Celtics

The case for the Celtics NOT making a bold trade at the deadline

Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) and teammates enjoyed the view from the bench with a win assured during the fourth quarter. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

COMMENTARY

The NBA’s February 23 trade deadline is fast approaching. With the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round draft picks for 2017 and 2018 sitting in his back pocket, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has the assets necessary to bring a big name to Boston. One key piece of the puzzle might be all that’s needed to put the Celtics over the top and capture banner No. 18.

But what if it’s not?

Would acquiring Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins, Blake Griffin or Paul George be enough to get this Celtics squad past LeBron James and the Cavaliers (with a healthy Kevin Love, who should be back by April) in the Eastern Conference Finals? The answer is a definitive “maybe.” And how about Golden State in the title round? Keep in mind, the Warriors added Kevin Durant to a team that set the all-time record for wins in the regular season.

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When asked last week if there was a potential trade available that could make Boston champions this year, Ainge said “I believe in miracles.”

Dealing for a player like Butler, Cousins, Griffin or George might elevate the C’s to the ranks of the league’s elite for the next few seasons. However, the price to make it happen is likely one or both of the Brooklyn picks, as well as some combination of Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown.

If a mega-trade did go down, the Celtics’ title window would be propped open by a trio featuring the new star, 30-year-old Al Horford and 2018 free agent Isaiah Thomas. Betting on that core to supplant the Cavs and Warriors at some point in the near future is far from a sure thing.

On the other hand, what is Boston’s outlook if Ainge decides to lay low at the deadline and keep both Nets picks?

The 2013-14 Celtics were 25-57 in the first year of the Brad Stevens era. In 2014-15, they made the playoffs. A season ago Boston went 48-34, and this year’s club is on pace to finish 54-28.

It’s hard to argue with the success of the rebuild to this point.

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Ainge was able to pilfer a superstar point guard (yes, Thomas, the league’s second-highest scorer, is a superstar) from the Suns for Marcus Thornton and the Cavs’ 2016 first-round draft choice. Last summer Ainge signed Horford, the biggest free agent in franchise history. The two best players on the Celtics’ roster came to town with virtually nothing lost in return.

Who’s to say Danny can’t lure another top free agent this offseason? Durant, Griffin, Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Gordon Hayward and Paul Millsap may all be available, along with many others.

But even putting that thought aside, it’s worth taking into account exactly how good Boston is right now. At 36-19, the Celtics are second in the East, just 2.5 games behind the Cavs. Since December 15, the Warriors are the only team in the league with a better record than Boston’s 23-7 mark. The way things currently stand, the Celtics are on track for an ECF matchup with Cleveland. However, there’s a good chance the final outcome of that series remains the same regardless of whether or not Ainge makes a major trade. At the moment, Boston is teetering on the brink of title contention. Rather than push to make the leap right now, why not try to keep the window open for as long as possible?

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When the C’s took Brown at No. 3 last spring, they became just the third team in lottery history to win 48 or more games and follow it up with a top-three selection in the draft. The first to do so was the 1986 Celtics, who chose Len Bias with the No. 2 pick — no need to rehash what might’ve been there. The second was the 2003 Pistons, who drafted Darko Milicic second overall. Detroit won a championship and made back-to-back Finals appearances with Milicic as a non-factor. But, imagine how long the Pistons’ run could’ve lasted had they taken Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh or Dywane Wade (picks three, four and five) instead?

It’s only happened twice in the previous 31 seasons (the draft lottery began in 1985), but thanks to former Nets GM Billy King, there’s a good chance Boston will have at least a 48-win team and a top-three pick in the draft three years in a row. And with Brooklyn firmly entrenched at the bottom of the standings, the 2016-17 Celtics could well be the first club ever to win the lottery following a season with 50 victories.

Boston has a quality roster already in place and is establishing itself as an attractive destination for premier free agents. Ainge has a unique opportunity to play the long game and use the Nets’ picks to build from a position of strength unlike any franchise ever has before. Why not continue inching towards the top of the standings while also laying the groundwork to stay there for many years to come?

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Going all in for a shot at a title in June might just mean passing up the chance at a dynasty down the road.