NBA folks love to talk about Boston these days.
It isn’t just because of the waves the Celtics made this last offseason by signing Al Horford, or because Isaiah Thomas is playing out of his mind right now, or because the Celtics currently sit 2.5 games back from Cleveland for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. No, it’s because of all those things, plus the fact that the Celtics have the assets to stick around for a long time, putting them in a position shared by very few teams in the league right now.
Just about every blockbuster trade that gets discussed involves Boston at some point, whether as the focal point, or as a potential third team to bring in to make something work. Even with all the drama surrounding Carmelo Anthony heading to the Clippers or Cavaliers, the Celtics manage to be a part of the discussion. And thanks to the Nets, the Celtics have a chance to take a big step forward with a lottery pick in the upcoming draft (courtesy of Brooklyn) that is very likely to end up being the top pick. It’s fascinating to me, and the one question I keep coming back to is this: should the Celtics wait until the draft, or find their missing piece now?
Cleveland (and Miami, and then Cleveland again – basically wherever LeBron is) has had a stranglehold on the East for a long time. It’s driven teams to completely tearing down what they’ve built and decide to wait until the field is a bit more open in a few years (hi, Atlanta). But Boston is a unique team in that they’re both built to challenge the Cavaliers right now, and also be prepared for the post-LeBron era in the not so far off future. People like to look to Toronto as that team right now, and even suggest that the Wizards, if healthy, could beat the Cavs in a long series. (They also like the Bucks to challenge Cleveland a little, which I can only explain as exaggerated infatuation with Giannis Antetokounmpo. I get it, but it also isn’t going to work y’all.)
But the Celtics, at full strength, aren’t quite able to challenge Cleveland yet. It’s not a detriment to them – no team is fully equipped to handle the Cavaliers right now, even if people really want to believe they are. But Boston has the assets to become that team if they want to; the main question is how they want to do it.
There are two ways to look at it. The Celtics could either address their current issues right now, and risk long-term success for being able to immediately challenge Cleveland (and ultimately Golden State), or take their top pick and develop young talent. There are obvious risks to both, but both make complete sense depending on what frame of mind you’re in. It makes sense to use the top pick to pull a big need from a team that’s looking to rebuild, but also to keep building yourself and wait a few years for LeBron to age a little more and the Cavs unwillingness to plan for the long-term to do them in.
The hot commodities in every current mock draft are Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball, and for good reason. Good point guards are at a premium in the NBA right now, so much so that guys like Matthew Dellavedova made bank this last offseason. But the Celtics don’t necessarily need another point guard alongside Thomas, and while it could load their front court with talented scorers that will be difficult-to-impossible to defend, it won’t address their current problems of defense and rebounding.
So then, do the Celtics address those issues by trading the pick? And who would they go after? The sexy name here is Paul Millsap because, to me, it makes the most sense. The Hawks have shopped Millsap the last couple of seasons, and while fans of potential destinations for Millsap try to talk themselves out of excitement by saying his numbers aren’t as good this season as years past, his style of play is exactly what the Celtics lack. He coexisted well enough with Horford in Atlanta, and could provide added depth to a team that already has some in terms of the four and five positions. Considering this with the fact that Atlanta has effectively shown that they’re willing to wait for LeBron to age a bit more before starting to seriously build and compete for the East, and this trade makes sense…if the Celtics decide the top pick is worth it.
They could always keep the pick and try and pick up the missing piece in free agency, much like they did with Horford last season. Millsap can decline his player option and become a free agent this summer, and while leaving the Hawks would ultimately give them nothing in return, it might also be in his best interest as a player. Alternatively, Blake Griffin and Serge Ibaka are both free agents this summer, and either of those two could potentially land in Boston if both sides like what they see. This would potentially allow Boston to fill in the missing piece right now, and keep their top pick to develop and keep their longevity intact. while neither of these names make as much sense as Millsap, they could still push the Celtics to the next level in terms of competing with the NBA’s current top-tier teams. The new CBA signed this year makes it more difficult for teams to lose star players and for organizations to form super teams, but the Celtics have the resources and the pull to bring another big name to the roster, they just have to decide on who they want and go after them.
Of course, there’s always the chance that Boston drafts a bona fide superstar right away, and immediately compete with Cleveland while also nurturing longevity as well. While unlikely, it could happen, though the clock is ticking. Thomas is 28, and Horford is 30. Waiting three or four years for a player to develop could be too late for the Celtics current roster to do anything, and sitting on their hands too long could waste a chance to compete for the next three years. It just comes down to how Boston management wants to play it. Considering how well they’ve done thus far, it’s hard to doubt them.
Regardless, watching the Celtics and how they play with their current pieces on the board is going to be a lot of fun.