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Free agency: Celtics making it clear they’re protecting their future

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Paul George is off the table for the Celtics and a major reason is the team’s intention of building a long-term winner.

NBA: Draft Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

When the Celtics entered into negotiations on a possible trade to bring free-agent-to-be Paul George to the Celtics, they made it known that the man who just shook the commissioner’s hand on Draft Night was keeping his Boston draft hat.

If the failed chase to bring George to Boston taught us anything, it’s that the Celts are in it for the long haul.

Jayson Tatum was never a serious contender for the Cs in a possible George trade. With the Thunder, according to Romana Shelburne, reportedly acquiring George late Friday night, the book has closed on Boston’s pursuit despite their supposed best effort.

NBA: Draft Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Goodman followed up the report of George heading to Oklahoma with clarity on what the Celts were willing to offer: three first-round picks, Jae Crowder and another starter. If the Adam Kaufman report at all played into this, that other starter might have been Avery Bradley. That was a win-now move back in February when it was still a possibility that George would have been part of two Celtics trips to the playoffs and would have presumably been more receptive to re-signing in Boston.

This summer, with the idea of a one-year rental on the table and George still looking westward to LA, the price dropped. More importantly, it’s shown Ainge’s clear intentions about rebuilding for the future. Boston was seemingly unwilling to part ways with their coveted 2018 Brooklyn pick (unprotected), their 2018 Lakers pick (conveyed if 2-5), or their youth tandem of Jaylen Brown and Tatum. The Cs appear intent on building a championship team with an influx of young talent using the draft capital they’ve attained since their rebuild started in 2013.

That doesn’t make them averse to winning now. Boston was willing to part with a Brooklyn pick, according to Steve Bullpett, in February. Now with only a year remaining on George’s contract, they weren’t going to take that leap. Ainge has been willing to trade quarters for dollars, but if that doesn’t happen, he’ll utilize cap space instead. They’re coming off a season where they soared above expectations after adding a marquee free agent in Al Horford last summer. They can still add Gordon Hayward in the coming week as he narrows his sights on the Celtics, Heat, or a return to the Jazz. What is key about Horford and the possibility of Hayward is that it does not hinder their future plans.

Ideally, Boston tries to compete at the highest level now and simultaneously develops their elite young prospects in an environment of winning where they have to fight for every opportunity. Three-year man Marcus Smart has developed well in that system, advancing as a playmaker and defending at a sensational level. He’s gone from rookie to sixth man in his short time, but the strategy does come with its hindrances.

Smart sat behind Evan Turner for two seasons and is now poised to demand his second NBA contract after the 2017-18 season. He then transforms from a productive young player to an expensive commodity.

That’s the big question with Brown, Tatum and any ensuing draft selections Ainge plans to make. They’re poised to spend crucial rookie-contract years fighting for minutes instead of being freed to grow with a surplus of minutes. Multiple years of being restrained on the bench may lessen the price of the second contract slightly, but not enough to make it advantageous when every NBA player is now demanding bigger money than ever before.

A significant reason the Warriors became what they did was that ankle concerns ended up limiting the size of Curry’s second NBA contract. That eventually gave them wiggle room to sign Kevin Durant.

Hayward’s arrival could still make sense for both sides. He can advance as a player in an offensively oriented system, help the Celts get to the next level, then either re-sign after three seasons for more money or again head elsewhere. The same can be said if he goes to the Heat too.

The only certainties in Boston now are their young players, Tatum and Brown. Ainge has made it clear the team is looking toward the future, and those two, plus the most valuable picks, represent a Cs team that could rise as the Cavaliers and Warriors decline.

The timing hasn’t worked yet. Celts fans may have to entertain even more patience, but if the team can work this right they may be able to win right through the emergence of Brown and Tatum as franchise players.

That would be the timing Boston is looking for. It is not a fool-proof plan, but it could be the best they have with their high demands in trade talks and no end in sight to the Warrior’s reign.