In the NBA, even the best players and teams are often humbled before they achieve greatness. LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers took it to the Celtics, but even he was unceremoniously swept in his first NBA Finals appearance. The NBA, where humbling happens. Let’s be honest: The Cavaliers are a finished product. While the Celtics had an unbelievable season, they are far from one. But that only made the 2017 season all the more impressive.
Yes, the Celtics lost two of the three games they played without Isiah Thomas. However, no matter how you look at it, the past two weeks have been a huge win for the Celtics’ youngest players. There was Kelly Olynyk and his iconic Game 7 against Washington, a game that showed that while he still has growing pains, he also has a relatively high ceiling as a young scoring big man. There was Marcus Smart and his seven threes in Game 3 versus Cleveland, a game that may have given us a glimpse at what kind of offensive player he could become as he gets in to his mid-late 20s. Jaylen Brown guarded the best player in the world and showed remarkable poise posting up during the playoffs. Terry Rozier is a world class athlete who might just be the team’s most underrated chip going forward. The youngsters the Celtics plan to keep gained meaningful experience. The ones who will not be around long term upped their value.
Make no mistake, part of Ainge’s motivation to allow these young guys minutes is for trade value. That is always on his mind. Experience wins in the NBA. It took the greatest players we’ve ever seen in James and Michael Jordan nine and seven season, respectively, to win titles. James (infamously) had to switch teams or his wait likely would have been longer. Putting a bandaid on the bench in February would have certainly helped this year and in the post season. However, it also would have taken minutes away from guys like Brown, Olynyk and Rozier…and hurt their development. Players need to play to improve. They need to make mistakes and learn from them. They need to learn how to fit their games into the overall team. A better bench would have eased some of the pain right now for Celtics fans. For the next couple seasons, however, the minutes allowed this year for Brown and Rozier in particular will pay off.
One thing that needs to kept in mind by all Celtic fans is just how freaking young these guys are in a league of men. According to Realgm.com, the 2016 squad was the third youngest playoff team this decade, with an average age of 24.6. This year, the Celtics average age was 25.6 (thanks in large part to the additions of Al Horford and Gerald Green). The 2017 Celtics were the youngest conference finalist team since the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2011, an outfit that had three future Hall of Famers in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. In fact, those two teams represent the youngest conference finalists for the past 10 seasons. It should be noted that OKC was in the Finals the following season. The Celtics started two second round picks in Jae Crowder and Amir Johnson to boot.
There is absolutely no shame in losing to this Cavaliers team in the fashion the Celtics did. As far as regular Celtic contributors after Thomas went down, you could make a reasonable case that Horford, and perhaps Jae Crowder, were the only Boston players in their prime.
In closing, a salute to the Ainge/Brad Stevens accomplishment of winning AND developing the team’s young players at the same time. It is a VERY RARE balancing act. There’s a reason why we almost never see it done in the NBA: Not many coaches are capable of pulling it off, whether it’s an aversion to rookies/young players or just the comfort level a veteran team can provide a coach. As Stevens said after Game 5, “this pain is part of the path.” So embrace it, Celtic fans. It will make this franchise’s inevitable ascent that much more enjoyable.