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Internal development will pay off bigger return than short-term gratification

Ainge has displayed patience in recent years and it has paid dividends.

Boston Celtics v Detroit Pistons Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

It’s been a tough week for Celtics fans. Games postponed, concerns about the league’s viability to complete the season in a pandemic, and watching a conference rival land yet another MVP caliber player in a blockbuster trade have dampened a strong start.

In the heat of the moment, that Brooklyn deal felt like a trade deadline cramped into a few hours. The dust has since settled, and the league landscape is visible once again.

The question for Celtics fans now becomes, should the team look to make a move of their own in the coming weeks or stand pat in hopes of hitting on something more significant and long-lasting during the off-season?

To answer this, first, we need to take stock of what the Celtics already have at their disposal. Outside of the core four of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, and Marcus Smart, the team is very young and highly inexperienced by NBA standards, especially for championship contenders. Consider this:

The Celtics bench unit could easily be mistaken for a college team, with the few veterans like Tristan Thompson and Jeff Teague acting as chaperones. However, once Romeo Langford returns from injury, that same bench unit will boast two back-to-back lottery picks, including Aaron Nesmith. Add in high IQ player Grant Williams, first-year point guard Payton Pritchard and the ever-improving Robert Williams. The Celtics have a second unit that will continue to improve year-on-year while also being cost-controlled, high-value assets.

Time is seldom afforded in the NBA, which makes waiting for internal development an uphill struggle unless the front office is committed to the cause (which Boston’s seem to be right now). Instead of cobbling together picks to trade for more established depth, Ainge has opted to take more bites of the apple and rely on player development from within.

However, teams and fans alike are always looking for immediate gratification. Look at what Brooklyn gave up to chase a championship! Their future resembles the post-Kevin Garnett era, and should they fail to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy this year or next, we will look back on that trade as a failure.

Similarly, we can cast our eyes back to the Anthony Davis saga, and how at that moment in time, there was a universal understanding the team would have no option but to see Brown and possibly Tatum depart in the opposite direction had Ainge made a deal for AD. Odds are, Davis would have left the following off-season and made his way to LA anyway, leaving the Celtics with nothing.

Sometimes grand swings such as these will pay off as Kawhi Leonard did for Toronto, but even after lifting a banner, Leonard still traversed the country to wind up in the situation he coveted most on the west coast. A Raptors banner hangs in Scotiabank Arena, but was it worth such fleeting success?

For the most part, these moves are made out of desperation. Teams want to win now, regardless of how short the window. In Boston, it would seem that the front office is happy to wait out the development of its younger players in return for a sustained period of championship contenders. Essentially, Danny Ainge wants a dynasty where Tatum and Brown are the next five-to-ten years’ focal points with a supporting cast built through the draft.

Here’s where the big questions arise. Will the current crop of young talent improve to the level that a championship team necessitates? Can the likes of Pritchard or the Williamses improve their games to earn meaningful minutes in the playoffs where the lights shine brightest?

If the answer is no, then Ainge should look to capitalize on the value a young high-ceiling player has within the league while obtaining a veteran role player in return. For example, would using guys like Semi Ojeleye and Carsen Edwards as fillers be such a bad thing if you got a player like PJ Tucker in return? On the surface, you pull the trigger ten times out of ten on that deal.

Then there’s the question of Jeff Teague, the veteran guard bought in to provide back-up minutes to Kemba Walker. It hasn’t worked out that way so far and he’s already been usurped by the surprising Pritchard. Is there a world where Ainge cuts his losses on the veteran to make room for the rookie?

But does making a trade for Tucker and leaning on Teague (knowing that Pritchard is in Boston for the foreseeable future) put the Celtics over the top? Are they honestly just one piece away? In an ideal world, maybe. In reality, it’s going to take more than Tucker or another mid-level veteran to get Boston over the hump and onto the level of Brooklyn and Milwaukee.

When looking at things in this light, Ainge’s willingness to stand pat in the face of criticism starts to make sense. He’s biding his time, giving the young players every chance of developing and maybe increasing their trade value as a byproduct.

Boston Celtics v Washington Wizards - Game Four Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

History tells us that Ainge moving viable young assets is unlikely. In the Brad Stevens era, Ainge has only moved drafted players when there’s been no other choice. The patience he’s shown has been admirable. Think back to Kelly Olynyk and Terry Rozier, both drafted by Ainge, developed by Stevens, and are now proven NBA talents. Neither left the Celtics before their rookie deals expired. Olynyk signed with Miami in his first free agency, and Rozier set the place on fire while heading to the exit before functionally getting traded for Walker.

Despite neither Olynyk and Rozier continuing to reside on the Celtics roster, their success within the league proves there’s value in Ainge’s patient methods. Although we wish every draftee could hit the ground running, the fact is, some players take a couple of years to figure it out. Sure, seeing an ex-Celtic beat the team on the way to the conference finals was bittersweet, yet on some level, most of us felt happy for Olynyk.

In Grant and Robert Williams, the Celtics have a fantastic blend of athleticism and IQ, shot-blocking and anticipation, and most importantly, youth. The two bigs are young enough to have another three or four years of development before entering their prime.

In the back court, the Celtics have Payton Pritchard to develop, a player who’s already looking like a steal and could continue to build his attack off the dribble. Sprinkle in the potential of Romeo Langford figuring out how to attack the rim against NBA athletes and Aaron Nesmith conceptualizing NBA schemes, and there’s an exceptionally versatile bench unit residing deep under their youthful exteriors.

So, while watching teams such as Brooklyn mortgage their future for additional top-tier talent and possibly raising a trophy at the end of the year seems sexy, it’s worth remembering their window for success is very small, and their rebuild will be grueling. Then look at how Boston is currently positioned and the progress they’ve already made.

Not only are the Celtics building for the long haul, but their contention window swings wide open right around the time other teams stars also hit free agency. Danny Ainge knows what he’s doing. Another trade deadline will come with more speculation and smoke. Critics will come with pitchforks when there’s a hint that Ainge passed on a possible deal in favor of farming his homegrown talent.

Or maybe Trader Danny takes a big swing. Maybe there’s a big trade on the horizon. Nobody knows, but for now, everything is heading in the right direction.

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