Celtics fans can safely agree at this point that the team is at the beginning of a lengthy, successful run of quality basketball. With the C’s on pace to improve their season win total for a third straight campaign and staring at a top pick and likely something similar in 2018, what is the best path from here?
As the 2017 NBA season has unfolded, two things have become very obvious: The Brooklyn Nets are going to yield a top pick (third, absolute worst case scenario) in this coming draft to the Celtics, and that this is widely regarded as one of the best Freshman classes in college basketball history. If this feels like very unchartered NBA territory, well, that’s because it is. In the Lottery era going back to 1985, 32 NBA teams have picked number one. The only team in that time to pick first after winning more than 33 games the following season was the 1993 Shaq/Penny Hardaway Orlando Magic. The last time a 50-win team stumbled upon the first pick in the following NBA draft, the Lakers were coming off a 57-win season and took James Worthy first. That Lakers team went on to win three NBA titles in the next six seasons. The Magic were in the NBA Finals by 1995. While I’m assuming the Celtics will finally get the top pick and complete a 50-win season, they would have to endure a complete second half collapse not to beat the 1993 Orlando Magic’s 41 wins. A top pick is coming this June and with the Nets showing no signs of bottoming out yet, it seems very likely to occur again in 2018.
If you’re in the pro-trade/win-now camp, it’s probably because you know that the Celtics have Isiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk signed for approximately $30 million, collectively, for 2018. Given a projected $102 million salary cap, that’s a nice place to be. You may have also noticed that LeBron James is in his 14th NBA season and leading the league in minutes per game this year. Perhaps, after seven straight Finals appearances, James and Cleveland will be there for the taking in 2018. Perhaps being a key word. The fact that the Celtics already possess a quality NBA roster with numerous bargains complicates this situation.
For all the trade talk surrounding the Celtics, it feels like the Boston is in perfect position to sit back and let teams come to them. If they cannot acquire one of the five to seven best players in the league under the age of 30 (and, realistically, they cannot), don’t you have to hold on to the Brooklyn picks? Doesn’t the Celtics’ expected ascent after receiving these two picks match up with LeBron’s inevitable decline over the end of this decade?
Piling top level talent on an already winning team also provides a window of payroll flexibility. If the Celtics were to hold on to both picks plus Jaylen Brown, the team would have three top line draft picks under rookie contracts for 2019 and 2020. At a time when the salary cap and free agent contract money have skyrocketed to historic heights, that would be huge.
If you look at the rosters of the top teams in the NBA, the vast majority of the top guys are homegrown players. Cleveland drafted LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Golden State drafted Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. The Spurs drafted Kawai Leonard and Tony Parker. They won five titles with homegrown talent in Tim Duncan surrounded by David Robinson, Manu Ginobli, Parker and Leonard. Yes, those current top teams all made a key trade or signing along the way. The Celtics may have already done that by bringing Isiah to Boston.
Superstars and winning now are both great. It worked when the Celtics traded for KG. It could work again given the Celtics’ plethora of assets. Just know that 2007 was a totally different situation than what we see now. There’s no Paul Pierce on this current roster, a stud who endured the ugly end of the Pitino years and had been in Boston for nine mostly forgettable seasons until breaking through in 2008. It was a time of high urgency. The Celtics won 24 games in 2007 and won double that last year. The Celtics did not have any other team’s future first round picks back then, let alone what they own now. The Cavs went to the NBA Finals in 2007 with one of the worst rosters to do so in NBA history. LeBron did not have nearly the help he has now and was there for the taking.
Ainge and the Celtics are in prime position to make the 2020s the Celtics’ most successful decade of hoops since the 1980s. The foundation is already there. All that’s required now is a little patience. Sometimes the best trades are the ones you do not make.