In theory, all 30 NBA teams are supposed to burst out of training camp and into opening night each year with two season-long goals in mind: 1) Win the championship, 2) Turn a profit.
The only way they can hit both targets is with at least one—and preferably two or three—honest-to-goodness superstar under contract. Top-10 players make the improbable feel achievable. They symbolize hope and opulence in a way very few athletes ever can.
This brings us to the Boston Celtics, a team on the verge of joining the league’s elite without that marquee fixture in place. Here’s why unless they can acquire a superstar without surrendering any future assets (virtually impossible, by the way), they should be patient, use their most valuable picks as a safety net and continue to build through free agency and the draft.
Void of a true saving grace—despite a pair of All-Stars already on their roster—but able to acquire one should that be their absolute primary objective, the Celtics are in a peculiar place. They can probably hatch a blockbuster deal if they want, but doing so would disrupt their cement-solid foundation and abnormally meteoric rebuild.
Boston is obsessed with hanging an 18th banner from the TD Garden’s ceiling, and it’s nearly impossible for them to do so without adding more talent than what’s already there. But that goal should not be confused with the very act of incorporating a superstar into the fold. A trade before this year’s deadline may end up tarnishing their long-term prospects without the necessary short-term progress to make it worthwhile.
Three years after they traded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets, kickstarting what figured to be a lengthy renovation, the Celtics managed to roll out a top-five defense and win 48 games without trading any of the picks acquired in that deal. That’s remarkable. It also wasn’t supposed to happen.
The Isaiah Thomas trade ripped the brakes from their meticulous journey; Boston’s present-day timeline had to detour when the team was somehow too good to partake in the 2015 lottery. But with Brad Stevens’ magic touch and the fortunate timing of a $94 million salary cap, the Celtics pivoted into competitive buyers who didn’t need to sell off any of their young talent. Last month, they drafted Jaylen Brown third overall after finding themselves in trade rumors for Jimmy Butler. A few weeks later they signed Al Horford.
Is Boston better off with what it currently has, or does the roster look more promising in both the short and long-term with Butler and Horford, minus whatever they had to surrender to land Butler—which, obviously, was a lot?
The Celtics have only won two playoff games since 2013, but that’s hardly important. What matters is perception—back in early July they were good enough to pique Kevin Durant’s interest and convince Horford to abandon the only NBA team he’s ever known. What matters is their ability to keep one eye on today’s team and one eye on the future. So, apart from the obvious, why are they constantly rumored to trade for the likes of Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, DeMarcus Cousins, Butler and every other superstar who’s remotely available in a trade, when instead they can have their cake and eat it too?
Championship windows slam shut without warning. They’re delicate. A front office with foresight knows this, and understands how many uncontrollable forces are at play. The idea, again, is to stay as good as you can for as long as you can; even more difficult than opening the window in the first place is keeping it ajar.
Boston has an obvious path towards both thanks to Billy King, but any team willing to trade them a star won’t do so unless at least one of the Nets’ next two first-round picks is included. Why? A) those picks are extremely valuable, B) everyone in the league knows Boston offered four first-round picks to the Charlotte Hornets for the ninth pick in last year’s draft. If that was their package for Justise Winslow, the asking price will be much heavier for someone like Westbrook or Griffin, even if those two can become unrestricted free agents next summer.
And that trade would be an all-in play, the type of risk that minimizes long-term prosperity without maximizing short-term gain. At the cost of well-crafted continuity and an undeniably positive culture, would moving, say, two or three rotation players and both Brooklyn picks for Superstar X vault them ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors? It would not.
In this scenario, Boston would no longer own of the most impressive collection of trade assets and team-friendly contracts in the league. They would instead turn to free agency as their sole means of improvement, a path fraught with risk and uncertainty. They’d be lumped in with organizations like the Miami Heat or Dallas Mavericks, teams that repeatedly mortgaged their future for a hopeless shot at the here and now. Welcome to the treadmill of mediocrity.
(Forget about the Cavaliers, two or three years from now would Boston even be better than the Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks or Philadelphia 76ers?)
Instead of making a trade, the Celtics should bunker down and sit on their hands. By holding onto the Brooklyn picks and keeping everyone who’s expected to crack their rotation, Boston is already good enough for a deep playoff run, and well-positioned to straddle two timelines at the same time.
What does this mean? Right now the Celtics are already one LeBron James injury from making the NBA Finals. They’re way ahead of schedule and don't need to sacrifice the future unless the absolute perfect opportunity presents itself.
Why give up assets and key contributors who were good enough to win 48 games—before adding Horford—in a climate of constant player movement? Numerous star-caliber players will hit the market every summer for the foreseeable future, and Boston has enough cap flexibility to afford anyone they want.
The Golden State Warriors are the Golden State Warriors. LeBron is LeBron. Why needlessly accelerate towards a brick wall, then watch as teams with bright futures and a plethora of assets zoom on by?
There are obvious ways to build for today and tomorrow. That’s what makes these Celtics so special, and why they’re allowed to be picky on the trade market. Their big-minute players are either in their prime or still improving. Healthy Marcus Smart may be on the verge of a breakout season and Brown is in the unusual spot of being a third overall pick with limitless physical gifts and low expectations.
It’s possible this team is building itself in reverse, with the franchise player arriving in next year’s lottery to join Smart and Brown as their next Big 3, after their current core (plus whoever they sign with max cap space next summer) starts to decline. Imagine how long the Detroit Pistons would’ve dominated if they drafted Carmelo Anthony or Dwyane Wade back in 2003.
It’s widely accepted that superstars lift NBA basketball higher than any moment, team or game ever will. In all likelihood, Boston will eventually land one, but those who criticize Danny Ainge for pump faking his way through an avalanche of trade rumors either don’t realize how good the Celtics already are or don’t understand how unusual this situation is.
Boston doesn’t need to sacrifice anything in order to be great today and even better tomorrow.