Relative to most teams trying to make the push to become title contenders and eventually win the NBA championship, the Celtics currently find themselves with at least a few distinct advantages.
First, Brad Stevens has proven to be one of the best coaches in the NBA already. It was a home run for the Celtics, who managed to pick out a college coach who was an instant star in the league – quite a feat considering the, at best, shaky track record of other teams doing the same.
Second, the Celtics have collected a war chest of assets in the form of future draft picks. In the 2016 draft, they’ll have first-rounders from the Nets and Mavericks, and in all likelihood five additional second-rounders. And further into the future, they’ll have three extra first-round picks plus a host of second-rounders.
Third, the Celtics have some of their key players on incredible long-term contracts, particularly considering how the salary cap is projected to jump from $70 million to a projected near $90 million figure in 2016-17 to perhaps even close to $110 million the next year (depending on how teams spend during next summer). Isaiah Thomas is in the second season of a four-year, $27 million deal where his annual salary actually goes down by 4.5 percent per season, and Jae Crowder just inked a five-year deal with an average annual salary of $7 million per season – a contract that is laughably favorable for the Celtics considering the average starter’s salary is going to be around $15 million under the new salary cap.
Next summer, the Celtics can get up to around $50 million in cap space, two max slots, if they want to by renouncing their cap holds on their outgoing free agents Jared Sullinger, Evan Turner, Tyler Zeller and David Lee, and declining the non-guaranteed options on Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko. With just a few tinkering moves around the edges, the Celtics can fit someone like Al Horford under a max contract, and retain the flexibility to make further moves to improve the team.
On the flipside, winning a championship in the NBA is hard, and the Celtics are the type of organization that won’t just be satisfied with multiple 50-win seasons and second-round exits. The play for them is to go for upside and moves that can eventually push them over the edge and back into the Finals with a chance to win. In that equation, Boston is missing the most important part.
In the macro sense, there are only around 12 players in the NBA that make a difference, and if you don’t have at least one of those players – though preferably you’d have two – it’s almost impossible to win the NBA championship. At any given time, there are a maximum of five or six teams in the NBA with a realistic shot at the title.
Take the four serious contenders we have now:
* The Cavaliers have LeBron James, a player who’s going down in the history books as one of the two or three best ever. Additionally, they have Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, two of the 25 best players in the league.
* The Warriors are led by Stephen Curry, a player whose skill set runs counter to the way NBA defenses are built to such a degree that you could literally pick out any four players in the NBA, put them on the court with Curry and you’ll have a Top 5 offense. Draymond Green is another Top 10 player and a player who in many ways will define the pace-and-space era the NBA is in.
* The Spurs are the Spurs, just with the slight addition of LaMarcus Aldridge, who just made his fifth consecutive All-Star game. Fun fact, there have been 96 players who have made six or more All-Star games and 65 of them are in the Hall of Fame. Out of the 31 who aren’t, 22 aren’t eligible yet. Aldridge is likely to be in that group.
* And of course the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have two of the best four players in the NBA. And among this group, they probably have the lowest odds of winning the whole thing.
Becoming one of those teams is insanely difficult, no matter how many draft picks Billy King and the Brooklyn Nets decide to shower at you. In the NBA you can do everything right and fail. In fact, you’re more likely to do so than succeed, if your bar for success is competing for a championship. A number of factors have to go your way, and every team that becomes great has luck along the way.
The most difficult to understand, yet by far the most influential of those factors, is timing. Complexities in the salary cap that make maneuvering difficult, the unexpected decline and improvement (or in some cases, unexpectedly neither happening) of players, salary structures and contract end dates, the position and incentives of other teams to make moves, draft pick credits and debits, what particular players want and a hundred other variables make being a GM in the NBA an incredibly difficult job – no matter what the average fan may think.
All of it is chaos and utter madness. Every situation is unique, different and presents a host of problems no team has ever run into, or will ever run into again. There are no sure-fire options, just different gambles the Celtics can take.
If the goal is to land a superstar, and then pair him up with another one – or add so much above-average talent and complementary talent around said star – the Celtics have a few different avenues available for them.
The simplest way to get stars is to sign them in unrestricted free agency, and over the next two seasons here are the best players available…
Summer of 2016: Horford, Nicolas Batum, Ryan Anderson, Dwight Howard (early termination option), Mike Conley, Hassan Whiteside, Kevin Durant, Rajon Rondo and DeMar DeRozan.
Summer of 2017: Gordon Hayward, Kyle Lowry, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Greg Monroe (player option), Blake Griffin and Chris Paul (both with early termination options), Curry, Danilo Gallinari and Paul Millsap (player option).
Which of the 2016 free agents can the Celtics get who would turn them into a title threat? If the answer is none, how do they convince a player who wants to win an NBA title to trust them that they’ll hit a home run the next season? Players don’t care if the Celtics have good draft picks who may or may not eventually be useful, and by the time they are many of the free agents on the list will be past their primes. Over the next two summers, there’ll be so much cap space around the league, every top free agent will have multiple suitors and teams throwing money in their faces.
This is why it’s folly to count on free agency as a strategy. The chance of hitting big is relatively small, and you can’t build with signing free agents as your primary strategy. This isn’t to say the Celtics can’t be major players, and they should do everything they can to pursue players who fit their goals and timetable. Just saying that free agency can only be a part of the Celtics strategy, but certainly not the focal point of it.
With the trade deadline coming up on February 19, the Celtics were bound to rise up as a name in multiple trade scenarios and rumors. They have all the right pieces to make a James Harden-type trade, should the right star become available.
