The Celtics are the only playoff team that could be considered in a rebuilding phase. The 2015-16 season will be year three of the overhaul, and the rebuild has hardly gone according to plan thus far. The Celtics are overloaded with average players, have too much talent (and are too well-coached) to tank, and lack a franchise centerpiece to build around.
The process began two years ago when the Celtics shipped Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry to the Nets for a slew of draft picks, and some inconsequential players. While this accelerated the Celtics' race to the bottom, the teardown had been a long time coming. Kendrick Perkins had been shipped to the Thunder for the younger Jeff Green in 2011, Ray Allen had spurned the Celtics for the rival Heat in the summer of 2012, and they had even traded their coach less than a month before the KG and Pierce trade. The only starter left from their 2008 championship team was Rajon Rondo, and now his departure seemed imminent.
The first acquisition after the Nets trade has turned out to be their most valuable. The Celtics hired former Butler coach Brad Stevens, a move that many applauded at the time, but was still met with uncertainty concerning the young coach. With a first-year coach at the helm and a roster void of any substantial talent, the Celtics planned to tank the 2013-14 season. Their prize for tanking; a draft class hyped to be one of the best of the past decade, featuring Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker.
Rondo torn his ACL 30 games into the 2013-14 season, killing his trade value. The team struggled as expected, but not to an extreme level. They finished at 25-57, tied for the fourth worst record in the league. The Celtics were once again hit with bad lottery luck as they dropped to the sixth pick, losing all hope of getting a truly franchise-changing player.
When draft night rolled around, the C’s drafted Marcus Smart 6th overall and James Young 17th. When free agency opened, they extended guard Avery Bradley on a four year - $32 million deal, and managed to grab Tyler Zeller and Marcus Thornton in a salary dump that opened up the cap room for the Cavs to sign LeBron. The Celtics finished their offseason by inking Evan Turner to a two-year deal before the start of the season. With four new players in the backcourt and Bradley’s extension, it was clear there was no room for Rondo.
Rajon Rondo was traded to Dallas in December of 2014 for Jae Crowder, Brandan Wright, Jameer Nelson and a pair of picks (including a protected first rounder in 2016). Shortly thereafter, the C’s flipped Brandan Wright for a first rounder, and then traded away Jeff Green to Memphis for another first.
The rebuild was in full force. They had already tanked one season and were ready to tank again. However, Brad Stevens and his crew of overachievers had other plans. Catalyzed by the acquisition of Isaiah Thomas at the deadline, the Celtics shocked everyone, finishing the season 20-11, en route to 40 wins and the seven seed in the pitiful East.
The Celtics were swept by the Cavs in the first round, but were hopeful for big moves in the offseason to bring the team the talent it so desperately needed. They held the 16th and 28th picks in the draft, a fair amount of cap room, and trade pieces should a star player become available (cough Boogie cough). In reference to his offseason plans, Danny Ainge said, “I’m going to try to blow off some fireworks, but I have to be patient as well and we have to make sure that we don’t do deals just to do deals."
Despite offering the Hornets four first rounders to move up in the draft (in hopes to select Justise Winslow), the Hornets turned Ainge down to select Frank Kaminsky (because clearly Frank Kaminsky is worth more than four first round picks). Ainge then made the crowded Celtics backcourt even more cozy by selecting Terry Rozier at 16. At 28, the Celtics grabbed a much needed outside shooter in R.J. Hunter.
In free agency, the Celtics continued asset collection, signing Amir Johnson to a deal worth $24 million over two years, and bringing back Jonas Jerebko at two years/$10 million. Both of these deals are only guaranteed for one season, making both players valuable trade pieces should a team want an expiring contract to unload some cap room. The Celtics also brought back Jae Crowder at $35 million over five years then sent the expiring deal of Gerald Wallace to the Warriors in return for David Lee. They grabbed Perry Jones and Zoran Dragic in recent trades as well, but have already released Dragic.
Entering the upcoming season, the Celtics currently have 17 guaranteed contracts, most of which are extremely cheap deals. Outside than rookie deals, only three players are guaranteed beyond this season. The Celtics are chock-full of league-average players, but no true star to build around.
The biggest issue with this Celtics team would be a huge boon for many other teams: they are extremely well-coached and work very hard, and as a result they win more than they should. Seems like a great trait, no?
Well, the Celtics need more talent to win, and they cannot get that talent through the draft if they win 40 games. Historically, the Celtics have had little luck luring big-time free agents, and trading for a star is rare and does not always generate results (see Anthony, Carmelo).
Looking at the current Celtics roster, Marcus Smart is the only player that you can point to and say, “that guy is someone you can start to build with”. With that said, Smart is not someone who can be the best (or even the second-best) player on a title contender. He is just 21 years old and about to enter his second NBA season. His biggest strength is his ability to cover both guard spots defensively at a high level. According to SportVU player tracking data, he was the fourth best in the league at defending the pick and roll, allowing just 0.64 points/possession (at least 150 possessions). His jumper is a work in progress, but we are starting to see tangible progress. Yet he is still plagued by inconsistency and a high turnover rate. He does not pass well enough to garner high assist totals (just 3.1/game last year), and he shot just 36.7% from the field. His ceiling is certainly high, considering how athletic and strong he is, but his skills need to catch up to his body.
James Young is still anonymous outside of Boston. Young spent most of his rookie year tearing up the D-League (21.5 points, 5 rebounds, 44% from three), but did little in the limited time he had in the NBA. Young has reportedly put on 15 pounds of muscle and added three inches to his vertical. The sharpshooter out of Kentucky has yet to turn 20, and while there's a lot of optimism surrounding the youngster, he will struggle to get much playing time on a Celtics team that is crowded at the wing.
Finally, the NBA future for rookies Terry Rozier, R.J. Hunter, and Jordan Mickey is unclear. What we do know is that Rozier will likely enter the season as the third string point guard, and Hunter will be in same spot at the two guard. Both (along with Mickey) will likely spend time in the D-league this year, as the Celtics give the playing time to players who can lead them back to the playoffs. Yet these players all project to be at best, league-average. The recurring question comes back with one look at the Celtics draft class: Where is the star?