The obvious concern, by the time the Cavaliers’ sweep of the Celtics in the opening round of last year’s postseason was complete, was talent. The Cavs, with a trio of stars anchoring the roster, simply had more of it, so that no matter how hard the Celtics played and how crisply they executed, no matter how sharp coach Brad Stevens’ game plans, the results were all but predetermined.
Pulling through the rubble of that series, which followed a promising 20-10 stretch to close the season, Celtics president Danny Ainge said, “I think we need to upgrade our talent level on our team. At the same time, I’m very excited about a lot of individuals on our team. … I’m excited about the players we have, at the same time, I feel like we are not on the same level of a team like Cleveland, and I think we found that out.”
MORE: Offseason grades for all 30 NBA teams | How Stevens joined coaching elite
We’re just a few months beyond that, and it’s obvious the Celtics are still not on the level of a team like the Cavs. The concern is they’re not on the level of the Hawks, Raptors, Wizards and Bulls, either. The Bucks will likely pull farther ahead of them, too, and there’s danger behind from the healthy Heat, Pacers and Hornets.
All of that puts the Celtics in an awkward position. It could be argued that Ainge has done just about everything right to this point. He’s followed the Rebuilding 101 blueprint, done the same kinds of things Sam Presti did in Oklahoma City, Daryl Morey did in Houston and Danny Ferry did in Atlanta (before his comments about Luol Deng forced his exit, that is).
He first took the remaining pillars of his Big Three, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and turned them into assets, with the expectation that those assets could be combined and converted into a big prize down the road. He did the same last winter with veterans Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green. The Celtics had two first-round draft picks this June and likely will have eight first-rounders (and about 10 second-rounders) in the coming four years.
And Ainge kept the Celtics’ books as clean as they’ve ever been. He pointed out before the offseason that this summer likely marked the first time the Celtics had cap space ever in franchise history, certainly the first time in his tenure running the team. Again, that kind of flexibility has been crucial to rebuilding efforts elsewhere.
But for all the right moves Ainge has made in setting up Boston as an ideal situation — young team, good coach, plenty of financial wiggle room — the Celtics have come away with decidedly little. Where Houston pilfered James Harden and Dwight Howard, and Oklahoma City found lottery and draft luck with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Celtics emerged from this offseason with one major new signee, forward Amir Johnson, and one new trade acquisition, David Lee.
Those are upgrades, sure. But they’re also new veterans contributing to a frontcourt glutted with good-not-great talent. The Kevin Love dream is yet unfulfilled. Heck, Ainge was not even able to consolidate his assets enough to get Justise Winslow in the draft. All of this puts a lot of pressure on Marcus Smart, the No. 6 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, to develop into a star. He may be the only player on the roster with that kind of potential.
MORE: How the David Lee trade saved the Warriors $20 million
This is the issue with rebuilding that is so often under-appreciated: You’ve got to be lucky. It has nothing to do with the tired trope about free agents not wanting to sign in Boston. Free agents don’t really like signing anywhere new. They mostly like to stay put, or to be traded before free agency. Ask DeAndre Jordan about that.
Somewhere along the line, something improbable has to happen that shakes free a star player and sends him your way. A general manager in this league can do everything exactly as he should, can plan for trades and free agency carefully and wisely. But he can’t force players like Harden or Howard onto the market — or a guy like Garnett back in 2007, when the Celtics were last able to cash in assets and turn themselves into contenders. Ainge also couldn’t force Michael Jordan to give up his crush on Frank Kaminsky and trade the No. 9 pick.
If you’re running an NBA team, all you can do is keep your roster flexible and your draft-pick balance sheet stocked in your favor. Then you can only wait. It’s a bit like fishing. You might have some excellent new hip waders and the perfect lures, and you might cast a thousand times, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to catch anything.
The Celtics, if the Nets fall out of the playoff mix as the East improves and if the woebegone Mavericks miss the playoffs but hold one of the No. 8-14 spots in the draft, could wind up with three lottery picks in 2016. That certainly represents an upgrade in the Celtics’ assets and another chance to improve the talent level, either through draft or trade.
But Ainge and the Celtics only have so much say in how others will value those assets, and which players might be available in a swap at all. It’s not a bad set-up in Boston. All that is missing is a little luck.