Ray Allen leaving the Boston Celtics for the Miami Heat in 2012 helped get the ball rolling on a rebuilding phase in Boston, and that went into high gear when the Celtics traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets the following year. Rajon Rondo was in the midst of a long rehab from an ACL tear when that happened, leading to a 25-57 campaign in 2013-14 and a high draft pick that turned into Marcus Smart.
Boston was expected to be a bit better this past season under second-year head coach Brad Stevens, but not all that much better. And after trades of Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green midseason, the goal seemed clear: get into the lottery and add another high draft pick to a group of quality role players.
Only that didn’t happen, as Stevens coached up his group of good-but-not-great players to a 40-42 record, good for seventh in the dreadful Eastern Conference. Instead of landing in the lottery, the Celtics had the pleasure of being casually swept away by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But armed with a boatload of draft picks and a ton of cap space this summer, Danny Ainge was poised to make the big move needed to take his Celtics to the next level. Ainge attempted to use his treasure trove of picks to move up in the draft so he could get Justise Winslow, offering up four first-round picks to have a chance at the Duke product. Michael Jordan and the Charlotte Hornets wouldn’t budge thanks to their love for Frank Kaminsky, and Ainge wound up reaching for Terry Rozier at No. 16.
After that, Ainge was hoping to be a player for Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and other top free agents, but instead got a nice addition in Amir Johnson, re-signed some of the quality role players from last years team and took David Lee into cap space.
So where exactly are the Celtics headed?
There are logjams all over the roster with players similar in talent level. You have Smart, Rozier, Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas, Evan Turner, Jae Crowder, Perry Jones, R.J. Hunter and James Young in the backcourt and on the wing. In the frontcourt you have Lee, Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Zeller, Jared Sullinger, Jonas Jerebko and Jordan Mickey.
There’s good talent there that can have some success being coached up by a wizard in Stevens. They may even be in line to improve a bit on their surprising finish last season. However, it’s not a team that’s winning anything big, or even get out of the first round. A legitimate star player and more rim protection is needed before Boston can take that next step.
The good thing for the Celtics is they still have a ton of those draft assets at their disposal (even if they aren’t the greatest in terms of value), so Ainge can continue to be aggressive on the trade market as he tries to find that star player he so desperately seeks. Boston should also have plenty of cap space again next summer, and although many teams will have that cap space thanks to the massive cap jump, perhaps the Celtics become a more attractive destination thanks to all those assets and developing young talent.
Boston is in a funky spot. They “arrived” earlier than expected, but now they don’t have a clear path to make that leap back into title contention. As always when it comes to building a contender, it’ll take some luck to make that happen. But for now, the Celtics will be an entertaining mish-mash of players who compete every night for a wonderful young head coach.