By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
BOSTON (CBS) – As we approach the 10th anniversary of a watershed summer of 2007 that brought Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to Boston, the 2017 NBA season has somehow evolved into a show-and-prove year for Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. Never mind that the team has climbed 23 games in the standings the last two seasons and currently owns the second-best record in the Eastern Conference – for some, a roster awash with young talent (and set to add more in June) means the only logical next step is the addition of a bona fide superstar via trade.
Last week’s annual bonanza of Twitter rumors featured multiple All-Star talents reportedly twisting in the wind. The time was ripe. We’ve been hearing about these assets for three years now – what are we waiting for? In the end, DeMarcus Cousins was the only big name to fill out a change-of-address form – to New Orleans, not Boston. The local fan reaction was visceral and mostly unpleasant.
For Ainge, the best move was the one he didn’t make. He told told Toucher and Rich that he valued the chemistry and versatility of the roster in its current configuration. He’s right: he didn’t need to go for the home run just because it’s the thing to do. Teams see those assets and salivate. Look at what the Pacers and Bulls reportedly wanted in a trade with Ainge. And just because Cousins went to the Pelicans for a song doesn’t mean the Celtics could have pried him away from Sacramento for, say, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, Terry Rozier and a couple of conditional draft picks.
At this juncture, rival GMs dealing with Boston are most assuredly requesting some combination of valuable young rotation players and Nets picks. The Celtics aren’t handing those out like candy.
The fact remains: There are still deficiencies with this year’s squad – and Ainge’s inactivity on that front is a head scratcher, particularly considering the relatively paltry amounts other teams paid to acquire role players. You can’t whistle past the fact the Celtics have been out-rebounded in 41 out of 59 games this year, and bench help could be valuable in case something akin to the Avery Bradley/Jae Crowder scenario from last year’s playoffs rears its ugly head.
But maybe a Nerlens Noel (my personal favorite trade target) rental wasn’t worth it. For now, the Massachusetts native suits up in Dallas, where he’ll accumulate numbers in the frontcourt alongside Dirk Nowitzki, upping his price tag as a restricted free agent this summer. Remember, this is a league where Timofey Mozgov and The Artist Formerly Known as Joakim Noah take home $16 and $18 million a year, respectively. I love Noel; not so much those big man prices.
Further, Ainge’s deadline inertia indicates a long view that highly values roster flexibility. Though he gives lip service to the things he’s seeing in practice and the talent that’s already on the floor, the organization may not view this lineup, with a starting backcourt of Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley, two players whose contracts expire in 17 months, as one key acquisition away from challenging the Cavs for Eastern Conference supremacy in the immediate future (a position Wyc Grousbeck alluded to on Felger and Mazz).
Ainge knows if he plays this right, the C’s could be in the title picture for a decade. Roster construction can be a careful exercise, not always predicated by a big bang. While moves for established 27-year-olds bring instant gratification, they don’t automatically result in championships. And the fallout could potentially muddy the waters going forward.
So the Celtics sat on the bench at the deadline. It’s no time to be miserable. There are multiple avenues the Celtics organization can take to continue to grow and improve as we close out another season, head for the playoffs and arrive at a particularly fascinating offseason crossroads.
1. Hit the buyout market.
With Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut all but promised to the Cavs, the pool of quality players available following a contract buyout has grown shallow. New Orleans’ Terrence Jones is an intriguing name – an above-average scorer and rebounder who checks a lot of boxes for Brad Stevens’ rotation. Adding Jones to the fold would appease a number of Celtics fans who were bent out of shape less than a week ago.
2. Win a playoff round.
That’s a no-brainer. They’ll get past the Pacers or Bulls in the first round. The question is the Eastern Conference semifinals. If Boston secures the second or third seed, they’ll likely meet Toronto or Washington there. Both rivals bettered themselves with rentals at the deadline – the Raps most handsomely with a near-perfect four to pair with Jonas Valanciunas in Serge Ibaka. It’s no layup (evidenced by Toronto’s comeback win over the Green the other night), but there’s at least a possibility this team could reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in five years.
3. Decide what to do about Isaiah.
To me, this is the catalyst for everything else. Will the Celtics extend him, look for a suitor, or let The King in the Fourth play out his deal, knowing the distraction such a situation may cause with the possibility the point guard walks, leaving Boston with nothing but sweet memories? Despite his on-court exploits, there are a number of intelligent basketball fans and analysts who don’t regard Isaiah as a max guy. He wants a Brink’s truck, not a hometown discount, and if the Celtics don’t give IT a huge deal, someone else will. That doesn’t mean the Brink’s truck is the right call.
4. Throw a party on draft night.
Maybe the Celtics will land the No. 1 pick; they have as good a chance as anybody. Maybe they won’t. Either way, they’re going to add a talented collegiate player, or have the opportunity to gauge what another team will pay for the privilege. The Green could have the option of choosing between Thomas and Markelle Fultz as point guard of the future. It’s a great position for Ainge, and perhaps the primary reason why the Celtics “stood pat” last week.
5. Make a deal.
After all, it’s what we wanted them to do last week. In the coming months, the Pacers and Bulls may re-evaluate their price tags for Paul George and Jimmy Butler. But if not those guys, somebody will be available. Greg Dickerson and I recently had a discussion where it was said that superstars don’t grow on trees. Did you know an astonishing 31 players who have made an All-Star team since the 2010 season have been traded? Sure, some of them were past their primes or battling injuries, but if you don’t think superstars get swapped, check out some of the names involved in recent mega-deals:
DeMarcus Cousins, 2017
Kevin Love, 2014
Dwight Howard, 2012
James Harden, 2012
Carmelo Anthony, 2011
Chris Paul, 2011
Deron Williams, 2011
An All-NBA talent in need of a change of scenery tends to become available with surprising regularity. The list above omits the deals for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in ‘07, both Gasol brothers (in the same trade!) and Jason Kidd in 2008, as well as Zach Randolph in 2009. Kyle Lowry changed jerseys twice before he became a star. Another player who proved himself following a swap: Isaiah Thomas.
6. Figure out who’s here for the long run among the young guys.
Marcus Smart will be a restricted free agent as Thomas and Bradley hit free agency. How does Terry Rozier’s performance impact those decisions? What do they have in Jaylen Brown? Is Ante Zizic the second coming of Stojko Vrankovic or is he more like Dino Radja? The last question may not be answered for some time. Ainge has to walk the fine line between dealing players before they break out and moving them after it becomes apparent the hype train has left the station.
7. Take another swing at free agency.
Sure, Al Horford recently assumed the mantle of the most notable free agent ever to sign with Boston, but you’d have to assume others will at least listen. The buzz here centers around Gordon Hayward: not only was he Stevens’ charge at Butler, he would also be the best wing scorer the Celtics have employed since Paul Pierce. If he makes third team All-NBA this year, will the Jazz pony up 35 percent of their salary cap to keep him? If they do, Hayward couldn’t possibly turn it down, right?
The Celtics remain poised to win 50-plus games, win a playoff series, make a top pick (possibly the top pick) this summer, and/or make another franchise-altering addition. This should be fun. There are about a million different things Ainge can do that will create a buzz around this team and put them in position to take over the East. He just has to make a move. Or not.
Sean Sylver is a contributor to CBSBostonSports.com who can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @sylverfox25.