Brad Stevens got his guy. Stevens and former Utah Jazz small forward and Ryan Gosling lookalike Gordon Hayward have unfinished business from their days together at Butler University, and they intend to finish that business in Boston. The Boston Celtics, in spite of their storied success, have not been a free agent destination for maximum players in their prime at any point in their history, but between acquiring Al Horford last summer and acquiring Hayward this summer, that knock on them no longer exists. It’s also worth noting that white small forwards from Indiana have historically done quite well in Boston, so the future looks bright for the Celtics.
That said, I cannot help but think what it would be like if they had been able to land Kevin Durant along with Horford last year. They went to The Hamptons, they got Tom Brady to sit in on the pitch meeting, but they could not offer what the Golden State Warriors could on the basketball side of things. The guys on the Warriors made financial sacrifices to Steph Curry could get his well deserved payday this summer, and they all wanted to stay in Golden State because they know nothing in their basketball careers will ever be better than what they have right now. The Celtics could not offer that. Durant joined the Warriors when the salary cap spiked, and now the rest of the NBA is paying the price.
In order to sign Hayward, the Celtics had to rescind their offer on Kelly Olynyk, who signed with the Miami Heat, and trade Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris. Both Olynyk and Bradley were guys the Celtics drafted and developed. Bradley was the last remaining Celtic to be teammates with Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce, and Olynyk went in four years from being the guy that traded up to get in the 2013 NBA Draft when they could have stood pat and taken Giannis Antetokounmpo with their original pick (though to be fair, half the NBA passed on Giannis, and no one knew he would be this good) to a guy who won a Game 7 against the Washington Wizards with the home crowd chanting his name. I understand the business of the NBA, and I realize teams have to make sacrifices to get big name players, but these guys will be missed.
I was a big fan of Bradley’s defense. He arrived in Boston the same summer Tony Allen left for Memphis, and while Allen was one of the NBA’s best defenders during his years with the Grizz, Bradley soon became a player of that caliber. Also, Bradley wore #0, which has been a number associated with fan favorites like Walter McCarty and Leon Powe as long as I’ve been following the Celtics, so he had that going for him.
I was personally hoping Bradley would be on the team when the Celtics make it back to the Finals, as he was drafted days after their last trip to the Finals in 2010, and because there are usually holdovers between great Celtics eras. John Havlicek and Don Nelson won titles with both Bill Russell and Dave Cowens, and Cowens was still on the team when Larry Bird arrived. There was supposed to be a youth movement to revitalize the Celtics as Bird, McHale, and Parish got older led by Len Bias and Reggie Lewis, and that tragically never happened. In theory, Bias and Lewis could have still been on the team when Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce arrived.
When the Celtics traded Rajon Rondo in 2014, Bradley became the longest tenured Celtic, and that was super weird to me because he’s six months younger than I am, and he was still in high school when the Celtics won the title in 2008. With Bradley gone, the longest tenured Celtic is Marcus Smart, who was drafted by the Celtics a solid year after I started this blog. Time is a cruel thing.
I didn’t get into writing about basketball to get headaches trying to make sense of the NBA salary cap, but that is where we are now. The trend had been that the salary cap usually goes up from one year to the next, but with new media deals kicking in, it went way up last year. It was expected to go up slightly or remain stagnant, but the Warriors carved through the West and the Cleveland Cavaliers carved through the East so efficiently, that there were much fewer playoff games, much fewer revenue opportunities this spring, than expected, and the cap actually went down. The Warriors and Cavs were so dominant that their dominance made it tangibly more difficult for the rest of the NBA to catch up to them.
The Bradley trade was a financial move more than a basketball move. To make room to sign Hayward, the Celtics were going to have to move Bradley, or Jae Crowder, or Marcus Smart. While Bradley, when healthy, is the most consistent player of the three, he is also has the most NBA service time of the three, has one year left on his deal, and he is going to get a lot of money if Detroit lets him get to free agency next summer. I thought Crowder was the odd man out, as he plays the same position as Hayward, and was clearly upset when Celtics fans were cheering Hayward when the Jazz came to Boston last season.
