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For months, perhaps no team outside of the Golden State Warriors were in a better position than the Boston Celtics.
The Celtics owned a young, cheap, talented core with a treasure trove of draft picks to package into any deal to add star players.
At the center of that chest were the future Brooklyn Nets draft picks, the remaining scars from the infamous Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce trade.
The Nets, with little talent and no draft picks, had no easy way of improving, thus almost ensuring that the Celtics had their hands on back-to-back top-five draft picks, along with all of their own, going forward.
However, at the February trade deadline, the Celtics came under fire (from this writer included) for not dealing one of those picks along with their other assets for superstars like Jimmy Butler or Paul George. With their own timeline ticking along, the Celtics presumably could have parted with one of the Nets picks, plus some sweeteners, to land a superstar to add to their core and possibly contend with the Cavaliers.
However, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe explained, there were some simple factors preventing the Celtics from doing so, despite the criticism and ticking clock.
According to Lowe, the Celtics had a preferred method of stocking up – trading for one star, and signing one by clearing cap space. The Celtics were able to sign Gordon Hayward this summer, but were worried about trading their assets too early, then striking out in free agency and being stuck with a team out of range of championship contention.
Likewise, there were specific concerns about both George and Butler. According to Lowe, the Celtics were worried about trading too much for George, who could leave in free agency in 2018 (amid heavy rumors he wants to join the Los Angeles Lakers). And the Celtics were reportedly worried Hayward and Butler wouldn’t mesh on or off the court.
At the time of the trade deadline, there were reports that the Celtics, Indiana Pacers, and Chicago Bulls had trade talks, but the specific extent of the Celtics’ trade offers were unknown. Ultimately, it’s clear the Celtics didn’t offer a big enough package to land George or Butler, which likely means the Nets picks was not offered, or at least not offered in conjunction with other parts.
Finally, the Celtics also believe there is untapped potential in Irving. He’s just 25, and as Lowe put it, with a young core still in tact, the Celtics believe they can contend now but “really want to be the team of 2020 and beyond.” Irving fits that timetable.
Irving has been a dazzling scorer in the NBA, perhaps one of the most elite in the league, but has left many feeling he could improve his playmaking and defense. The Celtics, under head coach Brad Stevens, have overachieved and gotten more out of players than expected. According to Lowe, they believe they can squeeze more out of Irving to make him a more well-rounded player. For them, that was worth the price of the Nets pick.
Trading the Nets pick doesn’t necessarily mean the Celtics are now all-in – as Lowe wrote they still have their eye on the future. They will have either the Los Angeles Lakers or Philadelphia 76ers pick this year, a future Memphis Grizzlies pick, their own draft picks, plus young wings in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum they hope to build around in the future.
But the Nets pick was long considered perhaps the strongest asset in the NBA. Some were surprised that the Celtics gave it away for Irving, a superstar, but rarely considered a top-10 player in the league. However, as Lowe noted, star players don’t always become available, and sometimes, the pieces don’t all add up correctly to make a major move.
The Celtics finally found the right time, and now, they may be the frontrunners in the East.