavaliers superteam or the three headed monster of the Warriors/Spurs/Thunder out west. When Ainge put together Pierce, Garnett, and Allen, the Pistons were in decline, and there wasn't a clear-cut favorite in the Western Conference. Biding his time and nurturing the youth movement could be Ainge's best move. They play in a building called the Garden, right?
When the Celtics clinched a .500 record with a win against the Raptors late in the year, Stevens remarked, "You don't sign up to come to the Boston Celtics to win 42 games. We've got a long way to go."
The way could be little longer than expected.