We’ve probably been a little harder on Danny Ainge than he perhaps deserves. The Boston Celtics celebrated America’s Independence Day by adding Gordon Hayward, one of the top 25 or so players in the NBA, to the team that won the Eastern Conference’s top seed this year. They did so just a week removed from selecting Jayson Tatum, a slightly polarizing scoring prospect, in the NBA Draft.
The response has been, from what I’ve seen on the interweb, mostly one of derision and scorn. How could they possibly have moved out of the top spot in the draft? Alright, Hayward is decent, but they aren’t competing with the Cavs, let alone the Warriors.
Unless you’re a Boston Celtics fan. If you’re a Boston Celtics fan you are now on par with LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Congratulations.
It all sort of misses the point, I think. For one, I have no idea if Markelle Fultz was a slam dunk pick, or if Tatum will have a game that translates. Few, if any, do. But it’s being framed the wrong way. The Celtics are set up to be a really good team next year. Hayward, Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Al Horford make up a really nice core and have largely complementary games.
It’s also a team that will probably have some real problems, particularly with the Cavaliers. They now have two different guys who can create their own shot in Thomas and Hayward, and they’ll be surrounded by guys who keep the ball moving. They’ll lack three-point shooters, and they won’t be able to rebound at a high level, or probably even get to a competent level against teams that have Tristan Thompson or Kevin Love type bigs.
Those problems are probably fatal for serious title contention. They are an extremely good team, but they aren’t a complete team. With Kelly Olynyk on his way out the door, and Tyler Zeller failing to fulfill his promise as a capable bench big, they have a serious issues in their frontcourt. But 27 other teams have fatal flaws that will probably keep them from getting past the Warriors or the Cavs in their respective conferences. Boston will win more games than most of them.
So far, Boston has been able to keep their winning present and slowly but surely get better and better, without sacrificing their long-term goals. Tatum and Jaylen Brown Tatum are extremely unlikely to be difference-makers for Boston in the playoffs this upcoming season. Tatum didn’t help in the 2017 playoffs like Paul George may have. Brown had some nice moments, but championship teams rarely rely on players under the age of 22 in May or June. The learning curve is too steep, even for generational talents like Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns.
The Celtics could make lateral moves of Thomas or Horford for guys that defend or rebound better. Marc Gasol’s name was floated today as a trade target. They could ultimately move future draft picks, or Brown, or Tatum, for guys who are capable of working out. Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart have value. There is a scenario where the Celtics get to a level where they make life difficult for the Cavs. The team was scared at the trade deadline that they would get both Jimmy Butler and Paul George.
They aren’t there now. For now, they want to have their cake and eat it too. And it’s a fine cake. We’ll see if Ainge finds a way to break the grip the Cavs and Warriors have on the league. He hasn’t done it in the last week, but he’s got time.