When the Boston Celtics were eliminated in the first round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs by the New York Knicks, it marked the end of an era. After the Celtics won the NBA Championship in 2008, they were still title contenders, but they were showing signs of age. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge saw this and would broker a pair of blockbuster deals. Ainge would trade power forward Kevin Garnett, small forward Paul Pierce, and guard Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets in a deal that would see the Celtics receive first-round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018, along with the ability to swap first-round picks with the Nets for the upcoming NBA Draft. Doc Rivers was the head coach who led the Celtics to the NBA Championship in 2008 didn’t want to be a part of a potential rebuilding process in Boston. And since Rivers was still under contract with the Celtics, Ainge was able to trade him to the Los Angeles Clippers in 2013 for a first-round pick.
Ainge would pull off another shocker in finding the new head coach of the Celtics when he went to the collegiate ranks to talk Brad Stevens into leaving Butler University. Stevens was an up and coming head basketball coach at Butler as he led the school to a pair of Final Four appearances.
Stevens’ first NBA season would be tough as the Celtics were only able to win 25 games, but you could see the writing on the wall that he was on to something.
By Stevens’ second season, the Celtics were back in the playoffs and they’ve continued to build since then. More than anything Ainge has been selecting projects in the draft, or using players for trade bait. Ainge’s best move flew under the when he acquired point guard Isaiah Thomas from the Phoenix Suns in February 2015.
With the Celtics, Thomas is developing into a star as he’s second in the NBA this season in scoring at 29.8 per contest. And with Thomas leading the way, along with key role players such as guard Marcus Smart and small forward Jae Crowder, the Celtics are in the first place in the Atlantic Division, while they are breathing on the necks for the Cleveland Cavaliers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
At Butler, Stevens’ system relied on ball movement on offense, while having players that were not selfish and willing to do whatever it takes to win at both ends of the floor which is something that he has quickly established with the Celtics. And whereas Ainge’s rebuild was expected to take several years in order to once again turn Boston into a contender, the Celtics are once again in contention in the Eastern Conference.
Thomas has helped to once again make the Celtics relevant, but he alone won’t be enough for Boston to have a legitimate chance to get past the Cavaliers in the playoffs. Last summer Ainge signed center Al Horford to a four-year deal that is worth $113 million. And although that Horford and Crowder have combined to average 28.9 points per game this season, the Celtics still need more production from their front court in order to become a title contender.
Ainge has tried in the past to broker deals to get star players to come to Boston, but that was when things were looking bleak for the Celtics, and thus he was rebuffed. However with the fortunes of the Celtics on the upswing, Ainge’s chances of pulling something off have increased.
With the Nets zeroing in on getting one of the first three selections in this year’s NBA Draft, that right to swap picks is money in bank as far as the Celtics are concerned. Thanks to the Nets, the Celtics had the third overall pick in last year’s NBA Draft which they used on small forward Jaylen Brown. Brown is only averaging 15.5 minutes per contest this season, but he is someone that the Celtics see as a project, while he could also be used in a future trade. And with the Celtics excess picks, those could also be enticing to another team as far as a trade goes.
The Celtics have been rumored to be set to pursue Utah Jazz small forward Gordon Hayward this summer when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Hayward played for Stevens at Butler and he is in the midst of his best NBA season as he’s averaging 19.7 points per game which has led to his first nod for the NBA All-Star Game.
But regardless if the Celtics are able to land Hayward or a star player this summer, this organization has flexibility due to Ainge’s knowledge of knowing how to play the system. Aside from Horford who will be set to earn $27.7 million next season, no other Celtics player will earn more than $8.8 million for the 2017-2018 NBA season. Since Thomas was a relative unknown upon coming to Boston, the Celtics have him for a bargain rate as he’ll only earn $6.2 next season which gives Ainge cap space flexibility.
Ainge took a page from former Celtics head coach/general manager Red Auerbach who always knew how to find a “sucker” when it came to making a deal. Ainge accepted the fact that his Celtics would have to rebuild and thus he has stockpiled draft picks as if they were currency. There’s a reason why the Celtics organization has won more NBA Championships than any other, and they are once again on the right track to being in the mix as one of the league’s better teams.