SALT LAKE CITY -- NBA players are often viewed in the same light as straight-off-the-assembly line vehicles. The newer the better, right?
But when it comes to winning in the NBA, that is so far from the truth.
That’s why this upcoming season is absolutely pivotal in the Celtics’ quest to fast track their way back to being an elite team in the Eastern Conference.
Boston potentially will have upwards of $40-plus million to spend on free agents next offseason, due to likely transactions and the league’s new TV deal, which is set to kick in the summer of 2016 and is projected to generate an $89 million salary cap.
However, as the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks proved this offseason, cap space alone won’t get you the top free agents.
Players want to still get paid, yes. But they're also are giving a lot more thought to finding winning situations.
That’s how the Milwaukee Bucks were able to convince Greg Monroe, one of the more coveted big men on the free-agent market this summer, to sign with them despite his being wooed by the Knicks and Lakers -- two of the league’s most storied franchises, but also two of its present-day bottom feeders.
David West opted out of the final year of his contract with the Indiana Pacers, which would have paid him $12.6 million, to sign a one-year, $1.5 million veteran’s minimum deal with the San Antonio Spurs.
The Celtics are hoping that by developing a solid young core that also includes a few talented veterans, it will be enough to convince at least one of the gems in the 2016 free agent class -- Kevin Durant, for example -- to sign with Boston.
Simply put, the Celtics have to win games in 2015-16 -- certainly more than they did in 2014-15 -- if they're going to have a shot at using all of that increased salary cap cheddar on high-impact, difference-makers next summer in a free-agent class that includes Atlanta’s Al Horford, Chicago’s Joakim Noah, Memphis’ Mike Conley and Milwaukee’s O.J. Mayo, who is a player Danny Ainge and the Celtics have come close to trading for in the past.
And while the increased salary cap next summer will create increased competition, this summer has proven to us all that players aren’t nearly as locked into where they play as they are who they are playing with.
That’s why the two biggest additions Boston made this summer, Amir Johnson and David Lee, benefit Boston on several fronts.
Their presence alone makes the Celtics a better, deeper team. Johnson is a solid man-to-man defender who can also switch out on pick-and-rolls and switch on smaller players and still be relatively effective. Lee’s defense isn’t great, but he's an excellent pick-and-roll finisher and pick-and-pop shooter, who has also been a strong rebounder as evident by his 9.5 rebounds-per-game career average.
Their play around the basket and in the paint should create better looks offensively for Boston’s perimeter players, who struggled mightily last season when it came to making shots. Combine that with what should be one of the league’s best perimeter defensive units (Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and Terry Rozier) and the Celtics have the makings of a team that could play its way into the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference.
The Celtics aren’t fooling themselves -- or anyone else -- in thinking they're title contenders. But a more successful season will show potential free agents the franchise’s tangible growth, and could position Boston as a place with on-the-rise status.
We saw what that did for Milwaukee, which surprised many in finishing with the sixth-best record last season despite playing most of the season without its prized rookie, Jabari Parker.
And we’ve seen what the alternative has done for New York and the Lakers.
Boston made up its mind last season to not go into tankapalooza mode, and there’s no turning back now. The Celtics have to continue to build off the success of last season, and they're gradually putting a roster together to do just that.
Yes, the C's failed this offseason to land a superstar who could have made them an instant contender. But with more wins, a huge amount of salary cap space next summer -- and did we mention more wins? -- Boston’s goal of fast-tracking its way back to being an elite team in the NBA by landing one or two maximum salary-esque players becomes a much more realistic possibility.
And that will trump any straight-off-the-assembly line rookie addition.