The Runner Sports

Danny Ainge Continues To Keep Celtics Waiting

The 2017 NBA Trade Deadline was teeming with opportunities for the Boston Celtics to cash in some chips and make a leap forward in their progressive attempt at turning the team back into championship caliber. Instead, fans were again greeted with plenty of teases and another fold by Danny Ainge.

Two very real in their prime stars, among a number of other fringe candidates, were to be had, in what concluded being a seller’s wet dream by the 3 pm deadline. Despite big names like Jimmy Butler, Paul George, and even (although suspected not as serious) Carmelo Anthony being made available, the NBA deadline again fizzled into an over-hyped standoff. The biggest name on the move in the week leading to the deadline being DeMarcus Cousins following the All-Star game. The C’s had eyed Boogie Cousins as far back as 2012, and while his trade manifested in a fast-paced blur following All-Star Sunday, it was apparently on the table for the right digging.

Ainge continues to sit on a treasure trove of assets, but continually standing pat and watching opportunity after opportunity pass a constantly improving team has left Ainge, once the savant of the gotcha trade, looking more and more like a doomsday prepper – except, the only apocalypse on the near horizon is the potential of missing real opportunities to compete.

I won’t say the Eastern Conference is blown wide open, but an injury-hampered Cavaliers roster presents a sliver of what overcame a 3-1 Finals deficit a year ago, looking more like the team that lost it all two years ago. Blows to Kevin Love for a team that faces a true lack of depth, once in a lifetime or not, is an opportunity. The chance to land Serge Ibaka, which could have prevented your division foe from bolstering their own roster at the same time all while adding one of the league’s best rim protectors, was a missed opportunity. The chance to add a scoring game changer like Paul George or Jimmy Butler, again, opportunities lost.

Perhaps Ainge is simply overplaying his hand, a history of trades he’s certainly come out on top of working against himself in the art of the deal. Unlike previous trades that had plenty of pow and unfolding over time, being on the edge of the spotlight also only hurts the team’s negotiating power, as Celtics CEO Wyc Grousbeck described following a similar stand pat at the 2016 draft, “We refused to be ripped off by anyone. People call us up, thinking they can rip us off because they think we’re in a hurry. So thanks, but no thanks. We were open for business, but we weren’t getting ripped off.” Too much of a good thing can be bad, and both through a history of trades and assets at hand, the Celtics might find themselves in trade purgatory. Ainge having this to say while walking away empty handed:  “We had a lot of conversations about things that we could do to improve our team but nothing that was good enough to do.”

That said, if the Boston Celtics are truly as close to competing for a championship as the front office vehemently proclaims, there should be a whole lot less hesitancy to actually make a move that can thrust them into that discussion. Yes, teams are asking for a lot, but that’s because they know Boston also has a lot to work with. You can’t entirely gut the starting lineup–that’d be counterproductive– but something has to give.

I’m all for valuing and making your team members feel like they matter and actually meaning that, just ask around the office. But part of succumbing to an actual trade is realizing they can’t all be the Brooklyn Robbery of 2013. If Terry Rozier is holding up your chance to make the Celtics the best defensive team in the NBA perhaps, then market-wise, you’re probably a hair out of touch. And that’s where Boston is falling through, they’ve marked too many of their players as untouchable, a strategy that can buy you time, but most often ends in short-coming.

Ibaka was a potential rental, with free agency looming at the conclusion of the season. But for a market who literally can’t buy a free agent despite having plenty of money to work with (Celtics have 5th most in the league at $11.4 million next offseason in cap space) isn’t a potential four-month snapshot into this spectacular basketball environment that’s been brewing in TD the best sales pitch a team could ask for? Rim protection remains one of Boston’s biggest vices. Ibaka had bird rights, and following a close call this year, would have meant they were one less piece away from throwing all sorts of money (or the rest of the assets) at the problem and actually having something to show for it.

And if you think problems will be solved in free agency, again, the Celtics seem to still have plenty to overcome in their attracting to the market. Not to mention, 2017  free agency presents a less than ideal solution to the problem. So now it’s waiting until an even further 2018 before the true conversion of this all begins?

By Thursday’s end, the deal for Paul George seemed ludicrous, that’ll be hard to argue. A surprise all-in from the Nuggets might have left the Pacers coming back for a final offer to top it that just would have contradicted what the hopes of the trade would accomplish. And while all attention will be on that trade falling through, let’s not forget that Jimmy Butler was on the table in some capacity.

By Tuesday the Bulls had told teams they weren’t trading Butler, but the Kings said the same thing before the Boogie trade nuked the hopes of all the NBA writers who were hoping to hit Bourbon St Sunday night. The sticking point of Jae Crowder was no doubt very real. He’s developed into quite a little charm by both the organization and fans. But the potential package to amend seemed vastly easier to handle than what ultimately came back from Indiana. Part of Butler’s biggest selling point here in Boston was the allure of not losing that bigger defensive presence from Crowder beside him. Not to mention, for a team that hopes to cash in at some point, Crowder sits on one of the league’s most team-friendly contracts (still only making $7.8M by 2019-20). In a salary cap league, that’s crucial.

The NBA trading landscape is a complicated beast, with matching salaries, cap exemptions, and enough restrictions to dizzy the faint of heart; it’s not easy to conduct a trade. Through a unique aggressive unfolding of draft picks, and picking a few players to pay the ultimate sacrifice (Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Kelly Olynyk, Terry Rozier?) could Boston have concluded the day with both the likes of Butler and Ibaka?

It’s not just believing dearly in their players that is holding Boston back either, they’re very hesitant parting with their dwindling plethora of picks. For a team that’s 2nd in the Eastern Conference, once you get past the 2018 Brooklyn pick, their pick values fall off a steep cliff.

Draft picks are great, but they don’t always manifest into a championship on their own. Just ask the Oklahoma City Thunder, who drafted a pair of annually MVP caliber players and still never took a roster deeper than the Western Conference Finals seven of the eight years they featured Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, losing their lone Finals appearance in 2012.

To think a championship can be built around some Euro-stashed picks that might develop and the current roster at hand is ignorant. Sure, the NBA might look vastly different by 2018, the Cavaliers and Warriors’ vice grip on the league likely non-existent, at least compared to its current manner.

But that’s what most Celtics fan are left asking as another opportunity passes by. What are they waiting for?

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Tyler Arnold

Tyler Arnold

I am the founder and editor-in-chief of The Runner Sports. I've been an avid sports fan since I was a child and have turned that love into a profession. I will watch, comment, and break down anything I can get my hands on, from football to white water rafting in the Olympics. Your visit means a lot to me, so thank you for your readership.
Tyler Arnold