It’s been 18 days since the Celtics selected Marcus Smart and James Young with the Nos. 6 and 17 picks in the NBA Draft. One year and 10 days ago, Brad Stevens signed a six-year contract as Boston’s head coach. On draft night last year, the Celtics sent Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets for first-round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018. They swapped Doc Rivers for a first-rounder in 2015.
The pattern here, of course, is that outside of that 2014 pick, which the C’s used to select Young, the biggest steps for the rebuilding Celtics have yet to be taken. Stevens is here for the long haul, and we’ve known since last year at this time that Pierce and Garnett brought back future dividends, not immediate ones. So why, so soon after the draft, are we getting antsy about Boston’s lack of activity?
It starts with what happened four days ago, when free agent LeBron James declared his intentions to return to Cleveland. The move set off a chain reaction of events pretty much everywhere but Boston, events that led to us knowing the fates of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Chandler Parsons, Luol Deng, and others. Other teams are having all the fun, and it’s hard being on the outside of the party looking in.
The truth is, the Celtics were never (and might never) build a team primarily through free agency. That leaves Danny Ainge and company with two outlets — trading and the draft — to build the team. That first path is a fickle, all-or-nothing mistress. Trades either present themselves or they don’t. A lot has to line up for a trade to work, and a blockbuster in the mold of the deal that brought Garnett here from Minnesota in 2007 rarely comes together. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a major deal — especially one for a player the caliber of Kevin Love — has yet to transpire.
The Celtics have made one trade this offseason, acquiring center Tyler Zeller, Marcus Thornton, and his expiring contract, and a first-round pick from the Cleveland Cavaliers and Brooklyn Nets. It’s the kind of deal that won’t move the needle but is important nonetheless. Zeller immediately becomes the best center on the Celtics roster. Thornton sets them up well for next year, another contract off the books. As things stand now, the Celtics will have $29.2 million committed to six players next season — Gerald Wallace, Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, Marcus Smart, Zeller, and James Young — before factoring in Avery Bradley’s impending deal, draft picks, and the players the team signs before next season. That’s a nice group of players, and outside of Wallace’s $10 million, there’s no one on the books who isn’t part of your future core. Ainge hasn’t made any earth-shattering moves this offseason, but he hasn’t taken on any junk, either.
The real crux of a good rebuild comes through the draft, where the Celtics have nine first-round picks over the next four drafts. To put it another way, the bulk of the Celtics’ franchise value from a player perspective rests in guys who aren’t on the team yet. The strategy relies on the theory that the more cracks you have at elite talent, the more likely you are to get it right. It is as imperfect as it is time-consuming. Ainge seems content to sit on his picks until the right deal comes along, knowing that players like Sullinger and Smart are integral to a successful team, even if they don’t become stars themselves.
He also seems content to hold onto his best player, Rajon Rondo, until the right deal comes along, and to keep him if it doesn’t. It’s hard to imagine the Houston Rockets coming up with the right deal for Rondo, and until a better suitor comes along, Rondo isn’t likely to go anywhere.
So what’s next? And how do we evaluate a process that takes years rather than weeks or days? It would be foolish to call this offseason a failure if Love doesn’t end up in Boston, but what grade do we give it? How do we evaluate a process that’s maybe 10 percent complete?
Sports fans aren’t built for this kind of thing, especially in this era of hot TV/radio/internet takes. But I’m going to resist giving Ainge a letter grade or even a thumbs up or down until we see more. Let’s see how the roster looks come training camp. Let’s see how Marcus Smart and James Young look after 40 or so NBA games. Let’s see how the Eastern Conference looks — how our friends in Brooklyn and New York and Cleveland and Miami are doing come January and February. Let’s see how Rondo looks to teams competing for a title at next year’s trade deadline. Most importantly, let’s not panic because 18 days went by without the Celtics turning themselves into instant contenders.