After what seemed like months of talk about what could potential happen during the NBA Lottery, the ping-pong balls have stopped bouncing and we know the draft order. The Celtics landed the top overall pick, followed by the Lakers and Sixers. All three of these teams are in a fairly enviable position compared to a lot of the teams in this lottery when it comes to their future outlook.
The Celtics are currently the number one seed in the East and are about to play the Cavaliers. Even though they have home court advantage, most people expect the Cavs to win. This is an important series for the Celtics. How they play against the Cavs could determine what is done with the first overall pick. If the series goes seven games, even with a Cavs win, Danny Ainge could decide that he is one Jimmy Butler or Paul George away from overtaking LeBron and the Cavs. If the Celtics are swept or look severely overmatched, he could decide it better to wait it out and let his young players develop and hope in three years when they are closer to their primes, that LeBron’s game has fallen off a little bit. The problem with this scenario is no young player is guaranteed. We have seen teams pick in the lottery ten years in a row and still never amount to much because the players never developed. As much as most teams would love to have the number one seed and also the number one pick, there is no guaranteed Championship in the Celtics’ future. It would not be surprising to see the Celtics relevant for the next 10 years but never reach Championship status. Isaiah Thomas is currently 28 and Al Horford will be 31 by the time next season starts, so this is most likely the best they will ever be. Horford still has over 85 million owed to him over the next three years and Thomas will be a free agent after the 2017-2018 season. He will almost assuredly command a max contract. Avery Bradley will also be a free agent next year and it can be expect that he will make at least 20 million a year. Paying over 75 million a year to these three players is a lot if you do not think they are a championship core, especially with all the young draft picks needing to be paid in the coming years. If the Celtics chase a max free agent this summer such as Paul Millsap or Gordon Hayward, it means one of Bradley or Thomas will not be coming back. Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown would all need to be paid before the contracts listed above were to run out.
If the Celtics do go for it this summer and think they have a legitimate shot at dethroning the King of the East, they will have to decide how they would like to go about it. The draft happens before free agency. I do not think Danny Ainge would trade a draft pick for someone like Butler or George without knowing how free agency will play out. Why give up Markelle Fultz, someone I believe is a future All-NBA player, when you could draft Fultz and sign someone like Hayward? If the Celtics miss out on the marquee free agents, they would have to wait some time to trade Fultz but could pull a move similar to what the Cavs did when they waited to trade Andrew Wiggins once they found out LeBron was coming back. The Celtics would have to waive Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynyk to make max-cap room, but most of us would take Hayward over them anyway. This would leave the rotation with Horford, Thomas, Bradley, Hayward, Crowder, Brown, Smart, Rozier, Fultz. The Celtics would most likely have to renounce the rights to some of their lesser players to have the cap room, but they do not figure to have much impact next year anyway. This lineup would bring out their biggest weakness from this past season even more: rebounding. Horford would be the only natural big on the roster and rebounding is not a strength of his. Crowder could play a small ball four but there would need to be some size brought in. Crowder has also expressed his displeasure when the franchise tried bringing in other threes, feeling they were trying to replace him. If Hayward is brought to town, Crowder might want out. He has one of the most team-friendly contracts in the NBA and Ainge should try his best to keep him around. Bradley might have to be on the move in this scenario. This is a guard heavy rotation and although Smart doesn’t posses Bradley’s offensive skills and we have not seen enough of Rozier in the NBA nor Fultz at all, the glimpses we have gotten show these three players have a ton of room to grow. Bradley’s affordable contract makes him very movable, even with his pending free agency after next year. Bradley, along with any of the many upcoming draft picks the Celtics are owed could get them a good big man to go along with this lineup. These moves would make the Celtics undoubtedly more of a threat than the were this past year, but Ainge would have to truly believe this was championship caliber because there would be little wiggle room moving forward and the team will only get more expensive. If they believe Fultz is close to stardom and that Brown, Smart and Rozier can all make leaps forward, along with what we know we are going to get out of Hayward, Thomas, Horford, Crowder and whatever the return for Bradley is, it might just be enough to unseat LeBron. I actually might favor the Celtics depending on what Cleveland’s role players look like next year.
