ROSSON|Celtics Boast Bright Future Despite Loss in Playoffs
The Backdoor Cut

I was going to avoid talking about the Golden State Warriors. The relentless coverage of the NBA’s best team is exhausting, especially amid its third straight NBA finals matchup against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. I had a vision for an NBA column that analyzes the offseasons of the other 29 franchises, proving to readers that intriguing basketball developments can happen outside of the Bay Area. However, Golden State’s 16-1 playoff run and complete domination since March 14, with a 30-2 record, cannot just be ignored entirely. Game Four in the Finals aside, the Warriors have put on a phenomenal display of basketball, beating the NBA’s best teams with ease. This team is not going away any time soon, either. Kevin Durant will reportedly take less money in free agency to ensure that he, Draymond Green, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson can all play together for years to come. As long as the movie “Thunderstruck” does not become a reality, the Warriors should be competing for the NBA title for the next five years. This raises an existential question for the other 29 teams in the league: If we cannot be the Warriors, what is our goal for next season?

After all, every NBA team wants to win titles. But with the overwhelming presence of the Warriors, how can each franchise build its roster to reach that goal? So, yes, this column will still be analyzing the moves that the 29 other teams make this offseason, but with Golden State’s excellence as the backdrop. First up is one of the most storied franchises in the NBA: the Boston Celtics.

Even after losing to the Cavaliers in five games in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics are sitting pretty, thanks to the trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets for a treasure chest of draft picks in 2013. The lottery balls bounced the C’s way in the draft lottery this year, awarding them the first overall pick via the Nets. Boston’s already-deep roster and collection of draft picks gives General Manager Danny Ainge an abundance of options for the future of the franchise.

The first option would be to trade the first pick in this year’s draft — which is seen by pundits as one of the strongest in the past decade — along with other assets for an established star. Acquiring an All-Star forward like Indiana’s Paul George or Chicago’s Jimmy Butler, both of whom were involved in rumors at the trade deadline, would help the Celtics to challenge LeBron James and the Cavs in the coming years. Markelle Fultz, the projected No. 1 overall pick in the draft, has been conducting workouts for other teams with a top-10 draft pick just in case the Celtics do make a trade.

It is looking more likely that the Celtics will hold on to the pick, however. They would almost certainly select Fultz, a point guard out of the University of Washington whose distinct combination of elite size, strength, athleticism, playmaking ability and shooting make him an easy choice.

The elephant in the room is Fultz’s potential fit with the current point guard and star of the Celtics, Isaiah Thomas. Thomas, also a former Washington Husky, has expressed a great interest in playing alongside Fultz and mentoring him. In that case, Ainge could have Fultz and Thomas in the backcourt and try to bolster the front court with Utah Jazz All-Star Gordon Hayward, a free agent this offseason. Boston is an obvious fit for Hayward, who played at Butler University under current Celtics Head Coach Brad Stevens. Ainge would need to let a few bench players leave in free agency to create cap room, but a starting five including Fultz, Thomas, Hayward and star center Al Horford would certainly be able to make another deep playoff run.

However, trading for George or Butler or signing Hayward could limit the Celtics to being a good, but not great, team for the next few years, unable to beat LeBron and the Cavs, let alone the Warriors. Horford’s best years are behind him, and Fultz will not reach his full potential right away, meaning that collection of players could never reach its peak to challenge Golden State.

If Ainge’s goal is to win a championship at any cost, he could trade Thomas for future assets, letting Fultz grow into the starting point guard role. Boston’s favorite fun-sized point guard was spectacular this season, averaging 28.9 points per game, good for third in the league. However, he is already 28 years old and due for a contract extension in 2018 — the Celtics will have a hard time justifying paying $30 million a year for a declining point guard approaching his mid-30s. Furthermore, Thomas’ immense defensive limitations due to his 5-foot-8 stature may start to hurt his team more than his creative scoring helps it.

Continuing to build its roster around Fultz, young guards like Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart, the third overall 2016 pick Jaylen Brown and whatever young players or picks they get for Thomas would leave the team in a better place to compete in a post-Warriors league.

Politics are always at play, however, meaning that Ainge is unlikely to drastically overturn the roster at the risk of losing his job. If I were a betting man, I would say that Boston will draft Fultz, hold onto Thomas and make a hard push for Hayward in free agency. Even if that team does not win a championship, the Celtics and their fans would probably view several consecutive deep playoff runs as a success. They could even take down LeBron and the Cavs in the East — not a bad consolation prize.

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