How long should it take to get from a certain defined starting point to the NBA Finals? Since we like to use the 2008 championship blueprint for just about everything, let’s apply it to the current Celtics.
The logical starting point for Banner 17 is when Ainge was first brought on in 2003. Here’s the roster from that year:
That’s four years until the explosive trades that took place in 2007, but it’s not like there was a “timeline” or “window” back then. Pierce threatened to demand a trade if the team didn’t get its act together, so Ainge pulled the trigger. It’s also possible that the stars aligned regardless of Pierce’s demands, but that’s not as fun.
Either way, it took Ainge four years and an unlikely trade opportunity that could only be described as religious intervention to build a title team.
So, let’s use the 2003-07 seasons to set a deadline at four years to win a championship, or at the very least contend for one. Where should we begin? Does the window start in 2013 when Brad Stevens was hired? How about 2014, when our spiritual leader Marcus Smart was drafted?
The most sensible answer is 2017, when Jayson Tatum was drafted. He is the foundational piece that the timeline now revolves around.
One could make an argument that Isaiah Thomas’ amazing 2016-17 season a year earlier could have been the launching point, as the Celtics had an elite scorer in Thomas, a defensive anchor in Al Horford, a collection of solid role players, and were set to sign Gordon Hayward that summer. That team reached the conference finals, won the lottery, and signed an All-Star in a pretty short span. However, the dismantling of that team due to injuries and creative differences makes it an unsuitable starting point for a contention timeline if you ask me.
And if we’re choosing Tatum’s draft year, we should really choose a slightly later date as a true starting point. Unless you consider this a draft-to-title speedrun (any%), we have to factor in some time for player development before truly aiming for contention. If we’re setting realistic expectations, I’m not expecting any one player younger than 25 to be the best player on a championship team, and that’s setting an extremely high bar for 25-year-olds.
Tatum’s five-year mega-extension is set to begin next summer, which means Boston will have him signed until he’s 28. As Boston’s best player on a young roster, the Celtics were on the precipice of being the best team in the Eastern Conference. While the Celtics might be set up to compete for the next few years, it’ll take some strong development from the supporting cast to move the needle towards true contention.
Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart still have room to grow, but the more likely improvements are from the bench. Robert Williams is already a worthy, if not limited, contributor. Grant Williams and Romeo Langford are the two players I have full confidence in becoming solid, above-average rotation players. I’ll never say never, but I’m not holding my breath on Semi Ojeleye, Carsen Edwards, Javonte Green, Vincent Poirier, or Tacko Fall moving the needle in the near future. I could see Tremont Waters sticking around.
The true “we need to win” window starts in the middle of Tatum’s extension. His best years will still be ahead of him, but there’s no reason to wait until the last season to get the most out of him. We’re seeing this now play out in Milwaukee. The only reason there’s even a hint of a rumor that Giannis might leave Milwaukee is that his current situation isn’t absolutely optimal. This is a consequence of throwing Giannis’ early years away in the Jason Kidd coaching era, although I’d argue it wasn’t Kidd’s fault that the team couldn’t gracefully rebound from the 15-win season leading up to the Giannis draft.
Tatum’s early years haven’t been as rough as Giannis’. He’s been to two Eastern Conference Finals and there’s less urgency for Boston to rapidly improve, as they might not need another overhaul to turn the corner. Losing another ECF stings, but this was easily the best team in the Brad Stevens coaching era, which bodes well for the near future. Most importantly, it was evidence that 2019’s abrupt playoff exit and the ensuing free agent departures weren’t a dead end, but instead an awakening of sorts.
The entire landscape of the league will have changed by the time Tatum is entering his prime. While I’d like the Celtics to look for clear paths to improvement sooner rather than later, they can’t afford any tunnel vision on competing against our most immediate obstacles. The Eastern Conference will be unrecognizable in three years. This is why I disavow the idea that the Celtics are desperate for a center who can contain Bam Adebayo when current rumors suggest that Miami isn’t dedicated to keeping him anyway.
Boston developing as few as two strong bench players would bring radical improvement to the team. That’s a pretty low bar I think they can clear. They won’t have the cap space for a big free agent, but they’ll have midlevel exception money to dangle in front of ring chasing veterans who buy into Boston’s culture and maintained level of contention (or at least near contention). With all of this in mind, I would say the Celtics need to go pedal-to-the-metal towards winning no later than two seasons from now. If things feel stagnant then, change is probably needed.