By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
The Boston Celtics overachieved during the 2016-17 regular season and that trend continued during the postseason. Winning the No. 1 seed in the East was an accomplishment despite a season that was full of injuries. Getting to the Eastern Conference Finals and taking one game from the Cleveland Cavaliers without the services of Isaiah Thomas turned some heads around the league as well.
All of that does not take away from the fact that the Celtics were delivered a reality check for the vast majority of the Eastern Conference Finals. For seven of ten halves over the five game series, the Cavs essentially ran the Celtics on the floor with their collection of offensive firepower, athleticism and continuity. The results were sobering for any Boston fan to watch as the Cavs won three games at the TD Garden by an average of 30 points. A margin of victory like that is no fluke. Instead, it signals a team that is light years ahead of Boston from a talent perspective, with or without Isaiah Thomas.
The overall beatdown put things in perspective for members of the Celtic organization that made great strides this year from a team building perspective, but knows they still have a long way to go.
“This leaves a certain taste in our mouth, getting there and not getting to the championship,” Avery Bradley said after Game 5. “Cleveland just outplayed us in this series; credit to those guys. But we’ll be a better team next year, and we will make sure that we put ourselves in a great position to make the Eastern Conference Finals and give ourselves a better chance at making the championship.”
The question Danny Ainge now has to ask himself after this series is whether his team’s current roster pieces are players that can ultimately help take down LeBron and company. For any fan that is eager to see the Celtics make a serious run at Cleveland in the next couple years, there were only a few pieces of this current roster that showed they could compete at the Cavs level. Star players were outplayed as Al Horford was bested by Kevin Love all series long after a phenomenal opening two rounds. Jae Crowder played up to par on the offensive end, but the rest of the team fell short of expectations, outside of a bright spot or two (Jaylen Brown). Defensively, the Celtics were exposed as a team that had regressed in a big way since last season.
Ainge has created a unique window for himself this summer where he can add experienced talent in free agency and elite youth to the roster via the No. 1 overall pick. The addition of those pieces alone won’t be enough to get past a Cavs team that’s full of players in their prime in my mind. Ainge either has to do something more drastic (add a second All-Star via trade) or potentially take a painful step back towards a younger core while eyeing a contender down the road. Waiting on young pieces like Marcus Smart, Brown and Markelle Fultz to mature while surrounding them with future assets may be a better long-term bet for the green than Ainge pushing his chips towards the middle for a bigger splash this summer.
Signing guards like Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas to $20+ million dollar per year deals is not a winning formula unless you have the right supporting cast around them to contend. The Celtics don’t have that group yet and it’s on Ainge now to figure out if he has the necessary assets to assemble one before both of those players hit free agency in the summer of 2018.
Otherwise, Ainge is better off kicking the can towards the end of the decade, waiting out what could be a lengthy dynasty by the Cavs and Warriors in their respective conferences. Whatever path Ainge chooses will be a risky one, but the shellacking by the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals made the decision that much tougher.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.