Of course, the Celtics are in a much better position to deal with the reality of the salary cap than a lot of teams. They don’t have to worry about their best player leaving town because he (justifiably) hates the owner like the Cavaliers. They are not located in the loaded Western Conference, where nearly every other high-profile free agent signed, and where Jimmy Butler and Paul George landed in trades. They did not spend years building methodically through the draft only to make the playoffs one time, get swept by the Warriors, and lose their best player to free agency like the Jazz. As happy as I am that the Celtics landed Hayward, I cannot help but feel for Jazz fans in all this. I would have been okay with Hayward staying in Utah. I was really just hoping he wouldn’t end up in Miami like LeBron James and Chris Bosh did in 2010.
The Celtics can compete now with Hayward, Horford, and Isaiah Thomas, but the key to advancing beyond the Eastern Conference Finals in the future was not going to be Avery Bradley or Kelly Olynyk or Jae Crowder. 2016 #3 overall pick Jaylen Brown and 2017 #3 overall pick Jayson Tatum are the future, and if Tatum’s Summer League performance so far is any indication, the future is bright.
Since the Boston Celtics won the NBA Draft Lottery a few weeks ago, I had been watching a lot of Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz highlights on YouTube. When Ball refused to work out for the Celtics–and when his father insisted the UCLA point guard would play for the Los Angeles Lakers–I focused much more heavily on Fultz, who had far less video available because he played for a bad Washington team that did not make the NCAA Tournament. What I did see of Fultz, however, was exciting. The kid is a great athlete with a pretty-looking shot and the wingspan of a seven-footer.
With the news that the Celtics have traded the #1 overall pick to the division rival Philadelphia 76ers, my pre-draft video attention will be shifted to Josh Jackson of Kansas, Jayson Tatum of Duke, and De’Aaron Fox of Kentucky. In exchange for the top pick, the Celtics get this year’s #3 pick from the Sixers and either the Lakers’ 2018 pick (if it falls between #2 and #5) or the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 pick (unprotected). While it is underwhelming right now to go from having the top pick, and dreaming of a guy who has been described as a “right handed James Harden,” a “taller, more defensively stout Damian Lillard,” and a “6’4″ Tracy McGrady” as the next great Celtic, it keeps Boston’s options open for years to come, rolling over the window to built through the draft. And again, Danny Ainge is operating from a point of power, and channeling his inner Bill Belichick.
By trading down and allowing the Sixers to draft Fultz, Philadelphia has a Baby Big Three in Fultz, 2016 #1 overall pick Ben Simmons, and 2014 #3 pick (who was the consensus top prospect but fell when he broke his leg days before the draft), and after years of tanking finally appear to be building a team, something Philly fans and NBA fans as a whole have waited far too long to see.
The Sixers were tanking way back when the Celtics were still tanking in 2014. The second round playoff between the Sixers and Celtics, featuring Doug Collins, Jrue Holiday, Andre Igoudala, Elton Brand, Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo may have been in 2012, but it feels like a million years ago, considering how different the two teams have become. After the Sixers traded Igoudala to the Denver Nuggets and acquired Andrew Bynum in the disastrous Dwight Howard Trade, and after Ray Allen signed with the Miami Heat and the Celtics were eliminated in the first round by the only good New York Knicks team of the last 15 years, both teams were headed for a rebuild in the summer of 2013. Collins retired and Holiday was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans, while the Celtics traded Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers, and traded KG and Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets.
Both teams took the long view in hiring their next coach, with the Sixers hiring longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant Brett Brown, and the Celtics hiring Butler University coaching wunderkind Brad Stevens. Both teams spent the 2013-14 season vying for top position in the Draft Lottery, only for the Cleveland Cavaliers to land the #1 pick as well as the ultimate lottery by convincing LeBron James to come home. This is where the similarities between the Sixers’ rebuild and the Celtics’ rebuild end.
