Despite losing Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals 117-104 to the Cavs on Wednesday night in addition to tying their franchise record for largest halftime deficit at home, things are still looking bright for the Celtics future. Thanks to this infamous heist Danny Ainge pulled on the Brooklyn Nets, Boston won the NBA lottery on Tuesday night and they are in possession of the first overall pick of the draft for the first time in the NBA’s most successful franchise’s history. There’s no doubt in my mind this pick will be involved in an astronomical amount of trade rumors, but I actually believe they should keep it.
Now, you might be questioning my judgement at this point considering the Celtics biggest need is a rebounding big man to complement Al Horford down low and they have 2 extremely talented arguably superstar guards in Isaiah Thomas & Avery Bradley in addition to very capable backups Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart. But the truth of the matter is a superstar, let’s say Jimmy Butler or Paul George, would cost I would think at least the 1st overall pick, Rozier and either Jaylen Brown or Jae Crowder.
That leaves the Celtics with a starting lineup of Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Al Horford, George or Butler, and lets even say they use some of their cap space to replace the unrestricted free agent Amir Johnson with Taj Gibson. Although this would be an extremely talented starting lineup, Lebron James is still very much in his prime, has an elite supporting cast and has (at least) 3 more years of playing at the superhuman level he’s been delivering since 2003 now and I just think that this hypothetical team would still be another star/borderline superstar away from being able to dethrone the King in the East.
With that being said, if they could lure Gordon Hayward away from Utah AND also swing a deal for George or Butler that’s an entirely different story, although it’s pretty doubtful Hayward would leave that juicy max deal he can only get from the Jazz. Now that’s not to say that I don’t think this hypothetical Hayward-less team wouldn’t at least compete with the Cavs given the right circumstances (i.e. Thompson plus a few bench pieces get injured or just 1 of the non-Lebron members of the big 3), but due to the Celtics cap situation in the next few years, this would essentially be an all-in move for the next 3-4 years, non-coincidentally the same amount of time Lebron should realistically remain at his best-player-on-the-planet level of play. And I didn’t even mention the 4-headed monster down in the Bay Area. Here’s a look at the Celtics 2017-2018 salary cap situation in addition to their players’ full contracts:
As you can see, the Celts have a hair over $29 million to play with in free agency this year with only true rotation players leaving being Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko. They could also use this money to eventually give Paul George an extension following the aforementioned hypothetical trade.
However, any significant signing using this cap space would without a doubt involve contracts that are beyond 1 year in length and that’s where the Celtics could run into some trouble if they were to tie up a significant portion of their cap to solid but not superstar free agents. In the 2018 offseason, the Celtics 3 best guards in Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley & Marcus Smart are set to become free agents (the first 2 being unrestricted and Smart being restricted). This means that if they wanted to keep at least Thomas & Bradley, who will both easily fetch max contracts at least as high as Horford’s $28-$30+ million annually each from other teams that the Celtics would need to match. As for Paul George, he would be eligible for at least 4 years $130 million.
For those keeping track, that would leave Boston with roughly $115-120 million annually allocated to George/Thomas/Horford/Bradley alone for the 2018-2019 & 2019-2020 seasons, which would put them over the $113 million luxury tax threshold. Evidentally, this means that the Celtics would need to trust that this “big 4” would be enough to not only contend for the Eastern Conference crown but for a championship immediately without much depth on the bench. In my opinion, giving up the extreme flexibility they currently have just isn’t worth it.
Rather, I believe the Celtics are much better off drafting Fultz and using him as a super 6th man in his first year. See what this super-prospect can do in his first year, who between Isaiah & Avery he fits best with on the court and then in his second year, when the 2 current starters are free agents, decide which between the 2 to resign and simply let the other walk. Keep in mind, Boston also holds Brooklyn’s pick next year and could build one of the most promising young cores in Markelle Fultz, Jaylen Brown and potentially another top 3 pick all playing together on rookie contracts on an already competitive team.
This would be the best case scenario where the Celtics could still be a top 3 team in their conference right now while having a big-3-in-waiting that should begin to hit their primes just as Lebron is on the last legs of his. And who knows, Fultz could very well be an improvement on Isaiah, who has his very well known defensive limitations, thanks to his size and projected solid defensive play.
There’s a reason the First Team All-Pac-12 point guard is widely considered the top prospect in arguably one of the strongest draft classes of the last decade. At just 18 years old, the freshman had the highest PER in the country (12th highest for any 18 year old ever) and averaged an other-worldly 25 points, 6.3 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks per 40 minutes with one of the worst supporting casts in division-1 NCAA basketball. This is a guard who will be the youngest player in the NBA next year and could not only replace Isaiah Thomas’ contributions but actually surpass them for not even a fraction of the cost. Therefore, I believe the Celtics should hold onto both this year’s and next year’s draft picks and keep building for the future while still remaining at competitive in the East and a potential Cavs injury away from immediate contention. This truly is the best possible position to be in, especially in today’s NBA where we have 2 super-teams in their current prime that are currently a significant cut above the rest of the competition.