Boston may finally be ready for title contention
When the Boston Celtics, headed by general manager Danny Ainge, traded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett (along with Jason Terry) to the Brooklyn Nets back in 2013, it was hard to tell who exactly had won the trade. The Nets had gone all in on winning a title while featuring a roster ill-equipped to do so, and the Celtics had bet that the either they or the Nets would be bad enough in the near future to acquire high-end draft picks. Head coach Doc Rivers was traded as well, and with the hiring of Brad Stevens, who had never before coached in the NBA, the rebuilding project was full steam ahead.
Just a few years later, the Celtics were back atop the eastern conference and were only three wins away (I am being generous here, considering how badly they were blown out in the Eastern Conference Finals) from representing the East in the NBA Finals. By now, we are all aware of the series of moves that Ainge made to get the Celtics to that point. Trades for Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas and the signing of Al Horford allowed the team to be competitive while the Nets’ picks rolled in. One top-three pick turned into Jaylen Brown, and when the Celtics won the draft lottery this past season, Ainge looked untouchable. Not many GMs in sports would have had the gall to trade players as beloved as Pierce and Garnett, and even fewer would have had the foresight to trade them for the package he did. Ainge was the exception, however, and other than some misses on later first round selections, it’s hard to find fault with any move he had made throughout the entire process.
Until he traded that first overall pick. Over the course of the season, many Celtics fans had fallen in love with the idea of drafting Washington Huskies point guard Markelle Fultz. He appeared to be everything you could want in a franchise point guard, and he was going to the same school as Thomas, who was emerging as a folk hero of sorts in Boston. And with the contracts of Thomas and Avery Bradley set to expire after next season, drafting Fultz made sense for the franchise as well. One of the two guards could be retained, and Fultz’s own skillset would allow him to fit next to either one of them. Instead, Ainge opted to pick third, while acquiring a future first round pick in the process (where the pick lands and what year it’s translated could go many different ways, but it is likely to be in the top 10).
Come draft night, the team selected Duke swingman Jayson Tatum, and when cooler heads began to prevail, the logic behind the trade sort of made sense. While Fultz was clearly the top prospect in this draft, many experts and GMs agreed that the separation among the top players was not all that great. So Ainge, as he often does, acquired another asset and began looking towards free agency.
When Gordon Hayward signed in early July, it looked as though the Celtics offseason would be closing on a high note. Sure, Bradley had to be traded, but Hayward would more than make up for his production and they had acquired another useful player (Marcus Morris) in the process. They might not have been able to beat Cleveland this season, but as the younger players developed alongside the veterans, the Finals didn’t seem too far off. And as always with Ainge, the potential for another larger deal was always looming. Many outlets reported that his ultimate target was Anthony Davis.
Now, in my opinion, there is almost no way the New Orleans Pelicans would ever let go of Davis. He has multiple years left on his contract, and he is simply too good. Acquiring draft picks to replace him is almost pointless because of the unlikelihood that any player you draft ever becomes as good as he is, and he is still years away from his prime. That being said, it wasn’t hard to envision a scenario where a non-zero chance of Davis being traded would arise. If the Pelicans fail to make the post season this year, Demarcus Cousins walks, and the team is back at square one in terms of building a roster around Davis, that may be enough for him to become disgruntled, or for the team to just hit reset knowing it had failed.
If that occurred, Ainge would be poised to strike, especially if he lucked out once again. In the best case scenario, the Celtics could have offered two top five picks, young players (Tatum and Jaylen Brown among others) and as many first and second-round picks as necessary to get the deal done. No other team could match that offer.
Those what-if scenarios keep us up at night as basketball fans, and they are always fun to speculate about. General managers, however, must deal in reality and in the last couple of weeks Ainge has taken the possibility of acquired Davis and basically nixed it. By trading Thomas, Crowder, and rookie center Ante Zizic, along the 2018 Nets pick for Kyrie Irving, he has made it clear that he isn’t going to sit around and hope a star becomes available — at least not while one actually is available.
Once again he must be applauded for having the guts to make such a deal. Thomas has meant everything to this team. He is the one who made landing Horford and Hayward possible, and he was as adored by fans as any player anywhere. Trading him now feels like a betrayal. It’s hard to celebrate the arrival of Irving knowing any player on the team is susceptible to be traded. Still, there is a sense of finality around this move. Ainge has said that Irving fits the timeline for the team, that his skills are a known quantity, while whoever they drafted would be a gamble. There is still one more draft pick to come, but with Tatum, Irving and Brown (and Hayward to a lesser extent), Ainge must feel like he has the core that will bring the Celtics banner 18. The question now is: does he?
