BOSTON – The Boston Celtics have a game plan for how to become one of the NBA’s elite teams sooner rather than later.
It’s called covering all the bases.
With a roster that remains in a state of influx, there is no definitive route for the Celtics to take that will get them back to being one of the league’s top teams, a perch they stood on for at least five seasons (2008-2012).
But the paths that we do know work – the draft, free agency and of course, trades – are all areas in which the Celtics are well-positioned going forward.
In recent years the Celtics gradually broke up the 2008 championship team and are now building it back up.
The foundation for Boston’s basketball revival centers on head coach Brad Stevens.
Having just completed his second season, Stevens has shown tremendous growth as a coach and leader of this team. People look at the Celtics and say they don’t have a star. But the truth is, Stevens – more than any player – is their star.
“I think Brad is focused on developing our young players, developing our team and developing a culture,” Danny Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations, told CSNNE.com.
But they need more than Stevens’ talent to become an elite team again.
You love the fight that this group showed, but they need better talent across the board.
As you break down their four-game sweep at the hands of Cleveland, talent – and we’re not just talking about the Cavs’ Big Three either – was what ultimately sealed their fate.
It was indeed a lesson learned that only in time will we see if it benefited Boston or not.
But until then, the Celtics have to go about upgrading their overall talent base no matter what path they have to take to get there.
Danny Ainge took a bulldozer to this roster when he decided to trade Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to Brooklyn on the eve of the 2013 NBA draft, for what amounted to a trio of future first round picks.
Since then, Ainge has only added to the vast collection of draft picks since then.
In June’s draft alone, Boston will have a pair of first-round picks (their own and the one belonging to the Los Angeles Clippers) in addition to a pair of second rounders (their own and one from the Philadelphia 76ers).
Looking ahead, there’s the potential for Boston to have as many as nine first-round picks between 2016-2019 drafts.
But of the assortment of picks, the ones hauled in from the Nets in 2013 are the most valuable. Boston gets Brooklyn’s unprotected pick in 2016 and will have the right to swap picks with them in 2017.
While the Nets’ current playoff run has been impressive, this is a team in decline that will need an infusion of youth sooner rather than later.
Boston’s acquisition of Brooklyn’s picks offers hope that the Celtics will land a high draft pick (via Brooklyn) at a time when they are on the rise.
It’s among the reasons why the Celtics weren’t too locked on getting back into the lottery this season.
Truth be told, the Celtics have a better chance at one of those Brooklyn picks becoming a lottery (top-14) selection, than there would have been Boston being in the lottery this year and moving up to where they could draft an immediate impact performer.
While this is certainly an avenue Boston can take to bolster their roster, a more likely scenario will be the Celtics using the bulk of their picks as incentive for other deals that would land them an impact player.
The biggest name free agent Boston has had in recent years was Shaquille O’Neal in 2010, and that came at a time when O’Neal was literally at the end of his career.
O’Neal retired after the 2010-2011 season in which he played in 36 regular season games and averaged 9.2 points and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 66.7 percent from the field along with 1.1 blocks per game.
However, an assortment of injuries limited him to just five minutes in the playoffs for Boston.
While it’s unlikely Boston will land a bigger hit away from the game than O’Neal, they are in the best position ever to secure a highly-regarded, high-impact player on the floor this summer.
One of the reasons Boston has not been much of a player in free agency in the past has been because the Celtics didn’t have the financial flexibility to compete with some others teams in warmer, more financially-friendly (Florida and Texas tax exemptions, for example) markets.
Boston can’t compete with the weather or tax breaks, but they do have money to spend – lots of it actually.
And throw in the late-run they went on to get to the playoffs coupled with Stevens’ ever-growing popularity around the league, this summer might be the best shot they have had to land a major free agent who has yet to play for them.
“We have to be a place where guys around the league will look at and say, ‘hey it can work to play in Boston, to play for Brad Stevens, play with those guys and play in front of those fans,’” Celtics co-owner and Managing Partner Wyc Grousbeck, told CSNNE.com. “I think people are starting to take notice.”
The salary cap for the 2015-2016 season is expected to be $67.1 million which is $4 million more than this past season. Boston will be among the teams with the greatest amount of flexibility this summer with only about $42 million in guaranteed contracts for next season. And that total could drop by $10.1 million if Boston can find a taker for Gerald Wallace’s contract which expires after this upcoming season.
This summer features a number of impact free agents such as Marc Gasol of Memphis, Jimmy Butler of Chicago and Kawhi Leonard of San Antonio.
But all indications are those players will re-sign with their respective clubs.
The big-name free agent that might be in the market for a new address is Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge. The Celtics are expected to be among the teams to pursue the 6-foot-10 forward. Aldridge may be inclined to come East where he would have a better shot at making a deep playoff run.
Other free agents Boston is expected to make a run at include Detroit’s Greg Monroe; Atlanta’s Paul Millsap and New Orleans’ Omer Asik.
When it comes to building on the fly in Boston, trades usually become the path of choice. If you look at the key additions Boston made this past season to finish with a better-than-expected 40-42 record, most came via trade.
Tyler Zeller, arguably the most pleasant surprise on the team, came via a three-team trade that involved Boston using its trade exception from the Garnett/Pierce/Terry trade with Brooklyn.
Isaiah Thomas, whose play was instrumental in Boston getting to the playoffs, was acquired at the Feb. 19 trade deadline from Phoenix.
Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko, both free agents that the Celtics want to re-sign, were also acquired in two separate trades from Dallas and Detroit, respectively.
And with the improvement that Boston made throughout the course of this season, just about every player on the Celtics’ roster has increased their value in the eyes of the Celtics as well as other front offices across the NBA.
Multiple league sources contacted by CSNNE.com on Tuesday expect Boston’s Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger to be players that will garner trade interest this summer.
Olynyk because he’s a 7-footer with good ball skills but doesn’t always play with a high level of aggression (although Kevin Love might have a different take on that).
And while Sullinger has battled weight issues in Boston, he is a talented scorer around the basket and has shown signs of being someone who can also score effectively facing the basket as far out as the 3-point line.
No players are untradeable, but the two most likely Celtics to avoid being traded this summer are Marcus Smart and Zeller, sources said.
Smart is the Celtics’ first-round pick from a year ago. He certainly had his ups and downs as a rookie, but for the most part he showed progress as the season went on.
As for Zeller, he was productive most of the season and with a salary of $2.6 million, he is seen by many as a bargain for what he provides in limited minutes.
Whether it’s the draft, free agency or trades, the Boston Celtics have every reason to feel optimistic about their future.
By no means is their rise to upper echelon status a sure thing.
But to their credit, they’ve played the game as best you can which has meant … covering all the bases.