Monday, February 27, 2017
How the Celtics Won the Deadline By Standing Pat
Through nearly three-quarters of the regular season, it's tough to realistically imagine the Boston Celtics being any better than they currently are.
The Celtics went into the All-Star Break at 37-20, within striking distance of Cleveland for home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. Furthermore, with a team whose oldest player just turned 31 and a core of young talent entering or in the early part of their primes, you could easily make the case that Boston is a year or two ahead of schedule.
Last year, the Celtics were simply an above-average team in the East without a real star player or a guy that could win games on his own. However, this year, Isaiah Thomas has improved to become an All-NBA player, an elite scorer and the best fourth-quarter performer in the entire league.
Things are pretty darned good for Celtics fans at the moment, and that's before you consider that they could have the cap space in the summer to sign an all-star like Gordon Hayward on a max salary and potentially own the rights to the top pick in each of the next two drafts thanks to the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett trade with Brooklyn in 2013.
This line of thinking is patently ridiculous. If anything, Boston is both a winner and savvy coming out of this deadline.
Sure, the Celtics probably could have acquired Jimmy Butler from Chicago or Paul George from Indiana with an offer of both Nets picks and two or three of Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, or Jaylen Brown.
But why? Would sacrificing the team's depth, versatility (especially on defense), and two rookie contracts' worth of potentially elite young talent for a 20 percent chance of beating Cleveland and getting to the Finals really be worth it? Then, you run the all-too-real risk of upsetting 57 games of team chemistry by having to find 15 shots or so per game for Butler or George when Thomas is already the alpha dog, however unorthodox he may be as the shortest player in the league.
Some of the hand-wringing about Boston's lack of moves is undoubtedly due to the fact that the Raptors and Wizards, the two most likely non-Cleveland Eastern Conference finalists other than the Celtics, did make moves.
I won't deny that in both cases, Toronto and Washington got pieces that made their teams more likely to beat the Celtics (and the Cavs) in the playoffs. But they each filled glaring needs that Boston doesn't have at the present.
For Toronto, picking up Serge Ibaka gives them a rim protector to help the Raps' struggling defense out, and big man to better spread the floor for DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry's driving lanes on offense. Grabbing P.J. Tucker from Phoenix right as the trade deadline buzzer sounded also gives Toronto a defensive rebounding upgrade and the prospect of a better LeBron James "stopper" after DeMarre Carroll has been cooked by James the last two postseasons. Washington desperately needed a bench scorer for when its stellar starting lineup sits, and while moving for Lou Williams would have perhaps been a more intuitive move, the Wizards got a good scoring option from the Nets in Bojan Bogdanovic.
If you made me choose, I'd probably grant you that Toronto is the more complete No. 2 team in the East. However, the Raptors and the Wizards are in much more of a "win now" mode than the Celtics due to their cap and contract situations.
Lowry, Ibaka and Tucker will all be free agents after the season, and Lowry will justifiably seek a max contract that would take him to age 36 after two All-NBA-level seasons. Lowry's max would take Toronto right to the projected cap figure next year, and signing Ibaka with Bird rights possibly forces them to pay luxury tax. Washington is already on the hook for $92 million in guaranteed contracts in 2017-18 and has to pay the extremely efficient Otto Porter as a restricted free agent.
By comparison, with several contracts coming off the books for bench players this summer; Smart and Brown still on their rookie deals; and Crowder, Thomas and Bradley on cheap contracts through 2018 at least, Boston has the flexibility to add a max contract and still be under the cap come July when filling out its roster. Acquiring Butler or George, and sacrificing the draft picks' rookie deals would mess up those options going forward.
Let's say that after May or June, if Boston falls in the playoffs relatively early and Ainge decides the Celtics are one star player away, he can still deal for Butler or George (or another All-Star) after seeing how the promising team performed through a full season and where the Brooklyn pick lands. There's also nothing preventing Boston from making that top pick in June and then dealing that player to another team, as Cleveland did for Kevin Love after drafting Andrew Wiggins in the summer of 2014.
As if they weren't asset-rich enough, there are a couple of other fairly important cards in the Celtics' full house.
I've seen almost no one mention these, but Boston could potentially have first round picks from both the Clippers and Grizzlies in future drafts. The Clippers owe Boston a lottery-protected conditional pick in 2019 or 2020, but it could fall to a second round pick if the Clippers aren't a playoff team either year. Memphis owes the Celtics a pick that's high-lottery protected in 2019 and 2020, but unprotected in 2021.
With Boston owning all of its own first-rounders except for the swap this year with Brooklyn that will give them a top-four pick at minimum, the Celtics potentially own eight first-rounders in the next five drafts, and Euro stash pick Guerschon Yabusele (the No. 16 pick last year) is likely to come to the NBA in one of the next two years.
For Boston, the possibilities for the next five to 10 years are just about endless and could feasibly include multiple titles. By standing pat and not testing out a long-odds proposition to try to defeat Cleveland and Golden State this spring, Danny Ainge and the Celtics have come out winners after the deadline, not losers.