How promising might the future of the Boston Celtics be? The answer, for quite a few reasons, is very, very promising. The Celtics are a good team that’s put itself in position to improve over the next two seasons. That doesn’t mean they won’t have some difficult decisions to make in the next six months. One of those decisions will at least be considered this month before the trade deadline when they stop to consider whether or not they should mess with a good thing.
One of the sub-questions to ‘How promising is Boston’s future?’ is ‘How good can Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley be as a backcourt?” All the arguments are there to suggest they can be great. Thomas has been terrific this year, playing at an MVP level. Pairing an undersized but elite scorer who can get to the basket off the dribble with an off-guard who’s adept at cutting to the basket, perimeter shooting, and rebounding is a pretty good formula.
In terms of fit, production, and efficiency, it’s hard to make the argument that Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are any better as a guard combo than Thomas and Bradley when healthy. “When healthy” is more of a hypothetical when it comes to Bradley, though, who has had injury troubles for much of his career despite improving as a player coming into each season.
So if Thomas and Bradley are a great fit with potential to keep growing together and are surrounded by solid teammates and an excellent coach then what’s the problem? Well, it’s a good problem to have, but it’s still a looming dilemma.
The Celtics have the luxury of owning the rights to the Brooklyn Nets’ pick in the upcoming draft. That pick is looking more and more likely to be the first or second overall pick (the Nets currently hold the league’s record by a significant margin). It’s a rare opportunity for a playoff team, and it goes without saying how important it is not to get it right.
It’s only February and it’s far from impossible that opinions could change, but a consensus has begun to form that the top two picks in the 2017 NBA Draft will be Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball, two ball-dominant guards with unusually developed skillsets for freshmen.
It’d be crazy to project Hall of Fame careers out of either of these prospects based on the little we’ve actually seen of them, but there’s no doubt that under the context of most of the lottery teams these two would be considered foundational building blocks tasked with leading their franchises back to the playoffs. It might seem unfair to gauge two 18-year olds’ fit alongside players like Thomas and Bradley, and even more unfair yet to wonder if either could replace the Celtics’ starters, but the NBA is about maximizing value and franchises don’t succeed without contemplating decisions long before they have to make them.
The most glaring need for the Celtics’ current roster is a rebounding power forward. But drafting for a position of need can be shortsighted when you have the number one pick in the draft. Some would argue that, in that position, you take whomever you believe to be the best player, no questions asked. If we were to assume Fultz and Ball are those players, would either fit on the current Celtics’ roster? Would they be able to unseat Bradley or Thomas for playing time on a team trying to contend for a championship?
A potential trade could strike the perfect balance, but it's hard to imagine it being worth the risk. You can pretty much guarantee Danny Ainge isn’t going to trade Thomas amid or immediately following the season he’s having right now. But Bradley has been in trade rumors for the past two seasons and the Celtics have played well when he’s missed time from injuries this season. Boston could trade Bradley for a power forward before the deadline or after the season with an eye on selecting Fultz or Ball. This would open up an opportunity for either to become key parts of the rotation, but it wouldn’t answer the question of whether either would be a good fit next to Thomas. The chemistry between Thomas and Bradley would represent quite the bar to have to surpass.
Fultz can create his own shot and has an off-the-dribble mid-range game that could benefit any offense, but he’ll start his career far from being even an average defender. A backcourt of Thomas and Fultz could be a defensive disaster. Bradley is one of the three or four best perimeter defenders in the NBA. Plus, Fultz’s destiny is probably to be given the chance to run an entire offense like James Harden or, well, Thomas.
Ball is such a terrific passer that it’s possible that he could thrive in any situation. But, like Thomas, he’s a playmaker. Perhaps they could turn out to be a perfect fit, but it’s hard to predict whether either could be as effective sacrificing ball handling to each other.
Making a mid-season trade in anticipation of a draft pick would be drastic. But it might be something that winds up happening after the season anyway. Or the Celtics could simply trade down a few spots come draft time and select someone besides Ball or Fultz and acquire a veteran in the process. Or perhaps Brad Stevens is the type of coach who simply wants the most talented players on his roster, preferring to solve the “dilemma” on the court.
Celtics' fans likely view this as a breakout season. Maybe Boston will steal a game or two from Cleveland in a playoff series before it’s time to get excited about the leap to contender next year. Breaking up their backcourt for Ball or Fultz would be a one-step-backwards, two-step-forward strategy. That might be a tough pill to swallow in Boston, especially when those two steps forward are no guarantee.
Regardless, if the draft lottery plays out the way probability would suggest, at some point we’ll find out how the Celtics value each of Thomas, Bradley, Fultz, and Ball.