Okay, take deep breaths. Everything will be all right. The best laid plans of mice and men and all that jazz. A week ago the sun seemed brighter, the Dunkins coffee tasted better, your Sam Adams was colder. Based upon the speculation of numerous media outlets it seemed viable that the 2017-2018 Boston Celtics would have their own Big 4 in place to overthrow King James. Danny Ainge was the mother of dragons, and he was summoning Gordon Hayward and Paul George to toss the Lanisters out of King’s Landing. Then the unthinkable happened (not because it was actually unthinkable, but because who the hell wanted to think of it, that’s no fun), and a hometown kid, a son of Boston betrayed the motherland and Sam Presti (from Concord Mass, and a graduate of Emerson) swooped in and stole Paul George.
(My theory on this by the way is that the GM of the Pacers Kevin Pritchard, who in a previous gig passed on drafting Kevin Durant to the Blazers in favor of the original Benjamin Button, Greg Oden. I can only imagine that to break whatever curse made him do that, he sent revealing photos of himself to Kevin Durant as an homage while Durant was in OKC, and obviously KD left those compromising photos in his locker when he left for Golden State, Presti then found them and used them to get Pritchard to send him Paul George for Victor “Can you believe they gave me a 4 year $84 million dollar contract” Oladipo, and Dom “I’m not half the player my father was” Sabonis. That is literally the only plausible explanation.)
So now PLAN A is defunct. The version that would have had the Celtics as legit challengers to the Cavs in the east (and would have been very interesting match up wise with the Warriors, not to say they’d beat them, but look how they would have matched up, it would have been interesting) is gone, and fans of green everywhere are getting ready to form a lynch mob for Danny Ainge. Stating emphatically that if Gordon Hayward decides to join the Morman Tabernacle choir in Utah, or chooses to take his talents and his dime piece of a wife to South Beach instead of joining his former college coach in Boston, that the off season will have been a failure.
So what if PLAN B falls through, what if Gordo (I’ve nicknamed him Gordo, because we’re cool like that) doesn’t give Danny the rose (or is it that he does give him the rose, I’ve literally never seen the Bachelor), and the Celtics are left on the third or fourth day of free agency looking around the room at who is left to dance with? Do we decide its time to run Ainge out of town? Do we jump off the Zakim… or the Towbin for those old enough to remember the pre-big dig landscape of the city? Noooo.
First off, if Ainge does decide he is hell bent on spending the cap room he’s got on an outsider, there will be options out there, we’ll call that PLAN C. As I write this (hold on, let me check for any Woj bombs real quick…okay, we’re good), he could turn his attention to a couple of floor spacing 4 Men in the form of Paul Milsap and Danilo Gallinari. Myself, while respectful of Milsap’s skills, have been hesitant to peg him to Boston. Mostly due to his age, but partly due to the fact that he and Horford were paired together in Atlanta for many years where Atlanta was the definition of being a very good regular season team with zero legitimate hope of actually accomplishing anything, which is what I don’t want from the C’s.
That being said, the options for Milsap have seemingly run out, Phoenix decided to pull back all their feelers and go full bore with the long term rebuild plan. The Timberwolves spent their power forward dollars on Taj Gibson. The Hawks, well at this point the Hawks are awful. At least the other bad teams have at least 1 young guy they can point too, and say “hey, that’s our starting point, lets build off him” (EVEN Brooklyn has that now with D’Angelo Russell), the Hawks don’t even have that. The landing spot most pointed too is Denver. Which I agree makes all the sense in the world. So why hasn’t it happened? I’m concerned the reason is that Milsap is waiting out the Celtics. If Gordo doesn’t come, he may prefer to re-join Al on the east coast. He could also be hoping that the Celtics would then turn their attention to Gallinari, thus providing Milsap with more leverage with Denver if Danilo is off the board.
The upside to losing out on Gordo (I’m trying to be positive here, stay with me) is that to sign Milsap or Gallinari likely (or I should say shouldn’t) doesn’t require a max contract. Leaving open the possibility of not having to stash Guerschon Yabusele another year, or having to jettison Terry Rozier, things that would need to happen in order to sign Hayward to a max deal. And after having had to watch Pablo “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval for the last 2 and a half years, we’d all like to have a bear (Dancing Bear) we can actually root for in town.
This brings us to PLAN D, or rather, what we’re calling Plan D. It in all likely hood has been Danny Ainge’s plan A from the get go. While he’s done due diligence checking in on Paul George, and has whined and dined Gordon Hayward (I’d be willing to bet Danny even sprung for the guac when they went to Chipotle for lunch today), at the end of the day the reports indicating that Ainge was unwilling to include the Brooklyn ’18 pick or the Lakers ’18/Kings ’19 pick in any deal indicate how committed he is to having the Celtics compete for championships over an extended window.
