By: Jake Mattleman
What in the world is happening in Boston?! It’s cold out, it’s warm out, there’s a windchill of -20, my Facebook is currently set to crash due to posts about Bernie Sanders, and there’s a mammoth ski ramp stuffed in tiny Fenway Park. Things are exciting and unpredictable, but amongst all the chaos one thing is certain: the Celtics can really play basketball.
The Celtics enter the All-Star break 3rd in the Eastern Conference and 13-4 in their last 17 games with solid, gritty wins over teams like the Cavs, Bulls, and Clippers. The ball is being whipped around the perimeter and opponents just can’t keep up. The Cs entered the season without a superstar and were widely regarded as a team with a scoring deficiency, yet they lead the conference in points per game (105.7). On pace to win almost 50 games this season, the league is starting to recognize the Celtics. They were ranked 6th in the most recent Power Rankings, Doc Rivers proclaimed that “They are not afraid of anyone”, and Isaiah Thomas is an All-Star. Pretty good for a team gutted 3 years ago with no major free agent acquisitions.
Danny Ainge has got to be considered a Top 3 GM in the league after a series of genius moves which have set the standard for a successful NBA rebuild. The Sam Hinkies of the world should take notice that if you’re smart enough, you don’t have to lose 200 game over 3 years to become competitive again. So let’s pay homage to Trader Danny and highlight some of his key moves (excluding the Jiri Welsch signing):
July 2013: Hires Brad Stevens as Head Coach. This could have been enough to turn around a team even without the moves listed below. Mark my words, Stevens will coach Team USA after Gregg Popovich retires.
July 2013: Trades aging stars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett for a handful of players and more importantly 3 unprotected first round picks from Brooklyn. Some GMs would have held onto their stars until the wheels fell off, but Danny put his Belichick hat on and sold high.
September 2014: Signs Evan Turner as a free agent. I was critical of the move at the time, as I was worried Turner would command minutes better used for player development. Boy was I wrong. He’s been a go-to guy in crunch time and is in line for a big payday this offseason.
December 2014: Trades Rajon Rondo and Dwight Powell for Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder, and a 1st rounder. Forget how bad Rondo was in Dallas. This trade was a coup either way. Not a flashy acquisition at the time, Crowder is now a top ten small forward in the league, and Ainge flipped Wright for another first rounder from the confused Suns.
January 2015: Trades a mid-1st rounder, Tayshaun Prince and Marcus Thornton for Isaiah Thomas, Gigi Datome, and Jonas Jerebko. While Danny’s previous trades were lopsided in hindsight, at least there was some visible benefit for the other teams involved. This trade was a straight ripoff. This is the trade that some asshole in your fantasy league makes after not checking his team for a month. The Suns are currently paying for their transgressions and are in our prayers.
These move have yielded a successful, young team with as much potential as any rebuilding team in the league. The C’s could have as many as four 1st round picks in the upcoming draft and the only problem is where we’re going to put these guys! There literally isn’t enough room on our team for the assets we’ve acquired. Jordan Mickey, the 33rd overall pick in last year’s draft should be playing decent minutes, but instead is tearing up the D-League. What about first rounders James Young and Terry Rozier? Where are they? Who knows and who cares? The team can’t afford the time to develop them. These are good problems. Lastly, Brad Stevens has delivered on a few key aspects of development by getting the most out of his players. Marcus Smart has finally awakened and looks to have a bright future, especially on the defensive side of the ball (remember he’s still only 21). His ball pressure is phenomenal and he’s everywhere on the court playing with reckless abandon. On the offensive side he has developed a nice mid-range jumper, a necessity for any point guard, and has been getting to the rim. Stevens also figured out how to handle the glut of 4 men on the roster and is beginning to develop a rotation. Sullinger has been a breath of fresh air this season, when everybody (including this writer) was calling for his departure. Kelly Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko are playing great from outside, Amir Johnson is doing his hustle thing, and David Lee is where he belongs. You know your team has figured things out when you drop 46 points in the first quarter of a Sunday afternoon tilt.
Phew, that was a lot of slobber. But why does all of this matter? Well, despite all of these facts, I’m here to argue that the Celtics are much further away from truly competing than the world might think.
The C’s excel at beating bad teams, currently 20-7 in those games, but are merely 12-16 against teams over .500. Guess which teams you play in the playoffs. Furthermore, the C’s are 2-6 in games decided by 3 points of less, highlighting their inability to score in crunch time. Also, the C’s play at least 9 guys each game, and often spread the minutes out fairly evenly. This enables players to stay fresh and manage the weekly demanding of an NBA schedule, however the value of depth plummets in the playoffs. Star players will play 40 minutes each night, thus limiting the effectiveness of second units. But perhaps the biggest problem lies with poster boy Isaiah Thomas and his 5’9 (on a good day) frame. You simply cannot hide Thomas defensively when a team’s sole focus is taking advantage of your weaknesses. I guarantee there will be a stretch of time when Isaiah is forced to sit on the bench and the team could really use his offensive firepower- as our only shot creator, this is a major concern.
Can the Celtics fans really feel good about playing Atlanta, Miami, Indiana, Chicago, or Charlotte in the first round? I don’t.
Enter Trader Danny and the upcoming trade deadline. He’s in need of a game changer (no not you Ms. Palin) and has a plethora of assets. Halleluyah, this conditions are perfect! The market does boast a decent pool of available players, but no team is desperate to offload talent and nothing will come cheap. My solution comes in the form of University of Florida product and former all-star Al Horford.
Horford currently operates in a system predicated on ball movement (similar to the Celtics), brings rim protection and can play inside and out on offense. Almost more importantly he’s an experienced playoff performer who can offer guidance to the woefully inexperienced Celtics. I would offer James Young, the Mavs’ 2016 1st rounder, and the Nets’ 2018 first rounder to get him. Critics of a deal like this believe the price is too high for Horford especially because he can walk away in free agency after the season and will command max money as an aging 30 year old center. However you have to view this deal through the lense of the Celtics as a franchise. Boston has been an undesirable destination for free agents, but players love the city once they arrive. If the C’s grab Horford and have success this season, they will have a huge advantage heading into free agency. Finally, I’m not worried about spending the money with the salary cap set to balloon in 2017. The addition of Horford would bring legitimacy and stability, virtually assuring at least a first round playoff victory.
In conclusion, I’m getting greedy. Boston is 2.5 years into what should have been a 5 year rebuilding process and I should just be happy with their accelerated progress. But you can never be satisfied! I think my greed stems from the impressive and beautiful cohesion put on display every time they take the floor. The players authentically care about each other and are invested in each other’s success. It’s written all over them. You just want them to win games. But this is a league predicated on talent and the Celtics need more if they’re to seriously contend.