Armed with a hoard of draft picks in the wake of trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett signaling the official end to the Big Three era, the Celtics would begin building from the ground up. It was a commitment to a timeline the perennial contenders hadn’t been familiar with in quite some time, but Danny Ainge knew such patience ultimately offered the best odds at returning to that competitive state.
By drafting Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in consecutive years, the Celtics were blessed with two players who made the task of rebuilding a less strenuous process.
That the duo appeared ahead of schedule in their individual development didn’t sway the organization to ramp up its schedule. It explains Ainge’s refusal to package any of his collective first round picks to upgrade a team Brown and Tatum wound up leading to two conference finals appearances in three seasons.
A new season offers another chance for the franchise to return to The Finals for the first time since 2010. Boston will heavily factor into the race to come out of the East, attempting to usurp the reigning conference champion Heat while fending off the regular season champion Bucks, the last Larry O’Brien lifters out of the East Raptors, and a Nets team adding a healthy Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Even after their latest playoff shortcoming against a team with an inferior record, the C’s should remain among the handful of legitimate contenders for years to come with Brown and Tatum leading the way. At 24 and 22 years old, respectively, Boston’s title odds should only increase as those two inch closer to their prime years.
The Celtics hold of this favorable position despite housing one of the league’s youngest rosters shouldn’t have them deviating from long-term goals that are still within sight.
Wait out the dominance of the league’s current hierarchy to pave the way for your own when the time is right. It’s a plan that sounds simple in theory but comes with far more roadblocks in execution. And that should influence the Celtics’ mindset heading into the 2020-21 season.
Some fans like to believe a championship is the simple result of top-level talent, above-average coaching and a little luck when it comes to avoiding injuries. In reality, the journey is far more complicated.
You need talent but also the right kind of talent that not only functions harmoniously on the court but also comes with the right personalities to maintain morale over a months-long stretch that can break even the best of spirits — see the 2018-19 Celtics.
It’s not enough for coaches to have a Plan A or even a Plan B. Playoff basketball requires C through Z if for nothing other than a contingency against the varying counters the opposition might throw their way — see the 2019 and 2020 Milwaukee Bucks.
The absence of injuries is a prerequisite for title contention. Maintaining good health is only part of the equation and the only one within the control of the individual. The randomness of the wrong body part ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time can instantly derail the high hopes of a season — see Gordon Hayward.
Even when a team can keep steady the internal elements of a championship pursuit, that only goes so far when other teams are doing the same. The seed that produces a disadvantageous matchup or the unpredictability of a coinciding dynasty — see the 2017-18 Houston Rockets — could throw a wrench in those lofty goals.
When a team has some type of mixture of these components working in their favor to validate their contender status — as the Celtics do — anything less than an all-out pursuit to capitalize is an opportunity wasted. What the future could be is irrelevant in that conversation because of all that remains unknown.
Even after the trade of James Harden, we all believed the OKC Thunder were prime for multiple championships on the shoulders of two of the game’s elite talents, Durant and Russell Westbrook, that were still rapidly improving.
Oklahoma City never even made it back to the Finals after 2012. The results of the ensuing seasons are as follows before Durant’s departure in the summer of 2016:
- 2013: 2nd-round exit due to a Russell Westbrook torn meniscus
- 2014: Serge Ibaka missed the first two games of the Western Conference Finals with a calf injury. Despite his return, the Thunder lost to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs.
- 2015: Kevin Durant played just 27 games with a foot injury. OKC missed the playoffs.
- 2016: Blown 3-1 lead to the 73-win Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
The trade of an eventual MVP certainly played a part in OKC’s undoing as well as some other questionable front office decisions like failing to amnesty Kendrick Perkins and giving Kyle Singler $25 million.
The Thunder could’ve avoided those blunders to improve their title odds over those years, but they couldn’t have planned against Patrick Beverley’s incessant tenacity clipping Westbrook’s knee. After seemingly putting an end to San Antonio’s championship window in 2012, nor could OKC have foreseen the aging Spurs holding steady en route to consecutive Finals or the rise of a dynasty in the Bay — and certainly not an all-time shooting performance by Klay Thompson.
This is exactly the point the Celtics should take to heart, using it to fuel motivations that benefit the present instead of the future.
Boston can wait until Tatum is an MVP and Brown a perennial All-Star. If/when that time comes, Marcus Smart, a 2022 free-agent, might be playing elsewhere. Kemba Walker and his knee troubles will also be deeper into his 30’s.
In the player empowerment era where the landscape of the league is forever in a state of flux, one if not multiple teams can rise up to stand in Boston’s way more than any of their current concerns do. With no player beholden to their franchise, who can even safely predict how much time Tatum and Brown have left in Beantown?
This isn’t about assuming the worst for the Celtics’ future. It’s about acknowledging it’s presence on the spectrum of possibilities and doing the most with what they have before that time arrives.
The league no longer cowers in fear of the Warriors. The Lakers are worthy defending champions, but their title defense isn’t as inevitable as Golden State’s was in a way that had most teams planning beyond its reign.
The Milwaukee Bucks might once again pace the NBA wins. After consecutive disappointing playoff finishes, that no longer fosters Finals optimism as it once did.
As reigning conference champions, the Eastern Conference crown must be wrestled away from Miami. But the reinstitution of the external factors whose absence aided their run can potentially keep the Heat from a return.
Tatum is already knocking on the door of the top-10 this season. A first All-Star appearance is in play for Brown. Those two paired with Smart comprise the best wing trio in the NBA today. Assuming Walker gets his knee right come playoff time, that’s an All-Star point guard running the show.
After years spent playing in the shadow of teammates while having to earn his stardom, a max extension puts Tatum in full control of the franchise with Brown not too far behind. This is the foundation of the future Ainge always envisioned. It just guided Boston to the fifth-most wins in the league last season and got within two wins of the NBA Finals without the recently departed Gordon Hayward.
An NBA team is only as good as the next step they take forward. When viewed through the lens of the ultimate goal, anything else, whether to the side or in reverse, is inconsequential.
The Celtics placed themselves on the doorstep of the championship round in 2020. They may very well have multiple chances to break through in 2021 and beyond. But the best opportunity is still the one that’s closest in sight. Looking any further is to assign assurance in a realm where none exists.