Philadelphia drafted Joel Embiid and Dario Saric in the 1st round of the 2014 Draft, but neither played in an NBA game until 2016. Former 76ers GM Sam Hinkie called it “The Process:” the method of drafting high-upside prospects, even if they will miss years due to injury or due to playing in Europe, and keeping the present-day 76ers team as bad as possible, staying in the lottery and increasing the chance of landing a franchise-changing superstar.
The Celtics, meanwhile, drafted Marcus Smart with the #6 pick in 2014, and continued to incrementally build their team. In 2015 and 2016, they made the playoffs, and in 2017, made the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics had their own version of The Process, but it was built on Brooklyn tanking for them, free to compete within the conference at the same time.
While it makes me nervous, on one hand, to trade the top pick and a potential superstar to a team in the division, I’m not about to doubt Danny Ainge. He did, after all, trade my two favorite Celtics of all time to division rival Brooklyn, and that turned out pretty well. While Embiid, Simmons, and Fultz are loaded with tantalizing potential, they also haven’t done anything yet. Philly’s Baby Big Three have played a combined 31 NBA games, with Simmons (another #1 overall pick whose college team missed the tournament) missing the entire 2016-17 season with an injury. As a fan of the NBA, I want there to be more good teams and more great players, and I want the Sixers’ young core to compete, but at some point they have to play. Embiid and Simmons have been highly anticipated, but the Celtics are giving their young players valuable experience. Ben Simmons hasn’t played a game yet, and Embiid has 31 games played in the three seasons since getting drafted, but Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown have won playoff rounds.
Going forward, the Celtics still have one more Brooklyn pick, and have the ability to tank vicariously through the Lakers, Kings, Clippers, and Memphis Grizzlies. Danny Ainge was willing to gamble and pass on Fultz, even if it means being mocked in the short-term. This is guy who pulled the trades for Allen and Garnett, sold off Pierce, Garnett, and Rivers when their values were still quite high, and turned the Boston into a franchise that is in as good position as anyone in the East to wait out LeBron’s prime. He didn’t turn stupid overnight. As much fun as rooting for Markelle Fultz might have been, I have trouble doubting Ainge’s plan right now.
After nearly a year of speculation, the Boston Celtics held onto their picks at #6 and #17 and drafted two adjectives: Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State University and James Young of the University of Kentucky. The Celtics do not have a championship roster yet, but they have more talent than they did last week, and it’s a step in the right direction.
Marcus Smart is a sophomore point guard who could have been the #1 pick in last year’s Draft (though probably not because the Cleveland Cavaliers had the top pick, already had a #1 pick point guard in Kyrie Irving, and botched the pick with Anthony Bennett), but decided to go back to school for another year. The 2014 NBA Draft was much deeper than 2013 was, and Smart was overshadowed by talented freshman prospects like Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins (picked #1 by Cleveland) and Joel Embiid (picked #3 by the Philadelphia 76ers), Duke’s Jabari Parker (picked #2 by the Milwaukee Bucks) Arizona’s Aaron Gordon (picked #4 by the Orlando Magic) and Kentucky’s Julius Randle (picked #7 by the Los Angeles Lakers), but the Celtics did not see a second year of college basketball as a red flag the way other teams do. Nate Silver had an interesting article about drafting sophomores and how the Celtics are smart to do so. Just two years ago, the Celtics drafted a sophomore power forward from Ohio State with injury concerns named Jared Sullinger, and now he’s one of their better players.
Smart makes the questions about Rajon Rondo’s future in Boston all the more glaring. The team is saying they could play together, but I think at some point they’ll have to make a decision one way or the other. The Celtics could do some interesting things with their collection of quick, athletic guards they now have which could create some interesting mismatches with bigger slower teams. I don’t know if we’ll ever see Smart, Young, Rondo, Avery Bradley, and Phil Pressey all out on the floor at the same time, but it would be really entertaining for a few minutes here and there.
