Boston Celtics on the verge

One of the leading sub-plots during the summer of Kevin Durant’s OKC departure was the Boston Celtics continuing their rise up the ladder of contenders. Lost in the chaos is the answer to this question: Where do Brad Stevens’ C’s go from here?

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The 2015-16 Boston Celtics won 48 games in their third season of the Brad Stevens-era rebuild. Celtics fans enjoyed another season of exceeded expectations and deserved league wide praise heaped upon their young coach. The 15-16 roster was constructed with young two-way players, a unique collection of modern big men and successful salvage projects from the land of misfit toys. 48 wins and a share of 3rd place in a refreshingly competitive Eastern Conference can only be seen as an unmitigated success.

Danny Ainge entered the summer with a heaping pile of assets, a hungry yet proven roster and dark horse status for July 2016’s grand prize: Kevin Durant. We know how that ended, but earning Durant’s consideration spoke volumes about where Durant, and presumably most of the league, thinks this team is headed. Durant saw Boston, despite owning exactly zero playoff series wins with this roster, as company for three of the last four NBA Champions (and the Los Angeles Clippers). That’s decent company.

Despite missing out on Durant the Celtics landed the consensus #1 big man available via free agency in Al Horford. Anytime you can add a two-way big man of Horford’s quality, you should throw money at him. His flexibility to play inside and out, guard big men of any kind and play with any potential small ball lineup Brad Stevens cooks up makes the four-time all-star a near perfect fit. Horford instantly becomes the best big man and one of the best shooters on the roster (34.4% from three on a career high 256 attempts last season).

And it never hurts to snag the second best player from the team that just knocked you out of the playoffs.

Add #3 overall pick Jaylen Brown to the mix, subtract chronically unfit Jared Sullinger from the rotation and account for the expected improvement of younger fringe players like R.J. Hunter, Terry Rozier and possibly Jordan Mickey, and you’re baking a cake that smells like the second best team in the East.

On top of all these goodies Boston has solid gold in two Brooklyn Nets picks, a 2017 first round swap and an unprotected 2018 first rounder. Both of those picks promise to be early in the lottery, with chances at #1 overall.

With an already competitive roster and the most abundant pool of assets in the league Boston can out bid anybody. With stars like Russell Westbrook and Blake Griffin on the market, sitting on a throne of assets is a great thing. If neither of those players are available perhaps the Celtics could swap for a lower tier star in Kevin Love or Jahlil Okafor.

So the Celtics are a lock to push on and become a perennial title contender, right?

 

Hold your horses.

 

The Celtics are now an overachieving collection of players in their mid-twenties with nearly 30% of their cap tied up in a 30-year-old big man until the 2020 season. It would take a minor miracle to get past the 2016 champion Cavaliers and reach the finals this season, and an even larger miracle to knock of the Durant/Curry/Green/Thompson/insane bench Warriors. That means the title window opens next season, at the earliest.

So they become title contenders in 2017-18 then, right?

 

Well…

 

The next two summers bring seriously troubling cap situations.

Next summer the Celtic’s three non-Horford rotation big men are up for new deals. Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko and Kelly Olynyk become intriguing free agents next summer and only Olynyk is restricted. This will be a miniature version of what happens with the guards the following summer, but a breakout year from any of these modern bigs could drive the prices extremely high. And perhaps with another cap spike coming other teams will have no option other than to throw money at these guys, regardless of their performance.

The summer of 2018, though a few years down the road, will be a tricky one. Boston’s top three guards, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas are all free agents, the latter two are unrestricted. All three will command a pretty penny and it will prove extremely difficult to retain the whole crowd. That means at least one of Terry Rozier, R.J. Hunter or one of the 2016 draft picks may have to become a significant contributor.

There are some serious cap questions to ask when you take a look at the immediate future of this team, despite the incredible value they have for starting SF Jae Crowder at just ~7% of the cap for four more seasons.

The reality of the situation is that the current roster is built to win division titles, not conference or league titles. But the window of the team’s best players and most valuable assets is peaking this season.

The best remedy for this situation would be to make the most of an expiring contract that’s about to become an expensive player and one of the Brooklyn picks. If Boston can acquire Griffin or Westbrook without giving up three starters, there shouldn’t be a second thought. Ainge will be shrewd in a deal centered around Love or Okafor, as he should be, but Love would be a huge upgrade at power forward on a longer term, team friendly contract.

If the Celtics sit on their mountain of goodies for too long, it will erode. Suddenly Johnson, Jerebko and Olynyk are expensive or gone. In the blink of an eye the combined cost of Thomas, Smart and Bradley is roughly $60 million dollars per season. Out of nowhere Jaylen Brown isn’t as valuable as when he was the third pick. And while Ainge sleeps soundly on all the nice things the Brooklyn Nets ever owned, a high school senior transforms from a lanky, floor stretching big without a ceiling, to a flawed draft prospect wearing an ugly red tux, fearing a draft night free fall.

This sounds like a dystopian vision shared by the ghost of Christmas future, but it’s a real scenario that’s just as likely to play out as the utopian alternative.

The “make or miss league” cliché plays out both on and off the court. It’s a GM’s job to acquire as many assets as possible, to give his team as many high quality winning opportunities as possible, but at some point the blue chip trade bait must be traded for blue chip players.

With Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens at the helm it’s easy to see the best possible outcome, but no plan is foolproof.

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