Cleveland winning the NBA championship was the worst possible thing that could have happened to the Boston Celtics.
Here’s how this was supposed to go down: Cleveland would put up a fight against the Warriors in the Finals, but would ultimately come up short. It would be clear that the Cavs were built to dominate the Eastern Conference, but would have to address some fatal roster flaws if they wanted to show us how the West was won. Ty Lue simply couldn’t play Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving at the same time. He needed an upgrade on the perimeter over Iman Shumpert and Richard Jefferson. Tristan Thompson was a better option than Love in a small-ball lineup, and everything is going small-ball. The pieces didn’t fit, at least not on the biggest stage. Changes would have to be made.
That’s where Danny Ainge would come in. If Cleveland wanted to get younger (average age: 28.1), the Celtics GM could help with that — he had three first-round picks in the upcoming draft. If Cleveland wanted flexible defenders and outside shooting, Danny Ainge would gift-wrap Jae Crowder or Avery Bradley. There was a deal to be made, and it would only cost the Cavaliers Kevin Love.
As the season wound down, Boston fans were putting aside money to buy their new Celtics jerseys with Love’s name stitched on the back. Brad Stevens would know how to unlock Love’s 2013–14 self. The coach would draw up out-of-timeout plays for Love that would hang at the MFA. Love would be the star that drastically increased the sum of all these Celtics parts, and the team would return to its rightful place at the top of the league.
A funny thing happened on the way to the NBA hot stove:
Winning the Finals doesn’t change the fact Kevin Love doesn’t quite fit on the Cavaliers. It just showed that if you have LeBron James, that might not matter. One defensive stop on Steph Curry turned Love from albatross to lovable, wrestling-obsessed mascot. Maybe Love can take on some of the offensive burden during the next regular season. Maybe a training camp with Lue at the helm will help define Love’s role in the offense. Maybe some time off will quell talk about his knees being shot. Sure, Cleveland GM David Griffin could still move Love, but the urgency is gone, and so is Ainge’s leverage.
Collecting assets is like collecting anything else: it’s really cool until it turns you into a fucking hoarder. Boston has three picks in the first round of Thursday’s draft. After the Love Affair (sure), Ainge has reportedly tried shopping some picks and players for NBA (almost) stars like Jimmy Butler and Gordon Hayward. There also have been rumors that he was kicking the tires on Milwaukee’s Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton, only to have the Bucks say, “Hey, man. Stop kicking my tires.”
A deal that would send Boston’s no. 3 pick in this year’s draft to Philadelphia for last year’s no. 3, Jahlil Okafor, has been bandied about for a while, as has a swap for Philly’s other big-man-in-progress, Nerlens Noel. But do either of those players drastically improve Boston? Do either put the Celtics in the conversation with the Cavs next season?
When Danny Ainge started collecting all these picks and fun, useful players — Bradley, Crowder, Marcus Smart, Isaiah Thomas, Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Zeller — the NBA was a different world. Back when Boston acquired the Brooklyn Nets’ 2016 first-round pick, the salary cap was $58.7 million. Next season, it’s more than $90 million. That jump diminishes the value of those assets. Picks and good cheap players aren’t as important as they were 36 months ago. You don’t need cap relief in a world where the cap is sky high.
Besides, the Celtics are in a different place than, say, the Sixers. Their fans are close enough to their last NBA championship to remember how it feels, and far enough away that the grace period is ending. They are anxious to get back. Last season, after the team acquired Thomas, there was some hand-wringing over Boston going for a playoff spot at the expense of a better draft position. The Celtics missed out on Justise Winslow because of it, but perhaps the bigger consequence was the acceleration of expectations. If this team is good, why can’t it be even better? If Stevens is so savvy with this collection of players, what can he do with an even better group?
Boston has one of the best coaches in the game on its bench, and plays in a weak conference. The road is clear for the franchise to become a real player in the league again, the Celtics just need the talent to push them over the top. In lieu of a surprise free-agent signing of Kevin Durant, Al Horford, or even Dwight Howard, the only way for Boston to make the leap is through a trade. Kevin Love is probably the best player out there. It’s just a matter of how available he is. And how much he’s going to cost.
Part of the problem here is that everyone expects Ainge to do something. If what ESPN’s Ryen Russillo is reporting is the case …
… maybe the Celtics should just … be the Celtics? They should take Buddy Hield with the third pick, even if it’s a reach, and hope that his experience and ability to fill it up makes him immediately ready to contribute at the NBA level. Maybe James Young improves? Maybe they should just wait and see whether Utah, Cleveland, or Chicago is a little more desperate to make a deal at the trade deadline, rather than 24 hours before the draft. Maybe, Danny Ainge just needs his leverage back. He’s waited this long. What’s a few more months?