In James Young, the Celtics drafted a young player with plenty of upside. He will not turn 19 until August, but he turned a lot of heads in his one season of college basketball, where he helped the Kentucky Wildcats reach the NCAA Championship Game. He’s athletic, a good shooter, and he’s still growing into his body. The Celtics had him ranked as the 11th best player in the Draft, but he was still on the board at #17, so they think it was a steal. The other interesting thing about James Young is that his star teammate Julius Randle was picked by the Lakers at #7. If the Celtics and Lakers ever meet in the Finals again with Young and Randle, that will certainly be an angle that ESPN will talk about until we’re all sick of it. I don’t think we’re all that far off from the next exciting chapter in the Celtics vs. Lakers rivalry being written, and Smart and Young could play a big part in it.
The team is young and getting younger. This is why the Celtics hired Brad Stevens. Drafting college players and trying to determine how good they will be in the NBA is random and nearly impossible to predict unless it’s LeBron, Shaq, or Tim Duncan, but with a former college coach in Stevens, guys like Smart, Young, Phil Pressey, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk have a better chance of being better players in the NBA. When Stevens was the head coach at Butler University, he was the master of getting the most out of his roster, and made it to two NCAA championship games with inferior recruits than the teams that ultimately won. Smart and Young are better than any of the players Stevens coached at Butler, and I would not be surprised if the C’s make a run at the playoffs with the roster as it’s currently constituted. The Eastern Conference is flat enough that anything is possible… especially if LeBron lands in the West.
While I was listening to the NBA Draft and analysis of the Celtics’ picks on 98.5 The Sports Hub at work the other night, Celtics play-by-play announcer Sean Grande brought up some interesting points. The anticipation among Celtics fans was that this rebuild would be quick. Danny Ainge was able to turn the fortunes of the organization overnight in 2007 when he pulled off the trades for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. With rumors trending all over the Internet about Kevin Love getting dealt to Boston, we as fans thought that the summer of 2014 would be more like the summer of 2007, when it’s really more like 2005 or 2006. They’re heading in the right direction, but their assets are not stockpiled quite high enough to light those kinds of fireworks…at least not on Draft Night like the Ray Allen Trade was. Al Jefferson had twice as much NBA experience under his belt as Jared Sullinger when he was the cornerstone of the Kevin Garnett Trade. They not only collected assets, but they took time to develop them before flipping them to form the New Big Three. The Celtics have not created a championship team, but they’ve increased their options.
The picture is slightly more clear than it was before the Draft, but there are still many, many directions this could go. For all I know, the Celtics could pull off a blockbuster trade tomorrow and the team will look completely different, but one thing is for sure about the 2014-15 Celtics season: there will be more to talk about than tanking the season for next year’s equivalent of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Joel Embiid.
Yesterday, the Boston Celtics traded guards Jordan Crawford and Marshon Brooks to the Golden State Warriors. Last week they traded Courtney Lee to the Memphis Grizzlies. For Celtics fans, this is probably not the best time to get too attached to players on the team because they could be gone next week. There have been rumors surrounding Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, and Rajon Rondo all season, as well. That’s what you have to do to rebuild in today’s NBA, and there are few who are better at it than Danny Ainge.
In the early part of the season, Jordan Crawford looked like a legit NBA point guard. After he arrived in Boston when the C’s traded away Jason Collins, I never thought I would use the phrase “legit NBA point guard” to describe Jordan Crawford. He’s undisciplined, he is too much of an impulsive player, and just plays a stupid brand of basketball in general. This, season he seemed like a completely different player. I have to give Brad Stevens a lot of credit on that one. Coach Stevens has gotten as much as he possibly can out of the roster he was given. That’s what Brad Stevens does. He never had a particularly loaded roster at Butler, but he took that program to the NCAA National Championship Game twice. He ultimately fell to the much more talented Duke and UConn teams, but it’s hard to say Stevens was outcoached by the Hall of Famer coaches he faced in those games. He made Crawford look pretty good, but he fell back to earth in December. With Rajon Rondo coming back this week, the Celts don’t need Crawford anymore. I would have been happy if the Celtics cut Crawford over the summer, but Stevens transformed him into an asset that they could get things in return for. They know what he is, and they don’t see him as part of the core of the next great Celtics team, so Danny Ainge pulled the trigger on a deal while his value was at an all time high.
