The 6-4 Boston Celtics are off to an admirable start, with several signature victories already in the bag. But the season is young, and there are plenty of things yet to be accomplished for the 2015-16 campaign to be a success.
Success in the NBA can have many interpretations. For some franchises, it's championship-or-bust. For others, establishing a solid foundation and accomplishing smaller goals is the only way to eventually reach the summit. The Celtics find themselves somewhere in the middle, making the team's short-term ambitions more ambiguous.
Boston is one of the youngest squads in the league. That makes this group's accomplishments that much more impressive so far. It's still a rebuilding project, but some of the raw pieces for a future title contender are already in place.
If they manage to allocate resources correctly and focus on the right things, the Celtics will be in excellent position for a future leap to the top.
Making the Playoffs
Boston has avoided the most commonly traveled road back to relevance. Instead of stinking for a couple of years and building through the draft, the Celtics have sprung into playoff contention almost immediately. It's not always the safest option, but there is precedent of this being an effective method.
The Houston Rockets could've thrown in the towel when they lost Yao Ming to premature retirement in 2011. Instead, they employed a risky strategy of hovering just outside the playoffs, hopeful that a superstar would become available. It didn't take long for James Harden to land in Houston's lap in 2012, and the rest is history.
The worst thing a rebuilding team can do is commit big money to veterans who make the roster better in the present but don't have a place in the long-term vision. Boston has avoided that to a large degree, building piece by piece. The Celtics now have both roster flexibility and a competitive young core.
The hope is that a superstar will glance at Boston and see a team that is one or two pieces short of title contention. That scenario would be impossible if the Celtics engaged in a three-year tanking plan with no intention to be competitive.
Continuing to make the playoffs is a necessity for Boston's current path to make sense. It provides invaluable experience for the team's youngsters, who get exposure on the biggest stage early in their careers.
Adding a young talent through the draft is always exciting and can set up a franchise for years to come. Serendipitously, Boston owns the Brooklyn Nets' first-round pick, which projects to be a high-lottery selection, as well as a top-seven-protected slot from Dallas in the 2016 NBA draft, per RealGM. The Celtics can indulge in the luxury of competing for a playoff spot while maintaining the ability to build through the draft.
Getting to the postseason will be harder this year, but a top-eight finish is crucial for this to be a success.
Improve the Roster
The Celtics have a lot of intriguing young players, almost all of whom are simultaneously valuable trade assets available for a major deal.
Celtics president Danny Ainge is no stranger to making big moves. He didn't hesitate to clear his aging roster by moving Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in 2013. There is no phone call he won't take. Considering the amount of assets currently in his possession, he's bound to have plenty of chats with rival executives.
While Ainge can construct some of the best packages available for a big name, he's also cautious when making moves. It's highly unlikely that he'll rush into a trade if Boston doesn't get the better end of the deal. That being said, he will still consider all options, according to Jay King of MassLive.com:
Listen, we consider all talented players. But what is the price? Who are the players that we have around to support? All of that is (considered) when we have trade talks. I think everybody knows who you're talking about. The bottom line is I can't talk about any players, but I can just assure you that we're familiar with every player in the league and every player's background and their character. We consider it all.
Ainge won't strip his roster of its talented role players, but he might be willing to sacrifice one key cog if it lands him a superstar. He can also spice up any deal with Brooklyn's draft pick, which carries an immense amount of value. If he attached it to a young player like Jared Sullinger or Avery Bradley, rebuilding teams might be game.
It's unlikely Ainge would part with the Brooklyn pick unless a top-10 player would head Boston's way. No one in that realm other than DeMarcus Cousins figures to become available anytime soon. If the Sacramento Kings manage to hold onto Cousins, there are still smaller deals to pursue from Boston's point of view.
The Celtics have a crowded frontcourt, and head coach Brad Stevens is clearly struggling to find playing time for everyone. Easing the logjam up front would be beneficial. Combine that with the plethora of first-round picks, and Ainge can craft an attractive package for a borderline star.
Improving the roster may not seem like an imminent goal, but it is. The Celtics will have a ton of cap space next summer, but so will the rest of the league. If Boston can land a quality player in some midseason deal, major free agents may be more inclined to take the team seriously.
Even though a major deal might not be around the corner, things could get interesting as the February trade deadline nears.
Smart Talent Development
While Boston pursues a superstar, it has to focus on what it can control. Ensuring internal development has to be high up the priority list.
The Celtics are fortunate. Most of their young guys are also the team's best players, which spares Stevens some of the headache of balancing development and winning. Sullinger, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk all get a reasonable amount of playing time, with Smart being the primary source of excitement.
Stevens doesn't mind living through Smart's growing pains as he learns to run a team. For every missed pass opportunity or bad shot Smart takes offensively, he makes it up tenfold on the defensive end. He hounds opposing perimeter threats into despair, making an immense impact on any given game.
It's clear that the whole Boston organization is banking on Smart developing into an All-Star. He is already inching closer to All-NBA defensive caliber, and the Celtics are fine with putting the young guard in unfamiliar spots to help him grow.
One of those spots is the post, which Jay King of MassLive.com pointed out after Smart's career-best night against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Nov. 16:
During the guard's career night of 26 points, eight rebounds and three assists, the game-shifting comeback started with the ball in his hands, with the Celtics asking him to lead their offense from the post. This was a new request from the team; over the first five games Smart played this season, according to NBA.com, he had only tried two field goals in post-up situations. But three minutes into the third quarter, he spun Thunder guard Russell Westbrook onto his back, caught an entry pass, and waved everyone out of his way.
Chicago Bulls shooting guard Jimmy Butler is a reasonable comparison to Smart. Butler started his career as a gritty defender, evolved into a reliable three-and-D threat and eventually polished his offensive game enough to reach stardom.
The hope is that Smart can follow Butler's footsteps. He has the potential to be the second- or third-best player on a championship contender, but he still has a long way to go. Continuing to push Smart to accelerate his development is crucial for the Celtics.
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