Last Friday, the Boston Celtics pulled off the unthinkable, halting the surging Golden State Warriors in their tracks and handing them a 109-103 loss. The victory quashed the ‘Dubs' dreams of an unbeaten season at home. Some would describe the victory as lucky, others would recognise instead that this was a fine example of Celtic pride.
The current record for home wins in a season is held by the 1984-85 Celtics with 40-1 and you can be sure that this was on the minds of the players who took to the hardwood in the Oracle Arena. Although San Antonio could still go on to break the record, Boston is at least now guaranteed to sit no lower than second in the history books (thanks to a little help from Minnesota).
As improbable as a Boston victory seemed, we are slowly learning to expect the unexpected from this squad. Currently, the Celtics are locked in a battle with Atlanta for the third seed in the Eastern Conference. And whilst it’s certainly not unusual for a franchise with 17 NBA titles to be sitting towards to the top of the conference standings, it is surprising to see this particular incarnation of the C’s in such elite company.
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Far from a finished product
This team is still in rebuild mode, albeit on the upswing and they appear to be way ahead of the curve in terms of their progression. Last season, having finally cut the last remaining tie to their 2008 title team by trading away the once future of the franchise Rajon Rondo, the boys in green somehow found themselves in the playoffs before being swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The roster was, and is, comprised of a rag-tag bunch of guys, with no discernible superstar. Yes, Isaiah Thomas is an All-Star, but is he really in the elite echelon of NBA talent? Would you put him as a top-15 player in the league? Is he even the best player on the team (looking at you Jae Crowder)? He’s a testament to the intangibles that the ever-expanding world of analytics still cannot measure - heart and will. But there’s a reason he’s succeeded in Boston and it’s largely down to the trust the management have put in him.
Ainge at the reins
A lot of the credit for the position the C’s find themselves in needs to go to Danny Ainge. A one-time Celtics player, he has established himself as one of the shrewdest and smartest GM’s in the league. His appointment of Brad Stevens as head coach now looks like a stroke of genius. Stevens has gone from being a young unproven coach to a proven, masterful play-caller in less than three years.
His talents receive continuous plaudits from around the league and he is in with a good shot at winning Coach of the Year. With three full years left to run on his existing contract (and talks of an extension already swirling), it’s clear that Boston has found their man for the future.
Around Stevens, Ainge has assembled the aforementioned roster from young players and journeymen. It’s a perfect example of “the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Not only has Ainge compiled a team set to earn home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, he’s done it with plenty of assets to spare.
Cash rich, asset rich
The highest paid player for Boston this year is…. Currently wearing a Mavericks uniform. That’s right, David Lee currently earns more money from the franchise than any other current Celtic they put on the floor. It was clear that Lee did not feature in the team’s vision for the future. Instead of holding onto him until his contract expired, by waiving him, they gave the forward a chance to make an impact somewhere and improve his value going into free agency. Truth be told, that’s a class act by the franchise.
In fact, seven players are currently being paid or have been paid by the Celtics this season and their total salary commitment for the year is still only just north of $77m. With the current cap set at $70m, that’s a notable achievement in itself.
A huge chunk of this will drop off in the summer and going into next season, the team has $51m in guaranteed contract money and only three expiring contracts to worry about (Evan Turner, Tyler Zeller, and Jared Sullinger). So with the salary cap expected to jump to $90m, the Celtics have a huge amount of spending power this summer. It’s been widely reported that they are expected to make a run at Kevin Durant, but if that fails there are still a number of excellent unrestricted free agents entering the market - DeMar DeRozan, Al Horford, Mike Conley, Harrison Barnes and Hassan Whiteside to name but few (note: Rondo’s omission from this list was deliberate…).
Perhaps the most impressive part of Ainge’s repertoire though is the number of draft picks he has accumulated through various deals. In addition to their own 2016 first round draft pick, Boston potentially have three more first rounders. This includes Brooklyn’s unprotected pick which, based on current standings, would be the fourth overall according to Bleacher Report.
The end of the Rainbow
So we have a winning, competitive and young (no one over 28) team capable of upsetting one of the greatest teams of all time. They have a savvy GM and a coach with an incredibly bright future. They have a huge amount of cap flexibility and sufficient assets to be active in both free agency as well as on the trade block.
This is a fantastic situation for any star to walk into. The franchise is in a great position and is a legitimate landing spot for players who want to win. They are primed to once again become one of the great teams in the league and could be within the next couple of years. But make no mistake, the only thing lucky about this version of the Celtics is their Leprechaun mascot.