After the Boston Celtics came so close to landing Kevin Durant, you can’t blame fans for wanting Danny Ainge to cash in Boston’s assets by taking advantage of the stumbling Thunder for Russell Westbrook, or pushing the Bulls to deal Jimmy Butler.
It wouldn’t be that easy though. Thunder general manager Sam Presti is one of the keenest executives in the NBA and won’t give Westbrook away for cheap. Besides, there’s no denying Westbrook is a superb talent, but he’s reckless and inefficient. As for Butler, the Bulls have already proven it’ll take a king’s ransom to acquire him.
Equally true, Ainge and the Celtics have shown they won’t make any rash decisions. Unless the demand for those stars is reasonable -- and it won’t be -- then the smartest wager is to hold on tight to the good thing they have going.
That means bringing back Jonas Jerebko and Amir Johnson on their value contracts, and going into the 2016 season with a roster similar to the one they ran onto the court last year -- but now with Al Horford bolstering the frontcourt. It’d make sense to add a player that rebounds like a vacuum, but beyond that there aren’t many moves worth making.
The key is to retain flexibility, so signing any free agents still on the market to contracts longer than one year isn’t a realistic option. The whole goal here is to land a transcendent player and put themselves in the conversation as championship contenders. Horford gets them closer, but he’s still not the guy.
By the 2017 trade deadline, maybe Clippers big Blake Griffin or Jazz wing Gordon Hayward, who are both unrestricted free agents next summer, become available. But the Celtics would be in the same exact scenario they were last year when they reportedly inquired about Horford. The Clippers and Jazz would ask for the 2017 Nets first (and more), just like the Hawks asked for the 2016 Nets pick.
Celtics fans flipped out when they didn’t give it up for Horford, but it worked out since they signed him in free agency while giving nothing back. They would likely take a similar approach again unless a supreme opportunity is there for a player under contract beyond the season, like Butler, DeMarcus Cousins, or James Harden.
This all hinges on the Nets actually being terrible again. They’ve made some intriguing moves this summer, but their roster is still in shambles and the other bad teams have gotten clearly better. It’s conceivable that the Nets will be worse in 2017 than they were in 2016.
Even if they are better though, the 2017 draft class is deep enough that a pick in the mid-lottery would still have tremendous value. So dealing that selection would be a shortsighted decision when it could be the ticket to landing that superstar that makes them a threat to win it all.
The 2017 draft class is littered with elite talent, highlighted by Duke forwards Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum. Not only could those players -- along with the others available -- be the guy the Celtics need, but they’d come on a rookie contract.
That’s the added bonus of taking this path. They could add a potential centerpiece through the draft and still have the assets and the cap space to make a move for a proven superstar through free agency or trades.
That brings us back to the same players everyone wants the Celtics to target through trades. The 2017 free agent class features Westbrook, Griffin, Hayward, Paul Millsap, and Serge Ibaka. Looking ahead to 2018, there’s Harden and Cousins. The menu gets longer when you include the long list of restricted free agents.
It might sound like a fantasy, but the Boston Celtics are still in a position to build something special. They just need their skeleton key, which they can find in multiple ways.
Kevin O’Connor can be followed on Twitter: @KevinOConnorNBA