With Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown sharing the court as All-Stars last week and with another, Kemba Walker, on the roster, there’s a false urgency to win now. Three trips to the Eastern Conference Finals in the last four years will create this expectation that the team just needs a few pieces to get over the hump to raise Banner 18, as if every year since 2017 was getting one step closer to a ring.
Truth is, every iteration of those conference finalists were all different, from the Isaiah Thomas fairy tale run to the Hospital Celtics to the elevation of Tatum and Brown to stardom in the bubble. Outside of Brad Stevens, there is little connective tissue between them. The team today is not some next step in the championship-building process that started four years ago. This is square one.
Yes, this is a rebuild. As soon as Ainge used those six picks in one way or another in the last two drafts, that should have signaled to everybody that the team was embracing a youth movement. And thankfully, they’re ahead of the curve. Bad teams usually hoard a bunch of first round picks. Really bad teams string together high lottery selections, hoping to find franchise players. To his credit, Danny Ainge has done that and signed two cornerstones for the foreseeable future.
Let’s pause here for the hand wringing armchair GM’s. If you need a moment to lament the misuse of Danny’s draft stockpile, do it now. You could argue that the last three hauls of first round picks would have been better used as collateral in deals that could have supported teams with Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford. Fine. There’s no way of knowing what deals could have been made with those picks, but let’s mourn them anyway. RIP, Scrooge McDuck diving into pools of gold coins memes. Mop up the spilled milk and move on.
So, as it stands today, the Celtics are 4th in the East at 19-17 after winning four straight before the All-Star break. They’re one of the youngest playoff teams in the league and have an opportunity to get potentially dramatically better if they use the TPE. They have a stable of young players that have either generated real production (Payton Pritchard, Robert Williams, and Grant Williams) or shown enough promise in the pros or in college for other teams to take a chance on (Aaron Nesmith and Romeo Langford).
I won’t speculate on value. There’s really no way to know what combination of any those players and future first rounders it would take to bring in an Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, or Harrison Barnes. For me, the calculus isn’t so much about what it will take to bring in one of those guys, but more so, if one of those guys makes us legitimate contenders against the 76ers, Nets, Bucks, Lakers, Clippers, Suns, or Jazz. I don’t think so.
And even if we’re talking about trading quarters for dollar bills--and in the NBA, you’d generally always want cash over coins--just for the sake of leveling up, be wary of upsetting the apple cart. To a man, from the young players to the coach and all the way up to the front office, this is a team that likes each other. We saw how that mattered in Orlando last year and we’re seeing it now as the team galvanizes itself after a rough start in such a unique season.
Sure, chemistry doesn’t necessarily raise banners, but a lack there of can be a team’s downfall (ahem, the 2019 Celtics). I’m admittedly a sucker for narrative and the one that I’ve written in my head has Brown and Tatum (and Marcus Smart) being leaders on this team for their entire careers. Part of that responsibility is making their teammates better and I want to see that. I want to be there when Pritchard and Timelord become starters. I want to see Smart unlock Grant’s nastiness.
I understand the urge to capitalize on the moment. Surround two All-Stars with the right complement of players and you could be playing well into July. But there’s something about building something from scratch, right? Brooklyn just added Blake Griffin to their arsenal of thirtysomething mercenaries. They’ve gone all-in just like the Celtics did in 2007 and it paid off. Paul Pierce was a Finals MVP and I couldn’t have been more happy for him. But for me, I didn’t really love that team until the heartbreak in 2010 or that miracle run in 2012. That’s when Kevin Garnett solidified his spot in the rafters. It took time and that’s an investment worth making.