While guys like Al Horford and Isaiah Thomas could be nice grizzled veteran types when the Celtics are truly ready to reclaim their throne as NBA overlords, the keys to the Celtics future rests with Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Ante Zizic, Guerschon Yabusele, and those future picks.
The Brooklyn Nets could be slightly improved from last year. Obviously losing Brook Lopez hurts, but they’ve added Russell and Mozgov. Combine that with the East being diluted with the dismantling of the Bulls, Hawks, and Pacers and the Nets could have a slightly better record than they did last year. But the Nets pick doesn’t have to be #1 to hold value.
Same goes for the Lakers selection. In fact with the protections in place the Celtics would rather have the Lakers pick be #2 so it conveys next year. The Lakers themselves should also be improved. Lonzo Ball should instantly improve the offensive flow of the Lakers. Brandon Ingram will be a year older, and hopefully more physically ready to show the skills that made him the #2 overall pick last year. Julius Randle allegedly has committed himself to re-making his body composition. That along with some solid selections towards the end of the 1st round this year in the form of Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart (in particular I love Hart. I could see his impact being as underrated as Malcolm Brogdon’s was for the Bucks going into last season).
But….With the Lakers improving a little, the rest of the west has improved a lot. Leaving the Lakers in a position of spending the year developing Ball, Ingram, Zubac, Hart, Kuzma, Randle, while letting Luol Deng, Brook Lopez, and Corey Brewer show them how to be professionals (until the trade deadline, at which point I fully expect Lopez to be out the door). All before going all in adding 2 max level free agents in the summer of 2018 (wouldn’t they just love Westbrook and George to come west in a package deal. Letting Westbrook play off the ball, off Ball, is both interesting word play, and interesting to think about).
But the bottom line is that looking at the rosters as they stand now, I would still have the Lakers as one of the bottom 3 teams in the west. Which makes them one of the bottom 5 or so teams in the league record wise (remember you play 5/8ths of your schedule against your conference, and the gap between the Lakers and the majority of the Western Conference is larger than say the gap between the Nets and the majority of the Eastern Conference, even though head to head the Lakers would be considered the better team).
This all comes back around to the picks, and what the Celtics already have on hand to move forward with their rebuild. Does anyone remember the 2013 Boston Red Sox? That off season, GM Ben Cherington went out and added free agents on shorter deals, paying them a higher per year average then what they likely would have normally gotten in order to get the players to sign shorter deals. It included bringing in guys like Shane Victorino, and Mike Napoli. The Sox front office publically called it a bridge year. They were looking to field a competitive team while getting to the current team we see with young homegrown guys like Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Jackie Bradley Jr. That team won the World Series. That isn’t to say I expect the 2017-2018 Celtics to take home the Larry O’Brien, but rather to demonstrate that its not unfounded to just try and be competitive for a bit without compromising the brighter than the present future.
That’s what Ainge has in Horford, Thomas, and Crowder. Vets who can help develop the young guys, make the team competitive, and bridge the gap the next championship. NBA fans simply aren’t used to seeing this. It doesn’t happen in the NBA. You’re supposed to have to tank for a few years to be in a position to hit on these lotto picks. But Ainge lucked out and managed to get 4 lottery picks from the Nets (4 when you include him turning this year’s #1 into the #3 and the future Lakers pick). He’s already got Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in the building working on building chemistry.
We’ve had a year to watch Jaylen Brown develop. He has shown exceptional athletic ability, even by NBA standards, and is only scratching his potential. And while everyone was clamoring for Markelle Fultz with the first pick (myself included), Ainge was developing a preference for Jayson Tatum at the top of the draft. I’ve seen comparisons to Paul Pierce when talking about Tatum, and while I think that will be the popular call with the Celtics connection, when I reviewed film of Tatum I thought best case, he is the next version of Carmelo Anthony. Worst case, Allen Houston.
Those guys are already in the fold. If the Celtics are able to land two of the top 4 or 5 picks draft slots in the next draft they could be set for the next 10 years. I have to imagine that is Ainge’s plan. In the modern NBA, you essentially have 3 positions. Ball handler, perimeter, and post. Ideally, you’d like to have at least one of your wings be a viable rebounder/interior defender.
In watching film on the guys expected to be found towards the top of next years draft class I found four that I absolutely fell in love with. And in falling in love with them, I grew to understand Ainge’s reluctance to give up one of these picks for the chance (not the guarantee, but the chance) to convince Paul George to stay long term.
