What happens if the Celtics do nothing big this summer? They did not land Jimmy Butler in a trade, Paul George went to Oklahoma City, Blake Griffin re-signed with the Clippers, what if the Celtics strike out with Gordon Hayward and he chooses to stay in Utah (or go to Miami)?
First, Celtics fans will freak out online.
Then in the fall the Celtics bring back a team that was the top seed in the East last year, made the conference Finals, and who added the No. 3 pick in the draft. They remain the biggest threat to Cleveland in the East. The Celtics are still stacked with draft picks and talent and look to be a team poised to be the next big power in the conference.
In short, nothing changes. My conversations with people in and around the Celtics have them thinking of building something sustainable that hits in 2019 or 2020, they are not in win-now mode like the Cavaliers or Rockets. Celtics fans may want to knock over the LeBron wall in the East next season, but that wall could be gone in two years (he goes to the West in 2018) or will just start to crumble around him (that could even start to happen next season).
Things are not dire in Boston even if they miss out on all the guys targeted. The Celtics are still in an excellent position, just one that requires patience and vision. Danny Ainge has those things, fans tend not to.
That said, the pressure to land Gordon Hayward this summer in free agency certainly has ramped up some.
The challenge for Boston is that their cap space for the future goes away next summer when Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Marcus Smart all come up for new contracts — no way Boston keeps all of them anyway. That said, it’s easier for Boston if they can add Hayward this summer then decide what moves to make after seeing how all the pieces fit together. While people in Utah remain confident they can retain Hayward, the rest of the league seems to think he’s ready to move on (especially if George Hill and Joe Ingles leave as well). If he goes, Boston is in the driver’s seat.
The frustration in not landing George after seeing him go to OKC for Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo is understandable. Same with seeing Butler go to Minnesota for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the No. 7 pick.
Boston has in its pocket the Nets first round pick in 2018 unprotected, the Lakers pick in 2019 (if it falls 2-5, otherwise it is the better of either the Kings or Sixers pick in 2019), the Clippers pick in 2019 (lottery protected), the Grizzlies pick in 2019 (lottery protected), Boston’s own picks the next two years, plus players such as Jaylen Brown, Jae Crowder, Jayson Tatum, and on down the line. It’s easy to blame Ainge for being too cautious, not pushing his chips into the middle and using those assets to get an elite player now.
Except he did offer more for George, back at the trade deadline when a couple of those picks including next year’s Brooklyn pick, were on the table, but the Pacers then GM Larry Bird didn’t want to move George. When the organization was forced to move him, they reportedly asked for the Nets pick, the Lakers pick, plus players — way more than they got from OKC. Talk around the league is that in part Kevin Pritchard, the Pacers GM, did not want to send George to a team in the East where he could re-sign without a massive return (which explains not taking Cavaliers’ deal, either). Zach Lowe of ESPN says that the Celtics and Nuggets had worked out a three-team deal that ended with George in Cleveland and Kevin Love in Denver, but Indiana kept moving the goal posts. In the end, the Pacers took on Victor Oladipo rather than Gary Harris, which is not the decision most other NBA teams would have made.
Is Danny Ainge waiting for the perfect deal? Yes.
Does he have to cash in some of those hoarded assets at some point to get the final pieces needed for a contender? Absolutely.
But that time is not the summer of 2017. Paul George is not the last, best hope of the Celtics. Other opportunities will arise. Ainge and the Celtics can be patient. Even if the fan base is not.