Things were so much easier when there were no expectations. The “try hard” teams of Brad Stevens’ early years were fun because they gave good effort, showed flashes of excellence, and above all, exceeded our low expectations. This year’s team is pretty much the opposite of that which is why it is time for this team to pick a lane.
Ever since Isaiah Thomas led this team to the playoffs, they’ve been straddling the line between “rebuilding” and “competing.” They were able to do so because of the Nets trade and the treasure trove of draft assets that came with it. On paper, the team should have peaked in 2018-19. That team was built to compete at the highest levels and still had draft assets to spare. Of course, that season was an epic failure and the talent drain from that point has been jarring.
Stars like Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward have left in free agency. Talented players like Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris are gone as well. The front office tried filling the gap with Kemba Walker, but that fizzled. The Gordon Hayward TPE has been kicked down the road a few times with Evan Fournier and now Josh Richardson, but that’s still a big step backward.
Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were absolute home runs from that initial draft stash. Robert Williams has the look of another key piece moving forward. Beyond that, the Celtics have a number of maybe-could-be solid young players who are still too inconsistent to support a legit contender. And some of the draft assets were either used to erase past mistakes or had to be used on draft-and-stash projects because of the lack of space on the cap sheet.
For years I’ve been imploring the front office to consolidate some of those picks and/or players to add more talented veteran players to this roster. Ideally it would be a third star to add to the core of Tatum and Brown. As much as I love Marcus Smart, he’s not at that level and Al Horford’s prime is in the rearview mirror.
If this team isn’t good enough to compete for a title and they aren’t bad enough to have a shot at drafting a difference maker, that puts them right in that dreaded middle ground. Do that for consecutive years and you are on the treadmill of mediocrity.
I am still hanging on to my belief/hope that Tatum and Brown are an excellent starting point for any roster. Two wings with that level of skill and work ethic are rare and precious. They have the ability to be switchable on defense and complement each other on offense if used properly and surrounded by the right supporting cast.
The timeline is the concern though. In the coming years, Jaylen and Jayson will have the ability to sign long term extensions and if the team isn’t set up for continued success, either or both could decide that they want to try their luck elsewhere.
So if you are going to tear the house down and rebuild without giving either one up, you better do it fast and hope for a quick rebound. Again, there’s always the option of trading either one now and going full tank mode, but I’m firmly against that for at least the next year.
That leads me to Option B which is to consolidate contracts, young players, and draft assets in order to add a 3rd star to this team. As far as I’m concerned, only Tatum and Brown are off the table (and I suppose if you are offering a young-prime star, I’d listen to Brown offers, too). That means Smart, Horford, Rob Williams, and all the kids are available. That means all the future draft picks are on the table. That means you can pick and choose which matching salaries and/or TPE’s you want to use as well.
There are star level players either on the market already (Ben Simmons) or potentially available at the right price or if the player demands a trade (Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard). Those are just the names of players we know about. Every year someone becomes available that you didn’t expect. Falling short of those guys, they should at least target some of the next level down guys. Other middling teams like the Pacers, Trail Blazers, Raptors, Kings, and others could be convinced to part with their best players for the right price. Some of the tanking teams still have quality players that could be picked up at reasonable prices.
Granted, the right 3rd star might not be available by February 10th (the NBA trade deadline). So this discussion might have to wait till the offseason. If that’s the case, then the team might have to think long and hard about being sellers at the deadline and picking up some assets for Dennis Schröder, Al Horford, Josh Richardson, and maybe even Marcus Smart. Of course, that would have to occur with a long, sober conversation with Tatum and Brown about the plan going forward.
Regardless, the Celtics need to get off this treadmill. Either to take a short step back or to move forward and beyond this current level of stagnation.