The NBA Draft is less than a week away and then Free Agency season kicks off in July. The Celtics will be key players in both events as they hold the first overall pick and (potentially) will have enough salary cap space to recruit a major free agent to Boston.
It's an exciting time for the Celtics, as they have these assets and roster flexibility not due to a series of poor seasons but instead as a franchise on the rise that is coming off an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals. Here are some ideas (and suggestions) on what Ainge and the Celtics could be up too in the next few weeks.
First off, let's give a shout out to Billy King, who as General Manager of the Brooklyn Nets traded the team's first round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018 - along with the right for the Celtics to switch first round picks in 2017 - to the Celtics for aging stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce on draft night in 2013.
This trade allowed Ainge to clear salary cap space while also adding highly coveted draft picks. Since the deal was struck, the Celtics have quickly emerged as a team with a bright future while the Nets have become one of the league's worst teams. So, as the C's were competing for the Eastern Conference championship this season, they were also preparing to workout some of the brightest draft prospects as they continue to build a future contender.
The 2014 Nets pick turned into James Young, who has seen little of the parquet floor and is likely not to be back for the 2017-18 season. The 2016 pick delivered Jaylen Brown to Boston and as a rookie, he played a valuable role as the team posted the best record in the East in the regular season.
Switching picks this year has landed the Celtics with the first overall pick and allows Ainge to either add another young talent to complement Brown while the NBA waits for the Golden State and Cleveland teams to end their Arms Race or to trade for an established veteran that possibly allows the Celtics to contend for the Larry O'Brien trophy in the next two or three years.
We won't even talk about the 2018 pick, that also looks likely to net (pun definitely intended) the Celtics another high lottery pick.
Thanks Billy, we here in Boston certainly appreciate all of your help.
The question facing Ainge now is what to do with the first pick.
I am not in favor of trading the pick, unless by some miraculous stroke of luck the Pelicans hire Billy King and he wants to deal Anthony Davis to Boston or King ends up in Minnesota and thinks Karl-Anthony Towns looks great in Celtic Green.
Some of the players rumored to be in play should Ainge trade the pick are Jimmy Butler of the Bulls and Paul George of the Pacers. Both are excellent players but I do not believe either puts the Celtics in position to win a title in 2018, 2019, or 2020 and with the perceived sustainable excellence of the Warriors (and Cavaliers if James is staying in Cleveland past 2018) the Celtics should be more concerned with building a contender for the Roaring '20s. There is additional worry that George will end up on the Lakers after 2018 anyways, meaning Ainge would be trading a potential franchise cornerstone for an All-Star who is likely to walk away in twelve months. I doubt that is in Ainge's playbook.
My guess for the first pick is that after a week of rumors of trades or surprise picks, the Celtics will take 19-year-old guard Markelle Fultz of the University of Washington. There are some red flags about Fultz, most importantly why he couldn't lead the Huskies to more wins in his lone season, but he's a super athletic wing player who can score with the jump shot or at the rim and in today's NBA that is a recipe for success (and championships).
Boston is already being linked with Josh Jackson of Kansas and I'm certain that some Lonzo Ball and De'Aaron Fox rumors will be making their way around the internet before draft night but the opportunity to add a player who can create his own shot and add desperately needed scoring to the Celtics will be too much to pass on with the top pick.
Fultz will be able to contribute to one of the league's top teams in 2017-18 while being groomed to lead the team into serious title contention around the same time that the Warriors (and Cavs) should be becoming vulnerable.
Watch some of his highlights from Washington this year to get an idea of what he could do as a rookie and project what kind of player - Russell Westbrook?, Tracy McGrady?, Dwayne Wade? - he could be in a few years.
If Ainge isn't completely sold on Fultz or if he sees equal value to Fultz in another player, such as Jackson, one option could be to trade back a few spots to acquire some additional assets.
