Brad Stevens made an interesting comment this week about the trend of resting NBA players:
There are two takeaways from that statement. The first is that the Celtics, as an organization, won’t be resting healthy players for the time being. They value every game on their schedule enough to not consider resting their players. I wouldn’t accuse the Spurs or Cavs of not valuing wins, but they clearly have prioritized wins in May and June over wins now.
That’s where Stevens’ comment starts to shed some light on the past few seasons for the Celtics. They’ve made the playoffs each of the last two seasons, without winning a playoff series in either season. On paper, those Celtics teams were not ready to win in the playoffs. Boston had a collection of young players and semi-stars, the likes of which don’t survive long in the postseason. They were able to reach the playoffs, including a 48 win season last year, thanks to Stevens. He is not only a very good coach, capable of getting the most out of his players, but also evidently placed value in regular season wins.
The Celtics have gained a reputation as an intriguing young team, with a stockpile of assets thanks to trade that ended the Doc Rivers era and sent the Celtics aging stars to Brooklyn. When compared to other teams with young players or draft picks hoarded, the Celtics were perceived to be a step ahead. Conventional wisdom saw the Sixers with tons of draft value, but nothing in the cupboard. Meanwhile the Celtics had similar, if not more, draft value in their pockets and a team capable of winning 48 games.
In today’s NBA though, how much value can you really place on that team? With a good coach, some flawed pieces, and their best effort 82 nights a year, the Celtics could top .500 but not escape the first round. Fans of other teams who have spent time in the purgatory that is the middle of the road in the NBA would hastily advise against doing so. The Celtics always seemed to have the trump card: those tasty Brooklyn Nets’ draft picks. They could strive to win 45+ games, while still have tons of lottery balls. Yet regardless of where the picks came from, the Celtics’ draft history in recent years has been questionable at best.
So now the team stands at a crossroads.
Isaiah Thomas is 7th in the league in scoring, adding more than six assists per game to his ability to fill it up. He can’t defend much, which is why the team needs Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart to do everything on that end of the floor. Al Horford is new in town, but on the wrong side of 30. Jae Crowder is a fun, versatile player in the right situation. Jaylen Brown was a head-scratching pick in June’s draft and is joined by a host of other recent Celtics draft picks who have yet to shed the “head-scratching” label (Terry Rozier, James Young, Kelly Olynyk).
Brooklyn is one of the five worst teams in the NBA and owes their pick to Boston without any protection. The Celtics could add a top five pick in a loaded draft to the team they’ve built. Yet as we mentioned, GM Danny Ainge brought Horford to town this past offseason to win now. Horford doesn’t have the time to wait for a teenage star to develop alongside him. The opportunity for patience is essentially gone. For fans who have experienced so much victory from their Celtics, and the rest of their sports teams, a waiting game likely wasn’t in the cards anyway.
Unfortunately, the alternative to the patient route is making a big move. In the NBA, that is far easier said than done. Even with the warchest of trade pieces Boston controls, big trades don’t just appear from nowhere. For a star to move, he needs to be disgruntled, mismanaged, or a poor fit in his current situation. Right now, no player truly fits that bill.
Paul George isn’t going anywhere. Neither are Jimmy Butler, Gordon Hayward, or Blake Griffin. DeMarcus Cousins fits the bill, but the ventriloquist act that is Kings GM Vlade Divac and owner Vivek Ranadive have their sights setting on making a playoff push in their new arena, not jumping into the tank. The John Wall-Bradley Beal pairing is messy. Though even if Wall could be had, I’m not sure a core of Horford and Wall gets you any better than third or fourth best in East. CJ McCollum could be on the move, with hopes he blooms into a star ala James Harden. Not exactly a risk worth taking when you’re talking about trading a top five pick.
The Celtics choices at the crossroads are not a patient rebuild or a move to win now. The atmosphere of the league, and the choices they’ve made, have instead made their two paths a panic trade or unplanned patience, which is more akin to sitting on your hands until you have a roster of mismatched pieces. Danny Ainge has a better chance to make a big move than anyone, but if he makes the wrong move, the Celtics could be trapped in mediocrity for a few more years.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to SALTMoney.org, Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to email@example.com.
Header image via Jessica Hill/AP