So when the team decided last summer to hand the reins to a baby-faced 36-year-old from a mid-major college conference, the writing was on the wall for Celtics fans: After years of nearly constant contention, it was going to be a long road back for Boston.
Judging by his six-year, $22 million deal, Brad Stevens—the coaching wunderkind who’d made his name as the brains behind Butler University’s steady ascendance—isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
So how long until he truly turns the Celtics around?
The short answer: Not this season, or the next one. And probably not the one after that, either.
Cold reality aside, you can’t accuse Boston of not having a plan in place. Like many teams, the Celtics stand to have boatloads of cash to spend in 2015 and 2016—the latter of which could find them with the full complement of cap space, depending on how the various options shake out.
Still, with a bevy of big names slated to become available, Boston isn’t the only team with eyes for the next two summers. To have any chance of reeling in a Marc Gasol, Goran Dragic or—taking it another notch up—Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook, the Celtics’ youth-laden core must be rounded out to something resembling rotational coherence.
For Boston, the biggest X-factor lies in who will be the team’s point guard of the future, a question cast into towering relief following their recent selection of Marcus Smart with the sixth overall pick in June’s draft.
On the one hand, picking the 20-year-old Smart to serve a season or two as a backup to four-time All-Star Rajon Rondo seems like a pretty sound strategy.
On the other, there are stone statues easier to read than the Celtics’ mercurial floor general. Indeed, it seems not a week has gone by in the past year when Rondo has't been mentioned either as trade fodder or—at the other extreme—as being open to serving as Boston’s new cornerstone.
Now, with the team still looking at two or three more years of doldrums-dwelling and Smart the clear heir apparent, it seems Rondo’s days in Beantown are ticking ever downward.
From Stevens' perspective, it’s not hard to see how Smart provides the more compelling long-term play. In both frame and drive, the rookie point guard can’t help but conjure memories of Stevens’ longtime Butler floor general, Shelvin Mack—albeit with a bigger build, better penetrating prowess and oodles more upside.
It’s the rest of the roster that could stand a smidge more certainty.
Of Boston’s many young talents, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk—with their double-double potential and cheap price tags—stand the best chance of seeing Boston’s rebuild through. Not surprising, given the two’s efficient production and ability to stretch the floor.
And while Jeff Green’s $9.2 million player option for the 2015-16 season looms large indeed, Boston can use a stopgap 3 to hold the fort until James Young, the versatile forward out of Kentucky, learns the ropes of Stevens’ system.
One look at the Celtics’ depth chart makes it crystal clear that, much like last season, 2014-15 is sure to be a wash. But with three more first-round picks on the way in 2015, Boston has achieved a level of financial flexibility paramount in today’s NBA, beholden as it is to a parity-driven collective bargaining agreement.
However, those fans looking to next summer for the team’s next big coup would be wise to heed the analysis of Bleacher Report’s D.J. Foster, who back in March explained why next year could be even more painful for Boston fans:
Point being, Boston is in the position to use its cap space next year not to sign its own free agents, but rather to be a salary-dump destination and get rewarded with picks. It's like what the Utah Jazz did for the Golden State Warriors this offseason in the three-team deal with the Denver Nuggets that landed the Warriors Andre Iguodala (and the Jazz two unprotected future first-round picks).
Rather than go all-in on what will most likely be a second-tier free-agent class, the Celtics would instead be wise to absorb other team’s financial flotsam—expiring contracts, in a pair of words—in exchange for even more draft-day bullion.
Not only does that kind of war chest allow a franchise to better hedge on its youth, but it gives them myriad more options once the trade deadline rolls around.
Indeed, Ainge stated as much during a press conference conducted back in March.
"We will [have cap space], not just by signing free agents into cap space this summer, but through sign-and-trades,” Ainge said. “We have a lot of flexibility for sign-and-trade potential. Next summer we will have cap space, unless we use it on a bigger deal this summer."
Whatever the Celtics’ long-term approach—and given the built-in dynamism, it could be one of a hundred—it’s clear they’ve staked their future squarely on the clipboard of their soft-spoken coach.
For a first-time NBA coach with a scant six seasons of Division I experience to his credit, committing $22 million over a half-dozen years is virtually unprecedented.
Then again, so too was Stevens’ reputation.
And therein lies the rub: In hiring Stevens, Boston sought a coach who, like the players he’d be charged with marshaling, still has plenty of room to grow. And while the near-future picture might not look all that pristine, the Celtics' front office—led by Ainge and assistant general manager Mike Zarren—have given their pedagogical prodigy as diverse a palate as possible to paint the team’s next great masterpiece.
In short, Boston’s strategy is to imbue itself with so much flexibility that at any given point the team is in a position to either allow Stevens and his charges to grow organically or reload at a moment’s notice.
Exactly when or how the Celtics’ next banner will be raised remains, at this point, a question without a definitive answer. Whatever Boston’s ultimate endgame, though, it’s clear Stevens—a coaching cornerstone if ever there was one—will be there to see it through.