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Quantity vs. Quality: Where Can Boston Celtics Find Their Next Star?

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterAugust 11, 2015

WALTHAM, MA - JUNE 30:  Danny Ainge listens to Marcus Smart speak to the media during a press conference on June 30, 2014 at the Boston Celtics Training Center in Waltham, Massachusetts . NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

If there is, in fact, a blueprint for rebuilding in the NBA, Danny Ainge has followed it to a T. Once it became clear that the Boston Celtics' latest glorious era was coming to a close, Ainge moved quickly to clear out the old and make room for the new.

He obliged Doc Rivers' desire to guide a title contender, trading his coach to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for a first-round pick. He made the tough call with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett (and Jason Terry and D.J. White) that Red Auerbach never did with the likes of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. While Auerbach hung onto his stars long past their respective expiration dates, Ainge dealt his to the Brooklyn Nets, scoring a slew of cap-filling contracts and (more importantly) a treasure trove of draft picks in the process.

Celtics' Draft Picks Through 2020
20162017201820192020
1st roundBOS, BKN, DAL (top-7 protected), MIN (top-12 protected)BOS (swap w/ BKN)BOS, BKN, MEM (top-13 protected)BOSBOS
2nd roundPHI, DAL/MEM (better of the two), MIA, CLEBOS, MIN, CLE, LACBOSBOS, DETBOS, MIA
ESPN's Chris Forsberg

Since then, Trader Danny has continued to wheel-and-deal away members of the team's previous core. Last December, he flipped Rajon Rondo and Dwight Powell to the Dallas Mavericks for Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson, Brandan Wright and two first-round picks. Less than a month later, he extracted another first-round pick, this time for the Memphis Grizzlies, by way of a three-team trade built around Jeff Green. Hindsight being what it is, both deals now look like feathers in Ainge's well-decorated cap.

So far, though, Ainge's actions, while textbook in their execution, have yet to yield the sort of budding star on which his eye had been trained.

Not that the Celtics won't stumble upon one (or more) soon.

Unfortunately for folks in Beantown, this summer didn't seem to yield the C's next cornerstone. As NBA.com's David Aldridge detailed, while Ainge cashed in some of his chips, he couldn't quite find a bona fide difference-maker whose brilliance might bring Boston back to prominence:

Ainge stuck to the script for a couple of years of trying to build through the Draft, but after not getting high enough in the first round to get impact players, he sped up the process, turning over half of the roster -- starting with signing [Amir] Johnson from Toronto and getting [David] Lee from the NBA champs. Lee insists he's more than cool with the move, which will at least get him out of dry dock. Both he and Johnson should help the Celtics' frontcourt, which will help coach Brad Stevens, who got Boston to play outstanding team defense the second half of last season.

Johnson and Lee should, in fact, bolster Boston's efforts near the basket. The former is a better and more athletic defender than anyone the Celtics employed up front last season. Better yet, Johnson has proven to be a proficient (41.3 percent shooting from three) if infrequent (0.6 attempts per game) long-range shooter at the 4.

Lee, meanwhile, is (presumably) more skilled in the art of interior scoring than pretty much all of his new teammates. Prior to his season spent warming the bench in Golden State, Lee, a two-time All-Star, had averaged 18.2 points over his previous six campaigns. That reputation makes Lee enough of a threat to draw the occasional double-team—and, in turn, open up the floor for his nifty passing out of the post.

Steven Senne/Associated Press

Still, neither of these bigs, while helpful, comes equipped with the magnetic talent or the extended tenure to be a central building block. Johnson's a fine pick-and-roll finisher, scoring 1.16 points per possession on such plays, and a competitive rebounder, grabbing 49 percent of his caroms out of contested opportunities. But his skill set doesn't befit being the focal point of a functional NBA offense, and his contract isn't guaranteed beyond this season.

Lee, on the other hand, is ticketed for free agency in 2016, has long struggled to defend and is probably past the prime, in terms of both age (32) and health, in which he might've been a No. 1 option.

Certainly, neither of these two is on a par with Kevin Love, who would've been Ainge's top target in July, per Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler, had the All-Star forward not re-signed in Cleveland.

It's possible that Love will be available before too long. As Sporting News' Sean Deveney wrote in early July, Love may not be long for Cleveland, pending Tristan Thompson's contract status:

Executives around the league told Sporting News on Wednesday that Love eventually could wind up back on the trading block, but the Cavs needed to re-sign him rather than risk losing him for nothing in return. Thompson deserves a starting spot, and the Cavs are confident that, eventually, a smaller lineup with Thompson at center and Love at power forward will work.

Love may not be the only talented big man on the block either. What happens to DeMarcus Cousins if Sacramento's volatile mix of personalities combusts? Could disgruntled stars approaching free agency in other cities start angling toward the exits, as happens every so often?

