By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — When it comes to roster management, Danny Ainge has stayed particularly cautious for the past couple seasons. He’s been protective of the Celtics’ war chest of assets while trying to simultaneously build a winning (but flawed) team on the fly.
At the trade deadline in February, he watched as his main competitors in the East (Washington, Toronto) added role players on expiring contracts at bargain basement prices. Fans across the region rightfully wondered why the C’s front office was content to watch others improve while they stood pat with countless draft picks and young players.
“All the things we pulled away from or might have been tempted to do, we didn’t do,” Ainge said after the deadline. “So patience, maybe, but we like what we have. We like our position and we like our future a lot.”
That controversial bet on the future paid off in a big way on Monday night at the TD Garden as three players on rookie contracts (Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk) proved to be the difference. The trio combined for 48 points off the bench, helping push the Celtics to a 115-105 win in Game 7 over the Wizards.
The Celtics’ season is far from over, but Ainge’s roster strategy has already been validated through the first two rounds of the postseason. Instead of bringing in a rent-a-player or two that could have blocked some of the team’s youth from bigger roles, he decided to eliminate any potential obstructions. There would be no trade additions, no free agent buyouts added. Ainge was going to let this group sink or swim with what they had and trust that roster continuity was the smart play overall.
While this strategy seems like the safe choice in the big picture, it was definitely a gamble overall. Trade values can fluctuate wildly and the younger parts of this roster could have had their warts exposed in the postseason, as was the case during last year’s first round defeat to the Atlanta Hawks.
Instead, nearly every member of the Celtics supporting cast has raised their game since the team fell into a 2-0 hole against the Chicago Bulls in the first round. Olynyk has shot 56 percent from the field this postseason and has been a threat from all over the floor, highlighted by tying his season-high with 26 points in Game 7. Brown has fought his way back into the rotation after a benching against the Bulls, and made a measurable impact on wins in Games 1, 5 and 7 against the Wizards. Smart continues to be a menace on the defensive end and has hit enough three-point shots (38 percent) in the postseason to keep defenses honest. He was 2-for-2 in the second half in Game 7 from downtown, with both makes proving to be turning points in the win.
“Those two big threes were – it’s exactly what we talk about,” head coach Brad Stevens said after the win. “We can talk about Marcus’ shooting percentage all year round all we want, but I think we all know that when it’s all on the line he’s going to make it. And that’s a unique trait, I think.”
The trend continues as you look further down the C’s bench. Terry Rozier only played four minutes in Game 7, but he’s had Boston’s highest playoff net rating despite being out of the rotation to start the Bulls series. Collectively, all of these reserves have proven they could hold their own with the big boys in the postseason and that should go a long way into helping Ainge build this team into a contender.
Ultimately, the Celtics won’t be able to keep all of these young pieces. Decision time is going to come for a lot of them this summer as Olynyk hits restricted free agency, Avery Bradley and Smart have big deals awaiting them in the summer of 2018 and Boston probably won’t be able to afford both if they want to bring in a max free agent this summer too. The C’s front office knew this conundrum was coming, but they’ll be dealing from a position of power as the value of all these secondary pieces have gone up in the past month. That could very well make a difference a couple of years down the road if the C’s are able to give up a little less in a deal for star, only because their current piece gained more value. When you factor that in with a pair of future lottery picks from Brooklyn also waiting in the wings for the next two seasons, even Brown is aware of how well things are lining up for the franchise.
“This is big for the Celtics,” Brown said. “The team that finished first in the Eastern Conference, and now we have the potential to have the No. 1 pick in the draft. That’s a credit to Danny Ainge and the staff upstairs. It’s going to be a bright future for the Celtics for a long time.”
No matter what happens against the Cavaliers, this much is already certain: the patient play ended up being the right one for Ainge.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.