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Opportunity now: the championship window is open for the Celtics

Marcus Smart is in the final year of his rookie contract, Greg Monroe was signed with the DPE, and Aron Baynes is on a one-year deal. All three may be gone from the Celtics next season.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

If you didn’t read Keith’s cap review last week, here’s the most important paragraph in my opinion:

The Celtics are going to be flirting with being a tax team next summer. A lot will depend what happens with Smart, Baynes and Monroe. If each are signed to any sort of significant raise, it means Boston is likely to be over the tax line. If they go too far over, they’ll be up against the tax apron, or hard cap. That will only matter if they do any one, or any combo, of three things:

- Use a portion of the Non-Taxpayer Midlevel Exception that is equal to or greater than the Taxpayer Midlevel Exception (currently projected at $5.3 million).

- Use the Bi-Annual Exception.

- Acquire a player via a Sign & Trade transaction.

Doing any of the above subjects a team as being hard capped at the apron. That is because if you go over the apron you get the lower Midlevel Exception, you lose the Bi-Annual Exception and you can’t acquire a player via a Sign & Trade.

As a fan, it’s much ado about nothing. This season will have whatever narrative you assign it, but for this fan, this is Year One of the championship window that Ainge opened when he signed Gordon Hayward and traded for Kyrie Irving last summer.

Hayward’s absence is huge. It can not be overstated how good of an overall player he is on both sides of the ball, but despite losing him in the first three minutes of the season, Brad Stevens has pieced together another overachieving team by identifying players’ strengths and weaknesses and making it all work. He’s dug deep into his roster and built a 10-man rotation that’s included four players under the age of 24.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

However, they shouldn’t rest on those laurels. For a minute, let’s put the Hayward’s eventual return on the side. Let’s also not factor in Cleveland returning back to earth after crushing the Celtics after the trade deadline and how a loosely assembled Cavs team makes it an open race in the Eastern Conference.

This is a very good Celtics team. With fifteen games left in the season, they’re peaking. They have the best OffRtg--better than the Warriors, better than the Rockets--since the All Star break and will be relatively healthy when Jaylen Brown completes the concussion protocol.

This season is a confluence of some of Danny Ainge’s long term planning and forecasting. He didn’t do anything at the deadline to fill holes or fortify the current roster as not to disrupt future plans, but this is still a unique opportunity to raise Banner 18.

First, it’s Year Four for Marcus Smart. Statistically, he hasn’t exactly shown a marked improvement season-to-season, but he’s figured out what his niche is. More importantly, this could be his final year at a cost-controlled price (unless he takes a qualifying offer this summer and bets on himself in 2018-19).

NBA: Boston Celtics at Los Angeles Clippers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Second, Boston may not be in the situation of having quality big men like Aron Baynes and Greg Monroe in the future. Baynes was signed with the $4.3M mid-level exception last July and has been a steal. Monroe joined the Celtics with the DPE generated from Hayward’s injury. Daniel Theis has a non-guaranteed year left on his deal. It’s likely that the Celtics won’t be able to afford all three of Baynes, Monroe, and Theis next year. They’ll need to choose.

Third, Hayward could conceivably come back. It’s a long shot and Ainge and Stevens have both definitely said that they don’t expect him to return this season, but Hayward still has hope that he could lace it up in April or May or gulp, even June:

The NBA regular season ends on April 11th. That’s nineteen days after Kyrie’s cryptic Instagram “get well” post to Hayward with the date “3/23” in the caption. Say he isn’t ready then. It’s about two weeks for every round of the playoffs. If the Celtics are fortunate enough to get to the Eastern Conference Finals, we’re looking at a mid-May start. The Finals are slated to begin on May 31st. That’s seven and a half months since that fateful day in Cleveland; Paul George took just over eight to recover from his horrific leg injury back in 2015. It’s not probable, but anything is possible.

Every successive season in this rebuild has inched closer to another championship. Stevens has surpassed his win total each year since he’s been in Boston and the Celtics will likely go over 2017’s 53-win mark. Ainge has been patient when he’s needed to be patient and made bold, calculated moves when opportunity struck. The future health of the franchise is bolstered by a youth movement either entering its prime or scraping the surface of their potential. However, this year, this season, and right now, the players have a real chance to put it all together and make a real run.

In the back of every Celtics fans’ mind--really, every sports fan’s--is that refrain, “maybe next year.” Well, next year is now.

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