When the Boston Celtics traded Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets and let Doc Rivers walk to the Los Angeles Clippers, their odds of winning a title in the near future dropped from exceedingly slim to completely irrational.
That’s OK. The four unprotected first-round draft picks Boston acquired in those two separate transactions—combined with their own first-round picks from 2014 through 2018—serve as sturdy bricks for the years ahead.
The process of getting really bad before getting really good is called "rebuilding" for a reason: it's arduous. How much time it takes for the Celtics to close in on their goal is unforeseeable due to a wide array of variables, but any team in the league that isn’t currently positioned to compete for a championship this season or next would more than love to share Boston's view.
So, what are those variables? First, let it be said that the two most probable ways Boston will acquire their next superstar is through the draft or in a trade. Free agency is the third route, but traveling down it is risky.
(The Celtics probably won’t be under the salary cap until 2015 anyway, and even then that doesn’t include Rajon Rondo’s next contract and Avery Bradley’s second contract—should they both still be around.)
Back to projecting a timetable. Here are a few questions that will dictate how long it’ll take for Boston to get back to the top.
Will they trade Rondo?
This is the biggest question in Boston, and layered beneath it lies further uncertainty: how will Rondo play after tearing his ACL, what can the Celtics get for him and does Rondo (and his agent) believe a max contract is realistic when his current one expires in 2015?
Who knows the answers to any of these questions right now (except the last one). If they keep him and he’s healthy, the Celtics will have the league’s best passer on board and in his prime to alleviate their renovation. If they trade him, they’ll bottom out, increasing the likelihood of a high draft pick.
Are there any top-20 players available in a trade?
This is the route Boston took to first acquire Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, but unfortunately, no player capable of impacting a team the way Garnett did in 2008 appears to be available right now, no matter how much Danny Ainge throws in the pot.
The combination of multiple first round picks and young, cheap, promising players like Bradley, MarShon Brooks, Jared Sullinger and, possibly, Kelly Olynyk (Fab Melo might be valued highly by one of the league’s other 29 teams, but right now he doesn’t qualify for this list) makes Boston a prime trade partner for any team in the league looking to receive valuable assets for a high-priced All-Star.
That list of All-Stars who might be available next summer is short, though, highlighted by Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge. There's no guarantee either will be available, though, especially if their respective teams show drastic improvement in 2014, which is expected. From there we have the likes of DeMarcus Cousins and Greg Monroe, inexperienced big men who’re about to get (over) paid. It's possible neither ever makes an All-Star team, let alone is good enough to lead Boston to the playoffs.
If someone else unexpectedly becomes available—like James Harden did for the Houston Rockets last year—the Celtics will be there to make as good an offer as anybody.
(Depending on how he continues to develop over the next couple seasons, Harrison Barnes is one player who could run parallel beside the James Harden model. The differences between Golden State and Oklahoma City are Golden State’s willingness to pay the luxury tax and Harden being a much better player. Also, Barnes isn’t eligible for a big payday until 2016. Klay Thompson might apply as well.)
Where will the Celtics be slotted in the 2014 and 2015 draft, and where will the Nets and Clippers be slotted in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018?
This is obviously a huge factor. If the Celtics are awful next year and end up with a top-five pick, they might have their next superstar right away—albeit one who should take a couple years to evolve. The 2016 and 2018 first-rounders from Brooklyn feel like a mirage, but who knows what the Nets will look like by then? Will Mikhail Prokhorov still be the owner?
It’s highly unlikely the Celtics use all of their nine first-round picks in the next five drafts, but they aren't going to strike out repeatedly, either. First-round picks have lots of value, and right now the Celtics have a ton to play with however best they see fit.
There are only seven or eight true superstars in the NBA each season, and there’s no guarantee the Celtics find one next year so much as it could take another 20. Luck is a factor, and variables are endless. But given the organization's brain power at the top, and their proven track record as a group of decision-makers that understands where and how to gauge value, it should be sooner rather than later that the Celtics are once again fighting through the thick of playoff basketball.