Despite Plenty of Questions, Boston Celtics’ Process Has Bright Future

It’s impressive what the Boston Celtics have done these past few weeks. Actually, over the past three years. Nearly unprecedented, really. Rebuilding in the NBA is hard enough; constructing a Finals contender is even harder.

Simultaneously attempting both—that’s usually the sort of blueprint that leads NBA franchises into the abyss.

Not the Celtics, though, who following a whirlwind couple of weeks find themselves as the rare team to boast an MVP candidate (Isaiah Thomas), an All-Star (Gordon Hayward) and each of the players selected No. 3 overall in the past two drafts (Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown). Think about how crafty, and lucky, an organization has to be to reach that point. Think about how many decisions have to pay off.

The question now is where does all of team president Danny Ainge’s wheeling and dealing (signing Hayward and then flipping Avery Bradley for Marcus Morris) and non-wheeling and dealing (Jimmy Butler and Paul George) leave the Celtics, both in the present and future?

“It’s why they are so fun to talk about,” an Eastern Conference assistant coach said. “They could do so many things.”

Take the Hayward signing, for example. The 27-year-old wing (and remember that term) is a perfect fit for head coach Brad Stevens’ offense.

He’s exactly the player the Celtics could have used in the Conference Finals last season against the Cleveland Cavaliers. His ability to generate offense will ease some of the burden from Thomas. It will also keep opponents from blitzing I.T. with half their defenders.

Stevens prefers his team ping the ball back and forth across the floor. A typical Celtics offensive set will start with Thomas standing away from the ball, sprinting up to the perimeter for a dribble hand-off and then going into a pick-and-roll. From there, Thomas will drive-and-kick—only now it will be Hayward, one of the NBA’s top scorers, receiving that pass with an off-balanced defense dancing back toward him.

That Hayward prefers to make quick decisions and doesn’t play with the ball—his usage rate last season was incredibly low for a player who averaged just under 22 points per game—will only make the fit more snug.

The problem: LeBron James still plays for the Cavaliers.

“I don’t think Hayward gives them enough to get past him,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “Maybe if they had gotten Paul George too, but just adding Hayward wasn’t enough.”

Having to unload Kelly Olynyk and Avery Bradley in order to make room for Hayward’s max salary will leave a mark. Olynyk’s ability to stretch the floor at center was a weapon the Celtics loved to deploy. Bradley was the team’s best three-point shooter and perimeter defender, a perfect sidekick to Thomas.

“To me, he’s a must-keep,” the Eastern Conference coach said prior to the trade.

And yet, some scouts see a crack in Cleveland’s armor that Boston’s new lineup just might be able to pierce.

“Cleveland is in trouble,” a Western Conference scout said. “They have front-office issues; LeBron has been pretty distant this past month; they want to move [Kevin] Love, and soon.”

That should open up a lane for the Celtics, right?

“Cleveland, Boston. Boston, Cleveland. Does it really matter?” the Western Conference scout added. “With how good the Warriors are, and the West is, those teams are just playing for second place.”

Stevens and Ainge would have to agree. Their goal was likely to sign Hawyard and then offer the Indiana Pacers an enticing package for George. They had enough pieces to beat the joke of an offer Indiana accepted from the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Eventually, Boston will have to decide what core it wants to build around.

Ainge must decide what to do with Thomas. The diminutive point guard is a free agent next summer. He’s one of the most electric players in the NBA and an incredible scorer. But can you win a championship having to worry about where to hide your 5’9″ point guard every time your opponent has the ball?

“I’m in the camp that their core should be Brown, Tatum and next year’s [Brooklyn Nets draft] pick,” the Eastern Conference coach said.

For his part, Ainge’s comments following the Bradley deal indicate an intention to bring Thomas back next season.

That could obviously change, though the essential freezing of the salary cap and the lack of teams with an abundance of cap room next summer could help the Celtics retain Thomas on a team-friendly deal.

“With the moves they’ve made this offseason, it certainly looks like they’re going all-in on Isaiah,” another Western Conference scout said.

So maybe they re-sign Thomas. After all, he’s still just 28, and Hayward is just 27. In two or three years, Brown, Tatum and the rest of the kids might be stars, too. By then, the Cavaliers’ window will have closed, and the Warriors, one has to think, will be more vulnerable.

The Celtics, with all their assets, will also be ready to pounce the moment another big-time star becomes available. (Maybe DeMarcus Cousins? Perhaps Marc Gasol?)

While Ainge continues mapping out his larger plan, Stevens has some interesting decisions ahead.

Who will he start in the backcourt next to Thomas now that Bradley is gone? The easy answer is Marcus Smart, but shooting could already be an issue for the Celtics with Bradley out. Is giving Smart, and his crooked jumper, more minutes the answer?

Then again, the Celtics need Smart on the floor. Without him, there’s no one who can slow opposing point guards and save Thomas from having to chase them around the floor.

What about up front? Do you play Morris and Al Horford together?

What do you do with all those wings? Hayward, Brown, Tatum and Jae Crowder are all “small forwards.”

“So many teams are trying to switch as many pick-and-rolls as possible. I would just put a bunch of those guys out on the floor together,” the second Western Conference scout said. In an interview with the Associated Press, Stevens seemed to declare his intention to do so.

“I don’t have the five positions anymore,” he said. “It may be as simple as three positions now, where you’re either a ball-handler, a wing or a big. It’s really important. We’ve become more versatile as the years have gone on.”

Not only could this allow the Celtics to maximize the talent on their roster, but giving young players in Brown and Tatum heavy minutes in high-leverage situations could also accelerate their development. And can you imagine trying to find a clean look against a lineup of Smart, Hayward, Brown, Crowder and Horford?

“Without question that helps,” the Eastern Conference coach said. “And [Stevens] has done a really good job of creating a style of play and developing a system.”

That doesn’t mean the path forward isn’t littered with potential stumbling blocks. For one, there is such a thing as having too many first-round picks. Not only do they start depreciating the moment they morph from hypotheticals into actual players, but keeping so many on the roster can hinder development. Look, for example, at how the Celtics had to dump a first-round pick in R.J. Hunter in order to create space.

“If you don’t do anything with them, some of them don’t play and get better, and others just wind up getting tossed away,” an agent connected to a Celtics player said. “It becomes a waste of a pick.”

There’s also the question of whether Horford, at 31 and never a strong defensive rebounder, is the right big man to anchor a switchy-but-small Celtics lineup looking to take down the defending champs.

But think about those questions for a moment. Too many first round picks and concern over an All-Star-caliber player, and teammate, in Horford. Those are problems any team, except the Warriors, would kill to have.      

         

Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, and listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here.

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