All the better, then, that Ainge has played his hand patiently rather than cashing his chips. The question is, what would the Celtics have to give up to bring a star into their midst?

As tall as Ainge's stack of assets at the NBA's trading table may be, none of those at his disposal looks at all to be a blue-enough chip to convince another general manager to part ways with one of his team's most prized players.

Beyond their own picks, the Celtics could own as many as five first-rounders and five second-rounders between now and 2020, per Basketball Insiders. That count doesn't include the first-round swap rights that Boston has with Brooklyn in 2017—one of the final remnants of the Pierce-Garnett trade.

In reality, many of those draft options may well turn out to be fool's gold. On paper, the Celtics could end up with three extra first-round picks in 2016, but one (Minnesota's) will convert to a pair of second-rounders if it doesn't land among the top 12 and the other (Dallas') is top-seven protected until 2021.

As for the third, Brooklyn's 2016 first-rounder is unprotected but won't be worth a King's ransom on the trade market unless the Nets completely collapse, which seems unlikely given their solid base of veteran talent between Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson and Thaddeus Young. The same goes for the pick swap in 2017 and the C's outright ownership of the Nets' top selection in 2018.

A top-10-protected 2017 pick from Memphis won't mean much for Boston's trade prospects if the Grizzlies are still good after this season. And if the Celtics stay competitive under head coach Brad Stevens (which seems likely), their own first-rounders won't spur other executives into action.

Ainge is probably all too aware of this, after his attempt to package mid-level picks for something juicier fell flat this past June. As Grantland's Zach Lowe revealed:

...Boston put Charlotte on the other end of a quantity-for-quality pitch. The Celtics offered four first-round picks for the chance to move up from no. 16 to no. 9: that 16th pick, no. 15 (acquired in a prearranged contingency deal with the Hawks), one unprotected future Brooklyn pick, and a future first-rounder from either the Grizzlies or Timberwolves, per sources familiar with the talks.

Some members of Charlotte’s front office liked the Boston deal, but Michael Jordan, the team’s owner and ultimate decision-maker, preferred Kaminsky to a pile of first-rounders outside the lottery, per several sources.

If that smorgasbord of selections wasn't enough to push the C's up seven spots in the draft order, how could one of equal or lesser overall value be parlayed into a more fully formed player, much less a star?

The 2015 draft looked the one during which Ainge had the most leverage to make a major move, at least as far as his own war chest was concerned. Unfortunately, the class of available prospects looked relatively weak after the first handful of players.

Without a clear means of climbing the draft board and in the absence of sure bets beyond the high lottery, Ainge appeared, instead, to reach for less highly heralded talent.

At No. 16, he nabbed Louisville's Terry Rozier, a strong, defensive-minded guard with work to do on his jump shot...not unlike Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart, both of whom are already in Boston. With the No. 28 pick (i.e. the one handed over by the Clippers for Rivers), the C's selected Georgia State's R.J. Hunter, a perimeter scorer who struggled with his shot as a junior in college (39.5 percent from the field, 30.5 percent from tree) and during summer league (31.6 percent from the field, 35.6 percent from three).

LSU's Jordan Mickey, Boston's choice at No. 33 in the second round, had himself a solid summer league, particularly on the defensive end (7.9 rebounds, 2.4 blocks). But playing time at forward may be tough for him to come by, with Johnson and Jae Crowder in line to take over and Lee, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller also among those fighting for minutes in the middle.

For what it's worth, Ainge wasn't fretting about not shaking up the draft after the fact. "In hindsight, the next day, it’s probably a good thing (that the Celtics didn’t make a trade)," Ainge said the day after the 2015 draft on 98.5 The Sports Hub (h/t NESN's Mike Cole). "We were probably going to spend too much to do what we needed to do."

And, really, one failed trade doesn't doom every other possibility. Another front office might've jumped at the chance to stock up on the picks Boston offered up. Others could find such an offer even more attractive in the future, what with free-agent salaries skyrocketing while the rates for first-round rookie contracts remain locked in.

If another team is desperate to offload a distressed asset before said asset walks away for nothing—and there are no better offers out there—the Celtics could be poised to pounce and come away with the big prize. The key is to remain flexible and strike when the time is right, not out of desperation or emotion.

Even that would be a better bet than waiting on Boston to bring in a big-time free agent. Beantown has never been a destination for elite talent on the open market, and despite the franchise's historic success, the Celtics' 17 championship banners haven't been enough to draw in the best of the best.

So while Ainge awaits the next disgruntled superstar angling for a way out, he'll have to hope for some in-house growth from the players already on hand.

