The Celtics were at the center of basketball arguments for the entire offseason. Questions included: Will they regret trading the No. 1 pick? Is Jayson Tatum’s ceiling really that high? Won’t they miss Avery Bradley? How did they miss on Paul George? Is Gordon Hayward really a superstar? How could they trade Isaiah? Thomas? And is Kyrie Irving worth the Brooklyn pick?
Now we’re through the first month of the season, and Kyrie, Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, and Brad Stevens have settled nearly all of those arguments. Even without Gordon Hayward, Boston has the best record in basketball. Coming into a blockbuster date with the Warriors on Thursday, the is currently riding a 13-game winning streak. The fifth-youngest roster in basketball has produced the NBA’s best defense, and with Kyrie leading the way, nobody in the league is having more fun than the Celtics.
Before we proceed, let me add that I’m a Wizards fan, and all these Celtics developments have been deeply disturbing. I am unnerved by how well they are moving the ball and defending, appalled by how valuable Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have become, and horrified by how much fun the Garden has looked for the past month. I wish I were joking, but I’m not. All of this is upsetting. But at the same time, none of it is particularly surprising.
The night Hayward went down, I had no doubt that Boston would still find a way to put together a fun, strange group that would catch teams off-guard all year long. This is what the Celtics do, and this is how they torture rival fans; under Brad Stevens, they are so relentlessly competent that you can never really write them off.
Praising Stevens is the most convenient explanation for what’s happening in Boston, and if you had 30 seconds to explain this to someone, just pointing to the head coach wouldn’t be wrong. Kyrie has been very good, Al Horford has been great, and the young wings—I think people are calling Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum “Jaywatch”—have surpassed everyone’s expectations, but none of this is possible without Stevens.
The bigger picture is what’s truly impressive, though. That’s when you go back to the offseason. The night of the NBA lottery, Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck made it clear that the team planned on keeping their No. 1 pick and using it in June. “You don’t really want to necessarily trade a No. 1 pick in a really good draft for somebody that’s halfway thru their career, already making max money,” he told WBZ News Radio’s Adam Kaufman in June. “That’s just a difficult trade to make. First of all, you have to match the money in the trade, so you’ve got to add significant additional players on our side … so it’s three or four guys going and one guy coming back.
“If you’re drafting No. 1,” Grousbeck continued, “and you make the pick well—you do really draft a transcendent player—you’ve got that player for five or six years as they build up, before the max money even kicks in. It just feels like this is a pick we will listen to offers, I’m sure, we will have conversations all the way thru June but, for me, making a first pick is an exciting prospect right now.”
From a financial perspective, drafting a franchise player makes more sense than trading for one, and it would afford the team more flexibility elsewhere on the roster. They could win in the short term and build toward a title team poised to take over when the Warriors slowed down. Grousbeck’s reasoning made perfect sense. And then a month later, Danny Ainge traded the No. 1 pick to Philly in exchange for the No. 3 pick, along with a Lakers/Kings lottery pick that will convey in either 2018 or 2019.
Two months after the Sixers trade, Ainge had turned over nearly the entire roster—Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas were in Cleveland, Avery Bradley was in Detroit, and building around a cost-controlled young star “for five or six years” had become an all-in bet on Kyrie Irving, who could command a $200 million deal in 18 months. Granted, there were more moving pieces that factored into this timeline along the way, but the broad outline of what happened speaks to what sets the Celtics apart.
Boston’s ownership is very smart, and more often than not, that has meant empowering Ainge, who is also very smart, to do whatever he wants on the basketball side. How many other GMs, faced with the choice between trading for a superstar or drafting a potential cornerstone at No. 1, would be allowed to choose neither? I was skeptical of this move halfway through the summer—before we knew the extent of Isaiah Thomas’s injuries, and long before Markelle Fultz forgot how to shoot a basketball—but it’s clear now that it was the right play. For one thing, without the extra lottery pick from the Lakers or Kings, trading the Nets pick for Kyrie would’ve looked like the last move available in Boston’s title quest. Instead, it’s just one more step, and there’s still room to make another deal in a year.
Ainge is one of the few GMs fearless enough to make the Fultz trade, and that’s a skill in its own right. But it’s important to consider just how many teams and owners—probably at least 20—would have feared public backlash and short-circuited this plan before it ever began. The trust from the owners allow has allowed Ainge to be patient where others couldn’t be, and allowed him to be bold where others wouldn’t be.
That trust is a huge part of this year’s Celtics story. The roster is full of weird gambles from the Boston front office—Danny Ainge, Austin Ainge, Dave Lewin, and Mike Zarren—that are paying off in a big way. Everyone liked Horford and Kyrie, for instance, but Jaylen Brown was not at all the consensus choice at No. 3 in 2016, and so far he’s rewarded Boston’s gamble. Tatum was slightly more conventional, but still nothing like a consensus pick as the third–best player in last June’s draft. So far he’s been the best non-Ben Simmons rookie in the NBA. And that’s before you get to Ainge’s undying loyalty to the likes of Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart, both of whom have been fantastic off the bench, or shrewd second round picks like Semi Ojeleye, or signings like Aron Baynes or Daniel Theis.
Stevens makes everyone look better, obviously. He also allows the front office to take more gambles—like, you know, turning over 75% of last year’s roster and expecting a team that can still challenge the East. Ainge and the front office could make those moves in part because they knew that Stevens would find a way to make it work with whoever they gave him.
Stevens is probably the best coach in the NBA at getting the most of out of his players’ strengths while hiding their weaknesses. It’s not an accident that Jae Crowder looks like a different player in Cleveland, and it’s not a coincidence that guys like Baynes and Marcus Morris suddenly look like perfect role players, while Kyrie Irving has been re-born as a capable defender who’s just trying to make the extra pass on offense. Players deserve a ton of credit in their own right, but Stevens is very good at making their jobs simpler and putting them in a position to succeed.
Putting people in a position to succeed is really the story of the Celtics from top to bottom. The ownership trusts Ainge and gives him leeway that other front offices don’t have. Ainge has given Stevens two stars in Horford and Kyrie, and a roster full of rangy athletes to deploy all year long. And Stevens devises schemes that turns those players into a positionless nightmare on both ends of the floor. The first month of the Celtics has been many things, but more than anything, it’s been an excellent case study in the various ways that every level of an organization can help produce a great team.
Of course, here’s where we add the disclaimer that the Celtics aren’t actually the best team in the NBA. They probably aren’t in the top five if we’re being honest. Boston’s played the easiest schedule in the league so far, and they won’t finish the year with the best defense in basketball. Likewise, while it’s clear that they’ve mastered the regular season, there’s still room to be skeptical about how much of this will translate to the latter rounds of the playoffs. That’s when you need stars, and Hayward is still hurt, presumably for the year, while Anthony Davis is still in New Orleans, presumably for the next two years. But none of this is really a criticism.
Even if the Celtics aren’t quite a title contender yet, what’s become clear over the past month is that they’re set to spend the next few years building one with as solid of a foundation as any team in the NBA. Their organizational infrastructure is in a class with the Spurs and Warriors, and that might be it.
Going forward, there will be more lottery picks and more trade rumors. Stevens will win Coach of the Year. Kyrie could become a full–blown MVP candidate, Tatum will continue to shine, and Hayward will return eventually. Even when this winning streak ends, Boston won’t be fading anytime soon.
(And again, if you root for a team that’s trying to beat the Celtics, all of this is disgusting.)