The clock is beginning to run out on the first phase of the Boston Celtics' rebuilding plan, and even general manager Danny Ainge may be powerless to stop it.
Put simply, the problem is this: Boston is stuck, and it needs help from the basketball universe to get unstuck. Unfortunately, the basketball universe has not been in an obliging mood this summer.
Others teams, like the Portland Trail Blazers, may have incurred a greater loss in talent this offseason. Others still, like the Toronto Raptors, may not have made the best use of the draft picks and cap space afforded to them.
But only the Celtics have had a Stop Work Order placed on their roster construction. They're caught between being a good lottery team and a bad playoff team when they want to be either a bad lottery team or a good playoff team.
Without a valve to release some of the pressure, the problem is only going to get more complicated next summer when the first batch of Boston's young talent hits the restricted free-agency market.
So how did Boston get into this problem—or rather why couldn't Boston get out of this problem?
A draft that bore no fruit
Leading up to the draft, ESPN's Marc Stein and Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times both reported the Celtics were using guard Marcus Smart as bait to grab a high lottery pick. Whatever the offer turned it out to be, no one was interested.
Ainge then tried to move up in the draft, according to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer, but the Hornets rebuffed the offer. The presumed target of that move was Duke wing Justice Winslow, who ended up going 10th to Miami.
Ultimately, the Celtics were forced to execute their own selections, taking point guard Terry Rozier at No. 16 and wing R.J. Hunter at No. 28.
Both players could wind up being solid NBA players, but neither is expected to turn into a star. Of greater concern is the redundancy factor: Only one year earlier, Boston used the sixth pick on Smart and the 17th pick on wing James Young. In fact, here's what ESPN's Chad Ford had to say about the selection of Rozier:
Thanks to Zack Cox of NESN.com, we know Smart is also wondering what's going on:
This is the basketball equivalent of admirably coping with the wrong Tetris blocks as the stack grows to the top of the screen. Eventually, you need to get the right blocks in order to create a horizontal line and clear some space.
A typical Boston foray into free agency
A great post from 2013 on CelticsLife.com outlines the franchise's best-ever free-agent signings. The poll features such names as Xavier McDaniel, Dana Barros and a 35-year-old Dominique Wilkins.
It's dire stuff that shows just how much of a struggle it's been to lure a free agent to Boston, even with the team's storied history. This summer was no different.
Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski confirmed what was speculated all year—that Kevin Love was the Celtics' primary target:
Love, of course, stayed in Cleveland, and there's not much evidence to suggest Boston had meetings with any of the other top free agents.
Ainge did manage to retain Jonas Jerebko and Jae Crowder while also securing Amir Johnson from Toronto, but those guys won't do anything more than help the team maintain the status quo.
The general stickiness of the situation
The immediate concern is the numbers crunch that is going to start devaluing the team's assets—assets Boston needs to trade for a star. The Celtics have 12 players on the books for next season, plus up to three first-round picks. Of those 12 players:
- Two veterans (Johnson and Jerebko) have non-guaranteed deals.
- Five are on their rookie contracts (not including the three potential first-rounders).
- Two (Tyler Zeller and Jared Sullinger) are hitting restricted free agency.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, Zeller (18.9) and Sullinger (17.9) finished third and fourth on the team in player efficiency rating last season, respectively, and will draw interest in free agency. Boston can keep them, but they'll lose value once they are signed to big contracts.
Keeping the duo, as well as the reasonable contracts of Johnson and Jerebko, will put the Celtics at their roster limit before free agency begins. They need to find a way to consolidate their assets without merely kicking the can down the road by acquiring future picks (of which they already have plenty).
The young talent Ainge has thus far collected is solid, but no one seems poised to make a major leap. Smart has the most upside, but he only shot 36.7 percent from the floor as a rookie.
The best and only route for Boston to find its star is the trade market. The problem, though, is fairly obvious: A star first needs to become available. Beyond that, the Celtics are also on the verge of losing some of the assets Ainge acquired to use in a trade for a star in the first place.
With the salary cap set to rise considerably over the next two seasons, teams and players alike are willing to be patient so they can see how things shake out. It's unlikely we'll see major moves such as the ones Ainge pulled off in 2007 until the financial landscape of the NBA is fully understood.
Boston is stuck.
It hasn't done anything wrong this offseason; it just hasn't gotten any help.