The big question mark in this scenario is Hayward. This is all under the assumption that he signs instead of trading for Butler or George. The Celtics would lose more assets if this were to happen. If the Celtics know they are not going to sign a big free agent, they could make a trade. I think the first pick this year is a lot to ask for one of those players. Perhaps Bradley, Brown and the Nets’ 2018 pick and the Celtics’ own 2018 pick. Somehow I do not think this would be enough. The Pacers and Bulls will both push for the number one pick this year. This also leaves the Celtics with less assets to go after a big man they will almost definitely need to keep up with Cleveland. I think trading for Butler or George is the worst move the Celtics could make right now. They do not put the Celtics in a situation to win and lose a good portion of their youth moving forward. With the Warriors looking unstoppable and their core most likely together a few more years, if the Celtics really are championship or bust, they need that youth to stick around.
A lot of people have ripped apart Sam Hinkie and the Sixers for “Trusting the Process,” something the Colangelo’s have stepped in and interfered with. We are only beginning to see Hinkie’s grand scheme. People in the NBA refer to championships as the biggest factor in a players greatness. The first thing people say in a Jordan vs. LeBron argument is number of rings. If this is the case with players, why is it not with teams? Would you rather be a team like the Pacers, a middling team that will most likely not win a championship anytime soon, but will consistently fight for a 7 or 8 seed, or be really bad for a few years and set yourself to have some elite players and fight for a championship? A lot of this has to do with the owner’s perspective. Personally, I would rather go for championships and deal with a few not so great years. The Celtics are in a position to add an unprecedented amount of talent to an already talented team. It just happens to fall at a time when the NBA currently has two of the best teams the league has ever seen. I do not think a Thomas and Horford led team are winning a championship. As I stated before, Horford is owed a lot over the next three years and Thomas soon will be. The team will have youth, talented youth, but even the most talented players still take time to get adjusted. Just look at the Timberwolves. They might have the best collection of young talent in the NBA, yet they still tied for the sixth worst record in the NBA. If I were Danny Ainge, I would take a look and see what I could get in return for Thomas, Bradley and potentially Al Horford. Thomas and Bradley I believe would bring back a hefty return, even with their expiring contract. Whatever team traded for them would own both of their Bird Rights. I have no idea what teams are willing to offer for Thomas or Bradley and I have no idea what the Celtics would need to give either up. I think two high first round picks and a young prospect might make the Celtics listen to an offer for Thomas. If the Kings offered picks 5, 10, and Willie Cauley-Stein, I would take it. What about to the Nuggets for 13, Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay? That maybe not, but there are options of teams on the brink that would love to bring in a star. Bradley could get looks from the Timberwolves or Mavs, both teams that would love to either jumpstart their rebuild or give Dirk one last fighting chance. Horford I do not think would get much of a return and keeping Horford and Crowder around would keep the Celtics relevant and the winning culture about. Bringing in young, elite players to grow with the current young core would give the Celtics an amazing group of talent prospects. Lets take that Kings trade (which I do not think the Kings or Celtics would do), but just for the point of this hypothetical rebuild. The Celtics bring in rookies Fultz, Jayson Tatum at 5, and Lauri Markennen at 10 give the Celtics three rookies that would all be top three picks most years. Willie Cauley-Stein gives the Celtics an interior presence of the boards they lack. Brown, Smart and Rozier are all on the roster still. Olynyk is able to be brought back due to no big name free agents coming in. Horford and Crowder are still around to keep the team playoff relevant. Horford’s contract will also be up before most of the young guys need to get paid. Ante Zizic and Guerschon Yabusele are both destined for a spot on the Celtics if not this upcoming season, than for sure the following. Chad Ford of ESPN ranked both Zizic and Yabusele as top propsects from the 2016 draft, along with Jaylen Brown, all three of whom were in the top ten. This was not the strongest draft ever but still to have three prospects in the top seven after the first year is impressive. Zizic and Yabusele also happen to fall in an area of need, which would be rebounding.
