In a nutshell, the Celtics’ 2016-17 season went about as well as any Boston fan could hope, even though the season ended rather quickly against an opponent no one in the East could hope to beat. Boston’s series against the Cavs had short bouts of competitiveness but ultimately the winner was at no point in doubt.
And that’s completely fine, as the Celtics are in a position 23 or 24 other teams would love to be in going forward. After trading away Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce before the start of the 2013-14 season, and winning 25 games in that season, making the playoffs three years in a row with a Conference Finals appearance should be considered a masterful success story. Even after 5-7 years of rebuilding, most teams never find the amount of success the Celtics have already – and the exciting part is they have more avenues to continue winning.
Isaiah Thomas turned into one of the best players in the NBA. Al Horford is the only important piece on the roster over 30, and his skill set should age well over the last three years of his contract as a stretch big with great passing instincts and solid defense. Jae Crowder is the type of versatile wing every team needs and is on a super cheap contract until 2020. Avery Bradley is one of the best two-way shooting guards in the league, and the depth on the roster has proven itself time and again, including in the postseason.
Brad Stevens is already one of the best coaches in the NBA, and his willingness to change up the rotation to take advantage of his players’ strengths has been fun to watch in the playoffs. Jonas Jerebko hasn’t played much, but made some big plays when he did. Amir Johnson sometimes starts but doesn’t when the situation demands it. Gerald Green popped up in the starting lineup to make a few shots, but has been quickly exiled to the bench when his defense doesn’t quite cut it. Kelly Olynyk was a big part of Game 7 against the Wizards, who didn’t adjust their hedging scheme to account for Olynyk’s shooting. Marcus Smart started in the one game the Celtics beat the Cavaliers in and made a ton of winning plays through the season. Even rookies on the more talented end of the scale, who show flashes during the season, don’t typically help you win, but Jaylen Brown has been able to contribute late within a changing role.
Time for splashy moves?
By virtue of the treasure trove of assets the Celtics have, the team has been (and will continue to be) linked to every star player on the market. Boston will pick first in this year’s draft and has Brooklyn’s unprotected first-rounder, undoubtedly again Top 5, next season. In addition, they have a ton of second-rounders coming their way, and future firsts from the Clippers and Grizzlies.
From the outside, it’s easy to grow frustrated with the fact that general manager Danny Ainge hasn’t been more aggressive pursuing players like Jimmy Butler, Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins. However, if you take the long-term organizational view it’s far easier to understand why the Celtics should be extremely careful before mortgaging their future to improve their title odds today.
In the next five NBA drafts, the Celtics will likely have a pick in four lotteries, even if the team makes the playoffs in every single season. For next season, this will mean a core of Smart, Brown and likely Markelle Fultz (or whomever the Celtics select) with Smart being by far the oldest player at 23 years of age. Throw in Terry Rozier and Olynyk as the other solid young players and next season Boston again gets to add one of the best young prospects to their team. That’s multiple blue chip prospects on an already over 50-win team.
One very good scenario, which is more likely than not, is that the Celtics can extend a core that can win 50-games in every season over a 10-year span or more. That’s a super rare feat in the modern NBA. Boston can do all that, and still sign a max player this summer in Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin, without losing even a small part of that amazing future. That’s the power of a few good trades, and a beyond excellent one, has given this team. Once the current iteration of the team starts declining, the next generation could be ready to keep winning without down years.
With Johnson’s $12 million coming off the books and Tyler Zeller’s $8 million not being guaranteed, Boston will have max cap space and in an ideal scenario could add Hayward in unrestricted free agency and George by trading their No. 1 pick (though this would require moving two of Crowder, Bradley and Smart in some combination). But even if nothing happens, the team has a bright future – though short-term the team would be slightly more depressing… if you consider making the second round of the playoffs that.
Summer of 2018
Regardless of how the Celtics spend their cap space this summer, and whether or not they’ll be able to lure another star, this team will start to get expensive after 2018. Olynyk is already due for a raise this summer in restricted free agency and in a year both Bradley and Thomas will hit the market.
Thomas has been wrongly doubted throughout his career, but there’s no way the Celtics are jumping up and down looking forward to paying a short point guard who relies on speed $40 million per season into his mid-thirties. Bradley is in a similar situation age- and contract-wise, though in a lower category.
The NBA’s contract structure is a bit strange, and typically works out for good players in a way where the third long one that extends to age 32 or 33 will often start looking bad at the back end (though there’s some evidence this is improving thanks to better rest and sports science). There’s really no way to avoid that, and Boston will have to make tough decisions with both when that time comes based on how next season plays out. This is the same summer when Smart is in restricted free agency and will get a big bump in his salary.
The plus side is, the Celtics have zero bad contracts on their books and can build most of their bench and role player rotation out of relatively cheap rookie contracts, depending on how some of their lower draft choices work out.
How impressive Jaylen Brown has been can’t be understated. Had Brown been drafted by a bad team, he may have put up bigger numbers and played more minutes, but being in a winning environment has pushed Brown to a point where he won’t play unless he can contribute positively. This is one of those little things most NBA fans don’t notice – being part of an offense with ball movement and cutting, becoming solid defensively and all that detailed stuff coaches love. Brown has shown a surprising amount off the dribble as well, especially in the series against Cleveland where the Celtics lacked ballhandling with Thomas’ injury problems.
Similarly, other top Celtics draft picks will experience the same thing and be better players for it.
Boston has a ton of ways to play its cards, and can choose to be proactive or reactive. They can always look to move someone like Crowder, and signing the best players they can with that cap space available to them this summer will be the first step, but there are no bad options here. The only mistake they can make is buying into the noise from the outside to make win-now moves that don’t pan out and hurt the future. Boston is still a few steps away from challenging Cleveland, let alone the Warriors in the Finals, and patience will be key.