In a rebuilding season, nobody on the Celtics roster should be safe. Rondo is the team’s best player and one of the elite point guards in the game, but he’s also due to hit free agency next year, can’t hit a jump shot, and hasn’t played in a year. The last time Rondo was healthy, the Celtics had a losing record and were out of the playoff picture while Rondo had two future Hall of Famers to dish the ball to in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. For the right return, I would not be shocked to see Ainge deal Rondo away, either.
I would trade Jeff Green in a second. I hated the trade as soon as it happened when Ainge sent Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson to Oklahoma City for Green and Nenad Krstic. Perk was a huge part of the Celtics teams that reached the Finals in 2008 and 2010, and Robinson has proven to be a pretty good little player since then. Krstic is currently playing professional basketball in Russia because he couldn’t hack it in the NBA. Because of what they gave up, Jeff Green had to really blow people’s doors off to keep fans satisfied, and he’s never quite gotten there. He shows flashes of brilliance, but he’s not the guy to carry the team on his shoulders that they thought he could be. He’s not on the same level as his former OKC teammates Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. I would not be heartbroken if he got traded.
Besides Rondo, the players I would be most careful about trading are Jared Sullinger, Avery Bradley, and Kelly Olynyk. These three guys are the young talent to build around, but none are necessarily the next Larry Bird or Paul Pierce, either. Sullinger is emerging in his second NBA season as the best player on the team game in and game out. He can score. He can rebound. He gets in foul trouble, but that’s because he’s been playing motivated, aggressive defense. Sully has been the brightest spot for the Celtics rebuild thus far. Avery Bradley is now the second longest tenured Celtic after Rondo, despite being drafted after the C’s 2010 Finals appearance against the Lakers. He’s a good defensive guard who can occasionally turn great defense into great offense and he’ll be looking for a new contract this offseason. Olynyk is the most intriguing player on the Celtics right now. The 22 year old Canadian seven footer out of Gonzaga has a lot of skill and basketball intelligence, but there are still a lot of growing pains for him as he adjusts to the grind of playing in the NBA. He’s considered by some to be Gonzaga’s best NBA prospect since John Stockton, and the very optimistic think he can become the next Dirk Nowitzki or Larry Bird. Danny Ainge used his only 1st round pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, so it’s not likely that he’ll give up on him this early. Rick Pitino traded away Chauncey Billups midway through the first season of his Hall of Fame career, and that’s a big part of why Pitino’s phone calls in Boston end like this these days.
Another guy who intrigues me, but is not quite as safe since the Celtics did not invest as much in him as they did Sully, Bradley, and Olynyk is undrafted rookie point guard Phil Pressey. I have a soft spot for undrafted players in general. I get excited when guys like Wes Welker , LeGarrette Blount, Torey Krug and Brian Rafalski become stars in football and hockey, and this kind of thing doesn’t happen enough in basketball. At 5’11”, Pressey is a smaller than average point guard, but he impressed them in the Orlando Summer League and has made progress learning from Brad Stevens and Rajon Rondo this season. He showed off some of his moves with this behind-the-back pass to Avery Bradley after he got the start in Toronto last night.
What the Celtics have to do right now is acquire assets and create options for themselves. They are much better off now than they were when Danny Ainge took over the Celtics’ basketball operations department in 2003, and hopefully they’ll be a contender sooner than 2017-18 at this rate. Building an NBA roster is as confusing as it is fascinating, and in a lot of ways is more interesting than NBA games themselves. It’s okay to like these Celtics and still root for them to get in better draft position. It’s okay to root for the players on the team, but you shouldn’t lose to much sleep over the players that get traded. It will get better. It’s not clear when. It’s not clear how, but Danny Ainge will make the C’s a winner again.