The C's certainly aren't short on youth and the upside that comes with it. The list of guys in Boston who are 25 or younger is a lengthy one:

Celtics Aged 25 and Under
NameBirthday
Avery Bradley11/26/1990
Jae Crowder7/6/1990
Kelly Olynyk4/19/1991
Marcus Smart3/6/1994
Jared Sullinger3/4/1992
James Young8/16/1995
Tyler Zeller1/17/1990
Perry Jones III9/24/1991
Terry Rozier*3/17/1994
Jordan Mickey*7/9/1994
R.J. Hunter*10/24/1993
* = rookie, Basketball Reference

As far as future potential, though, few (if any) project as stars down the road. Bradley, Crowder, Olynyk, Sullinger and Zeller have all shown themselves to be solid rotation players with distinct skill sets: Bradley's an ace defender, Crowder is a physical presence on the wing, Olynyk and Sullinger (when healthy) can stretch the floor with their size and shooting and Zeller runs the court well for a player his size.

Jones, on the other hand, remains an enigma, albeit a gifted one, after three years toiling at the end of Oklahoma City's bench.

Trouble is, none of those guys has yet demonstrated the sort of dynamism that separates the best from the rest, that allows one player to bend defenses to his will and, in turn, serve as the fulcrum of a functional NBA offense, if not also a game-changer on the other end. Likewise, these youngsters all have a long way to go if they're ever to serve as centerpieces in blockbuster trades.

Evan Turner might've come closer to that if he were a better shooter and a stronger defender. Isaiah Thomas can put up points in a hurry and may well be Boston's most dynamic force right now, but his diminutive stature makes him a liability on defense and his score-first style makes him better suited to a role as the leader of a second unit.

For now, it's too early to tell, either way, what Young, Rozier, Hunter and Mickey will be capable of at the NBA level. Young played just 31 games for the Celtics as a rookie while shuttling between Boston and the team's D-League affiliate in Maine. The other three are incoming rookies whose experience in the Association is limited to what little they encountered during summer league play in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.

The closest thing the Celtics have to a star-in-waiting is Marcus Smart, the No. 6 pick in the 2014 draft. Smart's rookie season was uneven and, at times, injury-riddled. He missed three weeks with an ankle injury in November and December and didn't take over starting duties in Boston until early February, about a month-and-a-half after Rondo's fateful flight to Texas.

On the whole, though, Smart flashed his tantalizing talent and tremendous tenacity enough to suggest he might be the one to take this Boston squad to the next level at some point. He was a bulldog on defense, and while he was far from a marksman, Smart shot better from three (33.5 percent) than he did at any point during his two seasons at Oklahoma State.

Smart seemed to be taking that all-important next step during summer league, particularly after consecutive outings of at least 22 points and seven assists in Utah. But a pair of dislocated fingers cut short Smart's offseason showcase.

Despite that, Smart did enough on the court to earn some serious praise from MassLive.com's Jay King:

Smart was also impressive on the court before the dislocated fingers. Can he develop into a star? I don't know. He still needs to harness his shot selection, improve his outside consistency and become craftier off the dribble. But he has better odds of achieving stardom than anyone else on the roster, and some people around the league believe he has a legitimate chance. Just two months after the regular season, he clearly looked more comfortable picking the right spots to use his weight and athleticism to get into the paint. In some ways Smart is already special, and he's rounding out the jagged parts of his game.

Moreover, per King, Smart brought a unique energy to and stepped up as a leader for the C's at summer league. That's huge for any player, but especially for one whose past is as pock-marked with regrettable incidents from both on and off the court as is Smart's. So long as Smart is able to mature as both a player and a person while holding onto the fiery competitive streak that has become his signature, he could be in line for big things in Boston.

At that point, Ainge may have himself a star to build around, one whose ability and sheer magnetism could make the Celtics more attractive to option for prospective free agents. Or, perhaps Smart could become the trade bait that brings in the Moby Dick of Boston basketball, whomever that may be.

It'll be up to Ainge to decide which path is more prudent, assuming either emerges as a way forward. "Every deal you do, there’s a price," he told Deseret News' Brad Rock in July. "And so you always have to evaluate the price and if it’s worth it."

One thing is for sure: Trader Danny will always have his finger on the pulse of the league, seeking out ways to improve the Celtics' lot. How exactly he goes about doing so is difficult to predict, probably even for Ainge himself.

Chances are, Ainge didn't expect to Boston to be back in the playoffs after a single trip to the lottery. That quick move back toward the middle of the NBA could cost the Celtics the shot at drafting another stud that rebuilding teams in Philadelphia, New York, Portland and elsewhere either have had, will have or both.

In the NBA, there's no fool-proof method for turning a team into a title contender because there's no fool-proof means of landing the stars that are all but prerequisites for championship competition.

Fortunately for the C's, Ainge is no fool. In all likelihood, he has a plan for putting Boston back on the basketball map in relatively short order, though the proof of his plan isn't yet in the proverbial pudding.

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.