In the last ten months, I wrote two pieces for RealGM concerning the Boston Celtics and the decisions that they might face as it related to the construction of their roster and the opportunities ahead. A reader with the time and energy could have fairly accused me of being a bit too future-focused and pointlessly discussing the theoretical choices of hypothetical dilemmas.
Those readers would have been wrong, but that doesn’t mean I was right. Sure, the Celtics addressed the questions posed in my articles, but they were merely the early phases of a plan that they were making up as they went along. If anything, those articles look quite tame compared to what has transpired in Boston this offseason.
The first piece, written last October, warned against the strategy of treating Avery Bradley like a trade chip. It posited that a core of Bradley and Al Horford was a seamlessly easy foundation to build around because of their rare-skillsets; even if more was needed to contend for championship, Bradley could complement any sort of star or future star – a theory which was arguably supported when Isaiah Thomas, not an unflawed player, led the Celtics to a number one seed playing alongside Bradley.
Bradley’s value is made up of his perimeter defense—he is the best possible option to guard the Kyrie Irvings, John Walls, and Steph Currys of the world—and his ability to be an offensive threat without the ball—he’s a reliable shooter and one of the best guards in the NBA at cutting to the basket off-ball.
The Celtics didn’t even use Bradley as a trade chip. They simply traded him to the Pistons for Marcus Morris so that they could shed his contract to create cap space to sign Gordon Hayward.
The other article, written in February, considered the possibility that the Celtics would have the number one pick in the draft and how they would handle the possibility of drafting either Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball. Bradley and Thomas would be ahead of either rookie on the depth chart. Would the Celtics risk trading a player as valuable as Bradley or upset the fans by trading away Thomas in order to guarantee playing time to a much-hyped rookie? Or would they trade the number one pick?
As we now know, the Celtics were awarded the number one pick in the draft, and as we also know, they traded down to the third pick. But after a series of moves that I wouldn’t have believed at the time of writing that piece, not one of Thomas, Bradley, Fultz, or Ball will be on the Boston roster this upcoming season.
Before we go any further, we should be clear that a dramatic shuffling of good players for other good players requires the foresight and savvy to acquire the assets to make such moves in the first place. The Celtics are playing a high-risk game with their offseason moves, but it’s a game that teams like, say, the New York Knicks don’t even have the option of participating in.
The tongue-in-cheek joke about Danny Ainge’s front office acumen is that he’s playing three-dimensional chess while the rest of the NBA, not to mention the fans and media, are playing checkers, just trying to keep up with it all. The guy’s thought process plays out on alternate timelines that we couldn’t even imagine.
Sure. Maybe. Whatever. But once he makes those moves, those alternate timelines become quite easy for all of us to imagine. We know what the Celtics have, and we’re very aware of what they could have had.
Here are the players the Celtics essentially gained in the offseason:
Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris, and Aron Baynes
For as eventful as this NBA offseason has been, it’s hard to argue that any team gained more talent. But here’s a list of players that the Celtics could have had on their roster for the upcoming season if they had chosen to have them:
Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Markelle Fultz*
*We won’t count Kelly Olynyk, who couldn’t have been retained with these players considering the size of the contract he signed with Miami.
Ironically, I believe that if you asked a number of NBA front offices to prioritize all of these players, factoring in their contracts, at least a handful would have Fultz on the top of that list. He’s an extremely polished 19-year-old star-in-the-making on a rookie contract for the next four years.
Obviously, the Celtics projected Tatum as a prospect worthy enough to pass up on the opportunity to take Fultz, and if that’s simply a matter of scouting than I’m unqualified to disagree with them. But if, as many expect, it was a move made with an eye on another move then it shows a clear readiness to cast aside value for the hope of better value. The Celtics eventually traded for Irving, who will pair with Tatum more naturally than Fultz, but Boston wouldn’t have known of Irving’s eventual availability at the time they passed on Fultz. And if they were willing to move on from Thomas rather than retain him in free agency a year from now, then Fultz would have been an enormous value on the roster.
Ainge isn’t playing three-dimensional chess; he’s juggling very expensive china. But again, it's a credit to him that they have those plates to throw in the air in the first place, and they might never crash to the floor. He might have played this perfectly.
In the Moreyball era of efficiency, to pass up on any opportunity to capitalize on an asset is the greatest sin. So perhaps it is insane to criticize their choice to flip Thomas for a superstar like Irving.
That same era of thinking has developed quite a few great teams built around superstar pairings or trios, and the Celtics just jumped into that realm with Irving, Hayward, and Horford, with a couple young prospects to develop. But is their Big Three good enough to matter in the current NBA landscape?
There’s a difference between shuffling talent and building a core. The luxury of Boston’s previous core was that it was so easy to build around. Irving and Hayward are the stars that Ainge was looking for. But perhaps Fultz was the player Brad Stevens needed to play alongside Bradley, Crowder, and Horford. And perhaps the market for Thomas won’t turn out to be as high as expected. Having a crowded backcourt of Thomas, Bradley and Fultz would be a nice problem to have, especially considering how terrifying of a sixth man Thomas could age into.
Those three players are currently on the Cavaliers, Pistons, and Sixers.
Maybe I’m looking too far into the future of hypothetical situations. But the last couple times I did that with this franchise, Ainge was way ahead of me.