The Boston Rebuild: Fact or Fiction?

The spotlight is on the Boston Celtics front office after one of the busiest off-seasons we’ve ever witnessed. The Celtics retained just four players from the 15 man roster that reached the Eastern Conference Finals last season. Landing Kyrie Irving, on top of the marquee free agency signing of Gordon Hayward, has set expectations sky-high for a franchise looking to challenge for championships in both the short and long run.

In his rebuilding of the Celtics, General Manager Danny Ainge has been quick. It was just a decade ago when Ainge oversaw his first championship run after cashing in his assets for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. But 2013 marked the start of a new era for the Celtics as the front office pulled off, arguably, the greatest heist in NBA history through a trade with the Brooklyn Nets, acquiring four future first-round picks for a series of aged veterans. Ever since then, Ainge’s philosophy of signing productive players with specific roles has led to three consecutive playoff appearances.

This off-season represented the final chapter of the transformative Brooklyn trade. It brought Kyrie Irving to the franchise, a proven scorer and closer with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and a player who is seen by many as one of the few true superstars in the league today. Gordon Hayward will add tremendous strength to the Celtics offensive juggernaut with his ability to score from anywhere on the court. Being reunited with Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, who coached Hayward during their famous NCAA playoff run with Butler in 2010, could have added benefits for Hayward’s development.

The draft provided the Celtics with further reinforcements on the wing, namely Jayson Tatum. Despite managing to seal the first pick, the Celtics front office cleverly traded down to third with the Sixers, as it was likely that their main target (Tatum) would still be available at that pick. While Tatum’s impact is highly dependent on his ability to develop a defensive game, he has an enormous ceiling, and his promising showing in the Summer League hinted at his ability to transform into a superstar of the future.

While Ainge may be praised for his ability to secure an incredible trade, as he did in 2013 with the Nets, his assessment when drafting players has been far from successful. His first Brooklyn pick turned into James Young who spent the majority of his time in the D-League. Ainge selected Marcus Smart with the sixth pick in the same draft over Zach LaVine and Nikola Jokic. With the third pick in the 2016 draft, he selected Jaylen Brown, whose offensive game has failed to cause NBA defenses any major problems as of yet.

The splurge on Gordon Hayward did result in some repercussions. The Celtics had to deal off some valuable assets to make salary space, including Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynk and Jonas Jerebko, who were all on reasonable contracts. Furthermore, the Kyrie trade led to the loss of late-game specialist Isaiah Thomas, as well as two-way threat Jae Crowder.

Offloading Isaiah could be considered a smart move, given that he is likely to demand a max contract in his looming free agency, though many believe that he is not worth the money due to his lack of impact on the defensive end with his 5’9 frame. However, Jae Crowder’s value was truly undervalued on the Celtics. Besides being on one of the most franchise-friendly contracts in the league, his ability to take on the task of guarding the opposition’s best players was critical.

The Celtics current payroll stands at $111 million, under the luxury tax limit of $119. This may seem like a promising number, given that they aren’t even in the top-half of payrolls in the league, though problems may arise in the coming seasons. Al Horford, who contributed just 14 points and 7 rebounds last season, is set to make $87 million over the next three years. Furthermore, the Celtics may struggle to find potential suitors upon the completion of his contract, given that he will be 34.

Kyrie may not be the player the Celtics have made him out to be. While there is no doubt about his special ability to score at will near the hoop, he has failed to demonstrate the ability to lead a team, as he is expected to do in Boston. Irving has consistently struggled to make the players around him better, given his score-first mentality. Last season, Kyrie lost all three of the games he played in without LeBron James at his side, despite putting up 34 points in one of these losses to the Bulls. The Bulls game clearly underlined his tendency to shine individually without leading his team to victory.

Being in a substantially weaker Eastern Conference, the Celtics should have no problems reaching the Conference Finals for a second successive year. The defining point, however, comes with their inevitable matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The workings of their front office will truly be tested.

Calling what Danny Ainge has done the greatest rebuild by an NBA franchise is far too premature. The team must justify this through trips to the NBA Finals over the next decade. Only then can we judge the fruits of the current Celtics front office’s labor.


photo via llananba