Any combination of the 2 of DeAndre Ayton, Michael Porter Jr, Collin Sexton, or Luka Doncic would be a coupe for the Celtics.
An Ayton/Porter combo would see the Celtics with a core of Ayton at the 5, Porter, Tatum, Brown on the wing with Porter as the “4”, and likely Marcus Smart as the ballhandler. An Ayton/Doncic combo would see the same result, except Tatum would be the “4”. And an Ayton/Sexton combo would provide the bookends, a post and a ball handler with Brown, Tatum, Smart (or Hayward?), etc. left to fill the perimeter positions. The NBA player DeAndre Ayton is most often compared to is The Admiral, David Robinson. If you’re compared to an NBA champion and hall of famer, you’re doing something right.
The likely number one overall pick (for sure number one pick if others agree with my assessment) in next years draft is Michael Porter Jr. Make sure you take the time to watch this kid tear up the SEC next year at Missouri. I had read comparisons of Kevin Durant and Joe Johnson, which I suppose is fair. But when I watched him, I thought, (and I don’t mean he’ll be the exact replica, or that he’ll be a once in a generation talent, but rather his overall game and physical frame remind me of) Lebron James. This kid had skill, physical ability and physical maturity. He could shoot, pass, rebound, score inside, outside, take it to the rim, everything.
As far as fit, if it were Porter/Sexton as the selections, you’d see Sexton slot in as the ball handler, with Brown, Tatum, Porter on the perimeter, and Ante Zizic in the post. If it were Porter and Doncic, you’d make it work. Slotting Brown or Tatum off the bench, or hell, you could go 5 out and play Porter at the 5, he’s that good and versatile. Just get the best 5 guys out there and let them play, especially when they display the inside/outside versatility of Tatum and Porter.
My favorite ball handler in this draft is Alabama’s Collin Sexton. Duval from Duke also has some skill, but I love the swagger, skill, and athleticism of Sexton. If it were Sexton and Doncic drafted you’d have a stud backcourt to go with Brown and Tatum up front.
And last but certainly not least is Luka Doncic. This is a kid, playing with grown men in Europe, and playing with a skill and smoothness not often seen at any age. Great size for the position, he’d be considered a true 2 guard, with a fantastic build. He can get to the rim, he can stroke it from the perimeter with an easy, fluid shooting motion, he can rebound, and plays with a flair.
As I watched these guys on film (granted, I haven’t seen any of them play up close and personal yet), I was blown away. I would consider each a potential franchise player. And as I pictured each playing with another, along with Tatum and Brown, I became very okay with the idea of not landing anyone in free agency.
Yes, the Celtics landing Hayward or Gallinari doesn’t effect their ability to land 2 of these young prospects. That’s the beautiful part of holding someone else’s “premium” picks, you don’t have to tank to obtain them. But if they strike out, and Hayward stays in Utah, if the trade for Anthony Davis never materializes, the world isn’t over. Remember that while yes, you don’t want to be in the position of using ALL the picks the Celtics have (6 first round picks in the next 2 drafts), you sure as hell don’t mind using high lottery picks.
I’ve had it pointed out by The Dude* that the point of obtaining these picks is to be able to draft a guy like Paul George or Jimmy Butler, so why not flip the pick for a sure thing version of Butler or George. And to that, I can see his point. But I would ask, can Jimmy Butler or Paul George be the best player on a championship team? Evidence would suggest, that while they’re both outstanding players, the answer is no. After watching Porter, and Doncic, I think either one is more likely to be that guy than either Butler or George, and the opportunity to combine them and have them coming into their own at the same time Lebron is ending his run of dominance and the Warriors become financially unsustainable is too good to pass up.
So take a deep breath. Stay off the bridge. It’ll be okay. Forget Trust the Process, go ahead and Trust the Leprechaun, where you can put together a young core to rival Philly’s without having to absolutely shit the bed for half a decade.
(side note, the brilliant part of the Ainge trade down that occurred to me while watching film on these ’18 prospects is that while he gave up Fultz, he also kept one of these guys out of Philly’s hands. And while I do think Fultz is better than Tatum, I’ll tell you with absolute certainty is that the difference between Fultz and Tatum is nothing compared to the difference of Tatum/(take your pick of Ayton, Porter, Sexton, Doncic) vs. Fultz/Nobody.)
*The Dude…. a Ducker, a group of degenerates you’ll see referenced on this website.
- Jason Sullivan
- Find me on Twitter @TopDucker