The Celtics have been linked to DeMarcus Cousins, but at this time it doesn’t look the Kings are even close to thinking about moving Cousins. Paul George would have been interesting had the Pacers been bad this season and were looking to jumpstart their rebuild – a la the Jazz trading Deron Williams for Derrick Favors and picks, or the Magic getting Nikola Vucevic and other assets for Dwight Howard. The Rockets would trade Howard in a heartbeat if the trade was right, but Howard is going to hit unrestricted free agency this summer, and how interested can the Celtics be in trading for a 30-year old with a checkered injury history who can leave in a few months?
Most recently, ESPN’s Zach Lowe brought up the idea of a Griffin trade to the Celtics. On paper this makes some sense, since the Clippers have done well without Griffin in the lineup and have a dearth of depth at practically every position – in addition to not owning their 2017 first-round pick and three other second-rounders. The Celtics consolidating multiple assets into one mega-asset makes a ton of sense, and make no doubt about it, if they can get Griffin for practically any package they can create, they should pull the trigger on the trade immediately.
Getting Griffin is exactly why you have so many assets to begin with. A potential opportunity to trade for a player who is an offense unto himself and among the Top 10 players in the league is a no-brainer. To be clear, however, Celtics fans should know that to get Griffin it would take a monster package, and there’s no way the Clippers should agree to a deal that doesn’t include at least two players from the Crowder, Kelly Olynyk, Sullinger, Thomas, Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley crowd. And it’s not going to be the two any Celtic fan reading that list is going to want it to be. In addition, they would have to give up this season’s Brooklyn pick and at least one other likely lottery pick – potentially even more.
The Clippers need to get a king’s ransom for Griffin in order to pull the trigger on any deal. Both to stay competitive now, giving Chris Paul at least some hope of competing for a title in the prime of his career, and to gain multiple chances at future blue-chip prospects in the process.
As is the case in many such exciting mega trade scenarios, the most probable answer is that nothing will happen. And if it does, the Celtics would still have to be very concerned about keeping Griffin, who becomes an unrestricted free agent in a year and a half. Typically, teams are able to have a huge advantage on other teams by being able to sign their free agents by going over the cap by owning their bird rights, and only a few teams ever have max cap room in the NBA, and those teams are typically young and bad, meaning no superstar is going to sign with them. That advantage that is seriously compromised when almost every team can offer Griffin a max salary when he hits free agency during the summer of 2017.
Other less flashy names would include Hayward and Gallinari, both of whom would be solid options for the Celtics given the right deal. But neither the Jazz or Nuggets are in a particular hurry to get rid of them.
Currently, the draft is the best chance for the Celtics to snatch up a star. Most notably with the next three Nets picks, all of which have a great chance of landing in the Top 5. Drafting a great young player also brings the advantage of being able to keep that player at least nine years, first through their cheap rookie deal and then by offering a five-year extension, something no other team can do (though a potential new CBA may throw some interesting wrench into that too).
* For the technical folks, polynomial regression model built off career average statistics from multiple NBA drafts. Stats from basketball-reference.com.
The draft and the war chest of picks present a few different avenues and conundrums to navigate. There’s no way the Celtics can use all their picks, and in the upcoming draft they are slated to have eight. We already saw the position this puts the Celtics’ management in, as they reportedly tried to trade four picks for Charlotte’s ninth pick in the 2015 draft to take Justise Winslow.
Now, everyone knows what the Celtics are willing to do to turn multiple assets into one better one. And the better one doesn’t necessarily have to be that much better. Expect to see similar attempts next summer. The Celtics have to trade some of their picks, or risk losing those players since they have no available roster spots. The frontline rotation is already beyond crowded. Of course, the rest of the league knows this, and know they can extract a hefty bounty if they have what the Celtics want.
Also, if it looks like the players they draft over the next two to three years are the way to go, that’ll move the process back a few years and the Celtics will be looking at perhaps over five seasons until they are in the mix. While the process looks and is very promising, it may take a while to succeed and fans can get impatient.
What championship teams look like
None of this is to be negative, and most teams not in the championship/50-win mix would give anything to be in the position the Celtics are right now. The team has set up themselves for success, and the next few seasons will determine if and how that success plays out.
Every team that makes it to the Finals gets a ton of breaks. The Warriors signed Curry to a $44 million deal, which is less than half of what he should be making. Curry’s favorable deal allowed the Warriors to sign players like Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut. Green was drafted in the second round. The Warriors tanked shamelessly, losing 22 of their last 27 during the 2011-12 season and ended up with Harrison Barnes with the 7th pick – a pick that had a high chance of conveying to the Jazz in any case.
The Spurs reloaded by trading George Hill for Kawhi Leonard, who is one of the seven best players in the NBA. The LeBron-era Heat were built on taking pay cuts and luring veterans below market-value, most notably from their three stars. The Lakers got Pau Gasol for practically nothing (at the time). The Thunder went on an all-time and unreplicable success binge of draft picks, nailing on Durant, Westbrook, James Harden and Ibaka.
When you go through the Celtics roster, it’s interesting to wonder who is going to be a part of the next great Celtics team? Whether it be through trades and free agency, or by building again through the draft, it’s very difficult to answer that question. From Amir Johnson to Jonas Jerebko, who are closing in on 30 years of age, to Marcus Smart in his early twenties, to players like Bradley, Olynyk, Sullinger and Evan Turner in-between, the Celtics have multiple players each in different phases of their respective careers.
It’s an interesting time for the Celtics, and the recency of their upcoming draft picks and young several players who are up for extensions, some significant moves are incoming. In a maze of uncertainty, we’ll see if they choose the right ones.
Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found at Nylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.