By Kurtis Kendall
The Boston Celtics find themselves in a very positive situation for their future. This season will largely be determined by what Boston does in the playoffs, with their early season struggles and team drama getting pushed to the side. Once the seven-game series’ start, those are the only results that will really matter for this team.
While their record and seed will determine both their path of opponents and their home court scenarios, the bigger picture is simply will the Celtics return to the Eastern Conference Finals for a third year in a row, and will they be able to book their ticket to the Finals for the first time since 2010?
The other top tier teams the Celtics have in front of them, the 76ers, Pacers, Raptors, Bucks are all unproven in the playoffs, (putting Kawhi Leonard aside, but not the rest of Toronto). In the meantime, the Celtics have been a series away from the Finals in back to back years, including only a game away last season that saw them dispatch both the Bucks and 76ers along the way.
This season, the Celtics are 7-6 against these teams: 1-2 vs. the Bucks including a 98-97 loss at Milwaukee), 3-1 vs the 76ers, 2-2 against the Raptors and 1-1 vs Pacers (which includes a one-point loss in November and blowout win more recently in January).
These other squads may have garnered more victories over the regular season, but in a seven-game series, I’d find it hard for any East team to beat a team led by Irving, Tatum, Horford, Brown, Smart, Hayward, Rozier, Morris, and Baynes four times, especially with Brad Stevens at the helm of it all.
Currently, Boston has a defense rating of 106.6, good for fifth in the NBA. They also sport a net rating of 4.8, which puts them 5th in NBA behind only Milwaukee and Toronto in the East.
In a now LeBron-less Eastern conference, the Celtics are the only team with a proven pedigree to bet on this year, that is unless of course the Raptors, Bucks, 76ers or Pacers go and get there own come playoff time. That, of course, remains to be seen.
However it all plays out for this year’s squad, Danny Ainge is sitting on a treasure trove of options as to what shape next year’s squad will form into.
Kyrie Irving could stay or go, but I’d bet on him staying with a team of this caliber. Even if he leaves, Terry Rozier is a restricted free agent who can be retained, though he could be overpaid depending on his market. If both are lost, the Celtics still have Smart locked up as they search for another All-Star caliber player. Other than these two in free agency, the Celtics don’t have much else to worry about. Tatum, Brown, Hayward, and Horford are all under contract until at least 2020, with Brown and Tatum still on bargain deals that includes only becoming a restricted free agent once their deal is up.
Beyond players themselves, the Celtics have rights to the Kings first round draft pick or Philadelphia’s first-round pick, whichever one is better. Boston also has the Grizzlies first round pick (top 8 protected), the Clippers first round pick (top 14 protected), as well as their own first and second round picks this year.
On top of that, Boston has second-round picks from the Hawks, Heat, Cavaliers, and Kings in the 2020 draft. Though none of these picks are the No. 1 overall Boston had a couple of years back when they drafted Jayson Tatum, they offer more than enough resources along with players in any trade scenario.
Obviously, the Celtics are also largely involved in the trade market with these assets, namely with one Anthony Davis. Despite Davis’s back and forth statements about committing to Boston, pairing him with Irving alone will make for a menacing squad. The Celtics also have a chance to gain Davis without losing Tatum. Even excluding Tatum, I think Boston has the best offers on the table for the Pelicans. I’d personally like for Boston to keep both Tatum and Brown, but if Davis can be gained with a Brown, Hayward, some draft picks, and possibly Rozier or Semi Ojeleye trade package, Boston should take the deal.
Hayward’s market value as a trade asset comes down to these last few months of the NBA season. If the team next year looks like Irving, Tatum, Davis, Smart, Horford, and Baynes, so be it. Or if Boston looks like Rozier, Smart, Tatum, Brown, Horford, Hayward, they’ll be set as well. Even if both Tatum and Brown are lost in an Anthony Davis trade, Irving, Davis, Horford, Smart, and Hayward also look to be a solid squad.
That’s not even mentioning Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard who are free agents in the off-season. Though they both seem like long shot additions due to cap space problems, along with Boston seemingly not being their top choice, anything can happen in free agency. Boston is a free agent destination no matter who stays or leaves, with the team boasting either an All-Star point guard in Irving, young talent in Tatum and Brown, or a combination of the two.
And then even if free agency and trading does not go according to plan, the bevy of assets in draft picks for the Celtics leaves even more flexibility. Though Boston likely won’t get a magic ball for the No. 1 overall pick, they’ll still have plenty of options to draft young talent in both this year’s and next year’s NBA Draft.
At the end of the day, Celtics fans should continue to trust in Danny Ainge. In over a decade as Boston’s general manager, he’s made some of the best moves the league has seen in that time. The Kevin Garnett (KG) and Ray Allen acquisition, the Paul Pierce and KG trade to the Nets that landed Boston all their picks in recent years, and the Isaiah Thomas for Kyrie Irving trade a couple of seasons back. Never mind the selections of Smart, Tatum, Brown, and Rozier (some of which stemmed directly from that Nets trade). Of course Ainge has missed the mark a few times, namely drafting Kelly Olynyk instead of Giannis Antetokounmpo in the 2013 NBA Draft. But overall, you can’t help but have faith that Ainge will make the right move for the Celtics yet again, especially when there appear to be multiple good moves in front of him.
For the time being, the Celtics still have this season to wrap up, with the Finals remaining as the ultimate goal. Anything can happen in a seven-game series, even against the Golden State Warriors.
But no matter what happens between now and October, the Celtics are set for the future.