I cannot see a scenario in the real world of the NBA where a general manager would tear his number one seed team apart just to add some young prospects. If it didn’t work out, the GM would lose his job. Even if a GM doesn’t win a championship, but stays at a one or two seed, there is job security in that. Would Danny Ainge ever trade Thomas, someone who has become a Boston icon and fans would be furious to see trade? Probably not. I just worry that if they hold status quo that they will be teetering on the brink of championships for years to come, just failing to reach the perfect timing of their young prospects and older veterans being on the same page at the same time. I could be wrong and Thomas could still be playing at this level at his age 31 season, Horford would be 34 and because his game doesn’t rely on athleticism he could age well. Fultz, Brown and whoever the Celtics pick up with their 2018 Nets’ pick could all come along faster than planned and none will have needed to be paid yet. Crowder could be considered the best bargain in basketball that year. Zizic and Yabusele could be legit and be the big men necessary to help fortify the Celtics’ front line. The Cavs and Warriors could have taken a step back and no longer be the guaranteed championship. These are all a lot of uncertainties. Every GM apart from maybe two right now are jealous of the position Ainge is in. But I bet Ainge has trouble sleeping at night, staying up going back and forth on to move this team forward to put them in place to win a championship and avoid a good, but not great next ten seasons. This is not a bad problem to have but it would be a lot easier to mess up than it seems.
The dream scenario for the Celtics would be competing next year. Danny Ainge does not want to start over, nor does he feel Thomas is anyone they would trade for other than a king’s ransom, which no team would be willing to do. Signing Gordon Hayward is key in this scenario, something that seems less likely with how well the Jazz played this season. So this offseason the Celtics renounce the rights to pretty much every free agent and release all their non-guaranteed players. They also would have to most likely have to move Avery Bradley or Crowder, with Bradley being the more likely as he would be a free agent at the end of the season. If Hayward were to take a little less than max, they could keep them both. Another scenario would be signing Paul Millsap at less than the max and being able to keep both. Getting one of these players would have to give Ainge confidence that he has a strong enough core and young players to compete. By holding onto both Crowder and Bradley would also give the Celtics the cap flexibility to match salaries in a trade for Butler. Bradley, Crowder, Nets’ 2018 first round pick, Celtics’ 2018 first round pick for Butler would be a starting point, with Brown or more future picks probably needed to be thrown in there. A starting lineup of Thomas, Butler, Hayward, Zizic and Horford has the firepower to compete with the Cavs. Financially, this would set the Celtics up for a tough few seasons where it is championship or bust and not the way I would go, but this is the best chance of the 2018 Championship.
There are so many different ways for the Celtics to go but this offseason will determine the future of this franchise. Not only will it tell us which direction they are trying to go, but it will also set in stone the financial flexibility of this franchise moving forward, as well as their trade flexibility. How they go about free agency will most likely lock them into not being able to create max space anytime soon and with only one Nets’ pick remaining after this year, they will have less ammo for a trade. I am extremely curious as to what the Celtics’ lineup looks like on opening day and what assets remain. A starting day roster with Thomas, Bradley, Fultz, Crowder, Horford, Olynyk, Brown, Rozier, Zizic, Yabusele and Smart would show us the Celtics are comfortable with their current, insanely deep, roster and the future growth of this team. The team would be able to extend Thomas and Bradley after the season, have the core four of Crowder, Thomas, Bradley and Horford locked in and hope for the growth of the young players. A lot of NFL teams win Super Bowls this way. You build your core group of players and hope you hit on two or three drafts in a row so you have a core of highly paid veterans, and a group of young players on cheap contracts. This is not long term sustainable and not generally done in the NBA, if only because it is hard to get this much young talent and an already good team. The NBA draft is generally top ten heavy whereas the NFL finds gems every year in every round. I would be shocked if there are not at least some shakeup, assuming they lose to the Cavs in the next series, but sticking with this team is the safest to go about it.