For the past few years the Celtics have been playing it both ways. Some NBA teams bide their time and build for the future, others scramble to compete in the present, but Boston is the rare team that has juggled both. The Nets picks are a cheat code. They've allowed Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge to pull off a balancing act that's supposed to be impossible. That's been the story since June 2014.
Now it gets interesting. The Raptors traded for Serge Ibaka on Tuesday morning, solidifying their starting five for a postseason run. The Wizards are the hottest team in the East, and look poised to make a run of their own. At the same time, the Celtics have never looked better under Brad Stevens. They've won 10 of their last 11 games, and are looking more and more like the buzzsaw everyone expected when Al Horford signed on this summer. Meanwhile, the Bulls are reportedly considering a Jimmy Butler trade, and Boston has better assets to offer than any other team in the league.
Most importantly, the Cavs look strangely vulnerable. Kevin Love is out six weeks, LeBron is playing too many minutes, and Derrick Williams is being asked to asked to play the role of savior. It puts the entire top half of the East in a more interesting position, but Boston's calculus could be the most fascinating.
So, for the sake of argument, let's pretend the rumors are true, and Jimmy Butler is available. Let's also assume that the Bulls will demand this year's Nets pick, which is currently slotted at No. 1. Should the Celtics do that deal?
To appreciate what's in play here, let's go through both sides of the argument.
Don't Do The Deal
Even with Butler, the rest of the team isn't good enough to forfeit a top–three pick. Al Horford is fantastic, but he's the same age as Joakim Noah, and his defense and rebounding are already slipping. Isaiah Thomas is an MVP candidate through four months, but in a seven–game series against good teams, it's still hard to bet on him taking over consistently. Avery Bradley is great on both ends, but he's not quite elite, while Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart are similar stories (who could also be traded in any hypothetical blockbuster). There are only a few players who might be dominant enough to win a title with the Boston nucleus—Durant, Kawhi, LeBron—and Butler is not quite on that level. It's not worth it to sacrifice a decade with a potential No. 1 pick, all for the privilege of finishing in the top four in the East over the next few years.
The Celtics should wait and see with Isaiah Thomas. You could probably get stabbed in Boston for this statement, but: Isaiah Thomas is dominant in a way that may limit the rest of the team. He's good enough that his hero ball generally equates to wins, yes—and the rest of the Celtics roster is currently average enough so that they need him to play this way—but he could be a problem if the Celtics add another star who needs the ball down the stretch (like, say, Butler). There's a version of this story where a new superstar demands touches and undermines what Isaiah does best, while his defensive issues remain, and the team struggles more than anyone expects. All of this is why the Celtics should wait as long as possible before they go all-in with this nucleus. Specifically, they should wait before they decide to commit $200 million to Isaiah. And if there's a chance to draft an alternate solution this spring, keep that pick, and see where it leads.
Paul George could be available as early as this summer. George is every bit as good as Butler, and probably has a slightly higher ceiling. His game would fit nicely next to Isaiah Thomas, because he could work better off the ball. If the Pacers fall apart in the playoffs, he may have enough leverage to force a trade. Boston would again be better positioned than anyone to land him. Most importantly, this scenario is a reminder that Boston can play out the rest of the year and still enter June's draft with most of the same options it has now. Kevin Love's knee, and Serge Ibaka in Toronto, shouldn't induce panic moves over the next 10 days.
Beating the Cavs won't solve the Warriors problem. This is the big one. Doesn't it seem shortsighted to go all–in to beat Cleveland in the same year that beating Cleveland is essentially meaningless? The Warriors have what might be the greatest starting five in NBA history, and they're blowing teams out on nightly basis. They are better than last year's 73-win team. The Celtics can challenge the Cavs with the team they already have, especially if Love's hurt. But short of stealing Durant this summer, nothing they do will make Golden State less impossible. If the Celtics can use the next two Nets picks to position themselves to own a post-Warriors world, that's got to take priority to loading up for blowouts against KD and Steph the next two years.
Do The Deal Right Now
The window on the Nets picks is closing, and you have to land at least one superstar. Even with the best odds, it's statistically unlikely that this June's Nets pick actually lands at No. 1. Likewise, beyond Markelle Fultz and maybe Lonzo Ball at the top, there are no locks in June's draft. If the dream in Boston is a superstar to build the franchise around, flipping that pick for Jimmy Butler gives them an option who fits that criteria immediately, and without much risk. They could even keep next year's Brooklyn pick for one more shot at the top five.
Forget the Cavs or Raptors; this is the best reason to do the trade. Given all the potential of the past few years, you can't risk coming away without at least one superstar from the Nets bounty. Go for the sure thing.
If the Celtics are keeping Isaiah Thomas, they should give him help. Given that the past four months of Celtics fourth quarters have turned him into a religious experience in Boston, it'll probably be impossible to cut ties with Thomas. He has more value to Boston than he would have on the trade market, and it makes no sense to walk away from an All-NBA talent who appeared out of thin air. That means paying $200 million to keep him, though—the Brinks truck contract. That kind of investment only makes sense if he has superstars to help this team contend for real. Butler will help that cause more (and sooner) than almost anyone they could draft.
Butler is as dominant as any star that will be available within the next three years. Think about the other players who have been linked to the Celtics in trade rumors. Kevin Love, Klay Thompson, injury-prone Blake Griffin, an unreliable Boogie Cousins, 32-year-old Paul Millsap... None of them are as attractive as Butler's been in Chicago this year. If the Bulls are serious about dealing him, this is an opportunity to steal a Paul Pierce–level wing halfway through his career. It shouldn't be complicated. As the new CBA gives teams like Indiana and Sacramento more and more leverage to keep superstars, it's unlikely that anyone as talented as Butler will be available over the next few years. If there's a deal to be made, the Celtics should take it.
The Cavs are already vulnerable, and one more star in Boston shifts the landscape for real. It's hard to find the perfect title formula or design the perfect roster; the best any team can do is put themselves in the conversation. That's what's possible here. Boston could challenge the Cavs for real, and if Love's hobbled in May, they'd have a good chance to win that battle. A loss to the Warriors would still be massive progress. And as Golden State scrambles to keep its core in tact, Ainge could scour the market for one or two pieces to tip the scales. For the past few years, the signature of this Celtics era has been a historic collection of trade rumors. In a week, this could get very real.
For now, it makes for an awesome 30-minute argument. Whatever you think the Celtics should do—there are also compromises like a Carmelo trade, or a big man to shore up the front line—there's no bigger X-factor coming into next week's trade deadline.
What's most telling is what the debate in Boston represents for their blueprint, in general. For the past two years, the Celtics have been unique because of a plan that had no real downside. Every win felt like a delightful bonus, and a limitless collection of draft picks assured that the foundation was set regardless. As long as the future was rooted in the abstract, it could never fail. Then they drafted Jaylen Brown and signed Al Horford, and now reality is creeping in.
As of this week, the Celtics are good enough so that every choice will come with a cost. Investing in the future will come at the expense of contending, and vice versa.
This is how it's supposed to work in the NBA. It's just noteworthy that after beating the system for the past few years, the limits of the modern era apply to the Celtics again. There are only two Nets picks left, and it's time to make some decisions.