Irving is younger than Thomas, but he is not so young that his prime will coincide with Tatum and Brown’s. On the contrary, he will be near the tail end of his once they are reaching their peaks. Perhaps that is why the team is finally deciding to open up playing time for the younger guys. For the last couple of years, it has been debated that by forcing high draft picks to sit on the bench and not get the typical minutes given to top prospects that their development could be hindered in some way. Now, Tatum and Brown will see playing time in abundance. Maybe that will put them on the fast track to stardom.
Even if it does, you have to wonder what this move means for Hayward and Horford. Hayward, 28, and Horford, 31, were both closer in age to Thomas and the number of assets the Celtics had made the acquisition of a fourth star feasible. Now, with all this talk about timelines, one could get the impression that those players are nothing more than placeholders. They will help the team remain competitive and avoid bottoming out, but when the real winning is ready to get underway, they may no longer be on the team, or at least not in the roles they figure to be in now.
And that’s not even mentioning the fact that Irving has only two years remaining on his contract. Hearing him praise Stevens and knowing his reasons for requesting a trade in the first place make it seem unlikely he would leave, but if the Celtics don’t take steps forward in the next couple of seasons, who’s to say that he will continue to view Boston as a place conducive to him reaching his potential? If that occurs, all the pressure will be on the young guys and the Celtics will have come out of this trade as the losers.
As with the Pierce and Garnett trade, it is hard to tell at the moment who the winners and losers are of this deal, or if this is a rare win-win or the even rarer lose-lose. In the short term, I expect it will be a loss for the Celtics.
Despite how one may feel about Irving and if he is a better player than Thomas, continuity matters in the NBA. The Celtics are returning only four players from last season’s conference finals team and every time I hear that fact I am reminded of this quote from Paul George: “If you look at their roster, everybody knows what to expect out of everybody. There’s never a moment where a guy is like ‘What kind of shot are you taking?’ Or ‘What are you doing?’ They are beyond that. And that’s the chemistry we’re trying to make.”
Other players around the league had taken note of the Celtics’ chemistry, and even though players like Marcus Smart and Horford were a big part in molding that chemistry, there are so many new faces that it would be impossible for everyone to blend right away. Hayward and Irving are great players who will eventually be made greater under Stevens, but how will teammates react the first time a new face shoots them out of the game or doesn’t make the extra pass? These are problems that should subside over time, but it could have a real impact on this season. Or maybe having a coach like Stevens transcends all of that. Maybe everyone will buy in from day one, and maybe early season struggles won’t come from a lack of chemistry or the shaking of bad habits, but simply a lack of timing within a new system.
We won’t know until it happens, but it can’t be stressed enough that there will be struggles. This is not Kevin Durant going to the Warriors; A transcendent star capable of playing any role going to a transcendent team that didn’t need him to play any one role. This is a team full of new faces looking for a player, or two, to be the face of the said team. Everyone knows how good Irving is. He’s an impossible cover on most nights, and everyone knows that, despite playing with Lebron James the past few seasons, he has never played for a truly spectacular coach that will look to put him in the right spots and maximize his talent.
Everyone has also seen his faults. Disinterest on defense, a questionable feel for playmaking and despite the dazzling array of crossovers he has, a penchant for overdribbling. Still, he is only 25 years old. He can get better. Remember Stephen Curry at age 25? A singularly gifted player playing in a system that did not always take advantage of his talents. It was no secret how special he was, but who would have envisioned him averaging 30 points per game, hitting over 400 threes in a season, and becoming the unanimous MVP just two years later? Not to mention the fact he had become a champion with another MVP award to boot. Of course, there are readily apparent differences in the situations they found themselves in. Curry never switched teams. He grew with other players and was the best player on those pre-Steve Kerr teams.
How could we know what other players, such as Klay Thompson and Draymond Green would become if we had not seen it with our own eyes? I’ve had my own presumptions about Irving for some time now, but with Stevens maybe he truly can flourish into a top player on a title team. We cannot judge the trade right now, and we won’t be able to for quite some time.
That doesn’t mean, as a Celtics fan, I will ever feel truly good about it, nor will many other fans of the team. Thomas meant everything to the squad the past couple of seasons. His offensive prowess brought the team to the playoffs three years in a row during a time where a rebuild seemed more likely. He embraced the culture of the city, attended Patriots games, and recruited other big name free agents (and got them to actually come to the team!). That two-month stretch where he averaged just over 32 points per game and became the King in the Fourth will forever hold a spot in the hearts of fans. And his 53 point performance in round two of the playoffs will remain etched in Celtics’ history. He will be sorely missed.
But, all of those connections and emotional roller coasters that make being a fan so great, Ainge rightfully has no time for them. You can argue with his methods (less so with his results), but through meticulous planning and patience he has crafted the team he wants and one he believes will eventually compete for a title. Not many general managers ever get to that point.