Making a trade with the 76ers for the third overall pick could allow Ainge to pick up talented young forwards Dario Saric and Robert Covington in addition to being able to draft a talented prospect. Adding cheap young assets keeps the salary cap flexible and also gives Ainge more ammunition to make additional trades.
Figuring out if Isaiah Thomas part of the Celtics long term plans is also high on Ainge's list of things to do this summer.
As electric as Thomas has been in his two-plus seasons in Boston, I would be shocked if they committed a maximum level contract to him when he enters free agency next summer. As great as he's been, a 5-8 guard entering his 30's who now has a bad hip is not the player you want to be paying $30+ million dollars too.
My guess is that Thomas is dealt sooner rather than later. The Celtics are unlikely to contend with the Warriors, Cavaliers, and Spurs for the title in 2018 so it's in their best interest to move him now and try to get something in return.
One landing spot for Thomas could be Denver. The Nuggets are starting to emerge as a playoff team out West thanks to Danilo Gallinari and Nikola Jokic. Adding a player with Thomas' skill set would put them in the playoffs and could make them a top four team in the West depending on some other teams moves this summer.
A deal of Thomas and Jae Crowder for Kenneth Faried and Gary Harris works for both teams. Boston can even sweeten the deal by adding in the 53rd and 56th picks in this year's draft.
Thomas gives Denver a scorer to complement Gallinari while Crowder is a solid defensive forward with some shooting ability. Faried helps the Celtics address their rebounding issues while Harris is a young guard who can shoot, a skill every team is searching for.
Losing Thomas would hurt in the short term but it would allow the Celtics to build around Fultz (if he's the pick) and give them the financial flexibility to commit long term to Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart if they choose to do so.
Free agency also offers the Celtics a path to contention in the short and long term.
Gordon Hayward of the Jazz, who as you may have heard played at Butler University for Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, is an attractive option who adds scoring and is also young enough to still be a factor a few years down the road.
Blake Griffin of the Clippers, who can opt out of his contract, has also been rumored to be a target of the Celtics.
Due to his injury history, I'm all set on Griffin but if Hayward wants to reunite with Stevens it would be a great fit for both sides.
Finding a veteran big man to fill out the roster should also be a goal. A name like Tiago Splitter, who played in Philadelphia last season, is intriguing because although he's already played his best basketball he does offer rebounding and championship experience from his time in San Antonio.
Free agency will also mean the likely end for Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, Tyler Zeller, and Gerald Green. Green could be a candidate to return on a veteran minimum contract as he drew positive reviews for his role as a mentor for Boston's younger players this season.
The prospect that 2016 first round picks Guerschon Yabusele and Ante Zizic is intriguing. Both played overseas this past year and while both are young and will need time to develop, it sounds like they should be part of the Celtics plan for 2017-18.
Yabusele is a forward built in the same way as Draymond Green of the Warriors (one of his many nicknames is "French Draymond"). He displayed his potential in summer league in 2016 and after a successful season in China, he asked to play with the Celtics D-League affiliate in Maine.
Zizic is a 7-foot center who prides himself on physical play. He played in Turkey for former Cavaliers coach David Blatt, who spoke highly of his work ethic and skills.
Finding another young big man to develop is a possible plan for the second round. With the 37th pick, Indiana's Thomas Bryant, Mathias Lessort of France, and Alec Peters of Valparaiso could fit that need.
Here's one projection for the 2017-18 Celtics roster, based on the possibilities mentioned above:
5: Al Horford, Ante Zizic, Tiago Splitter
4: Kenneth Faried, Guerschon Yabusele, Thomas Bryant
3: Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown
2: Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Gary Harris
1: Terry Rozier, Markelle Fultz
Stevens is a master of creating and taking advantage of mismatches so it's not fair to assign a particular position to any player because almost everyone plays multiple roles on both ends of the floor but this does lay out a roster that would once again be in contention to make the Eastern Finals and also has the added benefit of building a long term contender with all of the youth on the roster.