The Boston Celtics lost to the Atlanta Hawks 104-92 last night, knocking them out of the first round of the playoffs. It’s the last time for the foreseeable future that the Celtics will exit the playoffs so early.
To understand where the Celtics are going, it’s useful to understand where they were. Three years ago the Celtics finished 41-40, and decided they’d ridden the core that won the 2008 NBA championship as far as it was going to go. That summer they made the two biggest decisions that would set them up for success.
First, they “traded” coach Doc Rivers to the Clippers for a first-round pick, and more importantly, hired Brad Stevens from Butler. Stevens was signed for six years—meaning he wasn’t put under immediate pressure to win—and handed a rebuilding project that would allow him to grow as an NBA coach. He’s been a quick study, finishing high in Coach of the Year voting each of the past two seasons, and gaining a reputation as the best out-of-timeout play caller in the NBA.
The other big move was to fleece the Nets. To kickstart the rebuild, the Celtics cleared out their old, dying wood (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, D.J. White) for some expiring contracts, three first-round draft picks, and the rights to swap a fourth one.
It is at this point that some teams would’ve tanked, waiting for their newly acquired stockpile of picks to grow and eventually come good, before they went out and tried to become a better basketball team. The Celtics didn’t do that, instead acquiring players that would improve their in the immediate and the long-term. This kept fans engaged, gave their lottery picks professional role models to imitate and compete against to improve, and built a solid core to eventually (hopefully) add a superstar to.
They traded for genuinely useful and cheap players like Tyler Zeller, Marcus Thornton, Brandan Wright, and Jonas Jerebko, and took flyers on discarded players like Kris Humphries and Evan Turner. They re-signed Avery Bradley to an eminently reasonable four-year, $32-million contract, and traded for and signed Jae Crowder to a five-year, $35-million deal. They got first-round picks for helping facilitate LeBron James signing with Cleveland, and for the decaying carcass of Rajon Rondo’s game.
They also weren’t afraid to use the picks they’d acquired, recognizing their value was in what they could produce, not how pretty they looked being stockpiled. When the Suns went through their crazy point guard identity crisis at the 2015 trade deadline, the Celtics sent them Thornton and a first-round pick for Isaiah Thomas, who has the best contract in the league this side of Steph Curry, and oh-by-the-way made the All-Star Game this season.
This isn’t to say the Celtics hit on every single move. They didn’t. But they hit on a vast majority of them, and the ones that missed were things that cost them very little. And all the while they pursued the newly revolutionary plan in the modern NBA of acquiring good basketball players, and then keeping as many of those good basketball players as they could. Yes, they would’ve liked to acquire a superstar, but crucially they didn’t let that paralyze them while they went about their business.
Which brings us to today. The core of their current team—Thomas, Bradley, Crowder, Marcus Smart—are all signed for at least two more seasons, and the only contributors they could lose this offseason are Turner, Zeller, and Jared Sullinger. Their coach is still Brad Stevens. Barring a catastrophe, even with no improvement, they’ll be a five seed again.
But improvement there will be! Depending upon exactly where the salary cap falls and what they do with players they can make qualifying offers for, the Celtics will have ~$33 million in salary cap space. If Kevin Durant is smart, Boston is where he’ll sign, but even if he doesn’t, the Celtics will be in play and be an attractive destination for every major free agent.
And don’t forget about those draft picks! If they keep all of their picks, the Celtics will have the 3rd (or wherever the pick owed from Brooklyn ends up after the lottery), 16th, 23rd, 31st, 35th, 45th, 51st, and 58th picks in the draft. Next season they can swap first-round picks with the Nets, in addition to having three extra second-round picks, and they get the Nets first-rounder in 2018 and the Grizzlies’ in 2019.
More likely, of course, is instead of filling the roster with eight more young players (they’ve drafted four times in the first round in the past two years), they’ll package picks together to move up in the draft, or package picks and some players for even better players. If they play their cards right, the Celtics should be the second or third seed in the East next season, and have perhaps the brightest future in the league.
And they probably will play their cards right, because GM Danny Ainge and top lieutenant Mike Zarren have repeatedly proven over the past three seasons (and really, over the past decade) that they’re good at drafting, great at identifying value and signing players (and coaches!) to reasonable contracts, and fucking phenomenal at ripping off the rest of the league in trades.
It’s amazing what a good front office can accomplish.