“They say stay in your lane boy, lane boy... they think this thing is a highway.” - Twenty One Pilots
A recurring refrain that I hear (on this blog, on podcasts, and on NBA social media) is that the Celtics need to “pick a lane.” They should either commit to competing with the Cavs in the near term, or focus on a longer term approach. Put another way, should the Celtics “go for it now” with an impact trade, or should they hold onto their assets and build through the draft?
Forgive me for being a blatant Boston homer, but my question back to the world is: “Why can’t they do both?”
Look, I get it. The Cavs and Warriors are really, really good. Without a trade that lands them a superstar player, the Celtics aren’t even in the conversation for the title. Even landing a guy like Jimmy Butler or a well-behaved DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t guarantee that they’ll be able to get past the Cavs while LeBron is still in his prime. Does that mean that they should just punt and trade everyone over the age of 27? Not at all.
The Celtics are one of the best second-tier contenders in the league. I don’t think the Celtics PR group is going to rush to put that slogan on a poster any time soon, but it isn’t the worst place to be either. There are a lot of teams that are several years away from being close to where the Celtics are now. There’s also a big group of teams caught somewhere in the middle (without a realistic option to make The Leap into the legit contender conversation).
Meanwhile, the Celtics have the assets and motivation to make a move at the trade deadline. That doesn’t mean that they’ll be able to land a star, but there’s nothing that says that they can’t make a smaller deal or stand pat at the deadline. Regardless, the Celtics are already one of the few teams prepared to take advantage if the Cavs and Raptors falter in the playoffs (for whatever reason).
However, if the Celtics are among the 29 teams that fail to win a title this year, they’ll still have a strong core mostly in the prime of their careers as well as a clear path towards building an impactful core for the future.
Signing Al Horford signals that the team is serious about contending in the near term, but having him on the roster doesn’t prevent them from building for the future at the same time. He’s getting paid max-level money, but the team could still clear money to sign another max-level guy this summer. If that kind of guy doesn’t come along, Ainge can use that cap room to lock up the guys already on the team (like Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Jae Crowder). In short, he’s got options.
Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown are already adding value at a young age. Terry Rozier has shown flashes, and the two draft-and-stash guys could play a role next year. And of course whomever the Celtics select with the Nets picks could end up being the best of the bunch. Boston won’t have to sink to the bottom of the standings to build that next generation, and the young guys will get a taste for playoff basketball in their developmental years.
Of course, Ainge has the option to hit the fast-forward button if a no-brainer deal materializes in the next year. The Cs may even be willing to overspend a bit if it means landing a star player that fits the team Brad Stevens wants to coach. But they aren’t going to make a trade just to pacify the media or even the fans.
The Celtics are in an enviable position to both compete now and build for the future at the same time. We don’t know what kinds of obstacles and challenges the future will bring. There’s no reason to “pick a lane” when you have the option to stay flexible and adjust on the fly.