Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Celtics Offseason Preview

Since the dust has settled for the beloved green team’s 2015-16 season, I found it an appropriate time to wrap up a season that started with so much potential and promise and ended with heartbreak and (minor) disappointment.

Coming from a Boston sports realist, the 48-win regular season was almost exactly what the educated basketball fan would have expected for the Celtics. This season picked up where last season left off, Boston’s young core scrapping for victories and learning how to win against teams that usually lined up with more talented or with a well-rounded roster. The young C’s had season highlight wins over Eastern Conference big dog; the Cleveland Cavaliers and against an undefeated-at-home Golden State Warriors team, to prove just how much potential this scrappy group had throughout 2015-16.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and this group of grinders met their match in round one of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. While I won’t say I believe the Hawks were a better team than Boston, the Hawks came to play and got the job done with some outstanding performances from Kent Bazemore, Paul Millsap, and ‘Deadeye’ Kyle Korver. Atlanta was able to oust the Celtics in six games, three of which were of the blowout variety. Injuries to Kelly Olynyk and Jae Crowder towards the end of the season and Avery Bradley in Game 1 stand out to me as the biggest factors into the lackluster end to the campaign.

In the week and a half since the C’s were eliminated; Atlanta was swept from the playoffs by the dominant Cleveland Cavaliers, raising a terrifying question for Celtics fans; are they really THAT far away from being a title contender again?

My response... ask Danny Ainge.

Ainge now faces an offseason that may have the highest scrutiny of his GM skills since the pre-new Big 3 era. The roster is loaded with great role players who have bought into the system Brad Stevens has installed and seem to be a group that is willing to ‘get in line’ in order for the team's greater good. While that is a great notion and makes die-hard Boston fans thrilled, winning is still king in this city and that can’t be done in the NBA without the Big T…TALENT.

Ainge has swindled numerous NBA GM’s for talent in the past (see Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Isaiah Thomas, etc.) and has since found it increasingly difficult to find willing trade partners. Making matters worse, the current NBA landscape is changing to one of ‘player control’ in free agency. Meaning, money is no longer is an issue and the players have their pick of the litter for where they would like to ply their trade.

Now comes the wishful thinking.

If Ainge is able to pull off a deal for a franchise cornerstone, who would it be and how much will it cost? As mentioned above, the trade partner will need to be a willing one who is looking to cash in on a player they don’t believe they can build around. Sadly, this list is very short and very expensive from a buyer’s perspective. I’d hate to be the bearer of bad news but the trade market is looking grim and here’s a few reasons why:

The hiring of Dave Joerger by the Sacramento Kings is likely going to delay the movement of star center Demarcus Cousins another year. As a Danny Ainge favorite, the big man will get one more shot with a new coach from a (recently) winning franchise. The Kings will see if Joerger can keep Cousins focused and happy enough to ride him to the playoffs for the first time in his career.

The Bulls beat writers are saying the price for Jimmy Butler will be two Nets first-round picks, Jae Crowder, and a young prospect from Boston. While I love the idea of Butler on Boston’s perimeter with Isaiah Thomas, are you ready to deal the team’s third leading scorer and two shots at a top pick in the NBA draft?

The most likely trade partner and player you ask? The Houston Rockets and guard James Harden. Harden seems totally uninterested in remaining in Houston and the team is ready to move him as well. Now I ask you, do you really want another Kardashian lover in green?

Boston’s best option is undoubtedly going to be dictated by next week’s NBA Draft Lottery, another avenue for disappointment for the Celtics fans in the last 40 or so years. The C’s can be picking anywhere from number 1 overall to the sixth pick with the number three being the most likely based on lottery odds.

The 2016 draft is widely considered to be a weaker draft with two players headlining the group and a handful of other prospects considered lottery worthy.

The top two are Duke’s Brandon Ingram (a sweet shooting wing who many want to compare to Kevin Durant from his University of Texas days) and LSU’s Swiss Army knife forward Ben Simmons. The rest of the field includes Oklahoma superstar Buddy Hield, Kentucky’s Jamal Murray, Providence College’s Kris Dunn, and top international prospect Dragan Bender.

As a realist, I would assume Boston is scouting the second four very closely with the expectation of picking somewhere between three and six when the lottery goes awry. Here’s my thoughts on each:

Brandon Ingram (Forward, Duke): Long, lean, athletic. Should be a top scorer for the team that selects him within two years. May need some time to fill his body out and mature but is a legit scorer and might end up being a solid defender with his length as well. NOT Kevin Durant but should be a perennial all-star.

Ben Simmons (Forward, LSU): Jack of all trades master of few. If he figures out his jump shot and has the desire to be great, he could be a hall-of-famer. Can do everything on a basketball court and do it all at a high level. His passing and instincts are his separating qualities but his heart and head need to be focused on being a champion.

Buddy Hield (Guard, Oklahoma): Best shooting stroke since Klay Thompson, fundamentally perfect and should translated to the NBA range. Has solid athleticism and should be able to get to the rim and run the floor for bucket inside the arc. Defensively lacks proper technique but has the potential to improve. Competitive with a tough background.

Kris Dunn (Guard, Providence): Marcus Smart’s mirror opposite. Incredible offensive instincts with an NBA ready body. May not end up being a superstar but should start and be a leader for whoever picks him. Think Russell Westbrook light.

Dragan Bender (Forward, Croatia): Tall, long, project. Has a chance to be the second coming of Kristaps Portzingas but will need a few years. Still very raw and not ready for NBA consumption. Would be a great pick for a team that has a few years of rebuilding ahead, not so much for Boston.

Jamal Murray (Guard, Kentucky): Possibly the second best pure scorer in the draft behind Ingram. Can shoot it with anyone. Could be Steph Curry light, could be James Young. Second most risky prospect in the top six behind Bender.

While Boston’s best chance at landing a new star may be the Draft, Free Agency may present a few options as well. The two names I expect them to be in on include:

Al Horford The Atlanta big man is tired of playing in a market that lacks the passion he brings to the game. He’s going towards the wrong side of 30 years old but the forward/center is still a double-double machine and would be an immediate upgrade for Boston’s frontcourt. I don’t love the idea of a 'max deal' for Horford but the opportunity to add a multi-time all-star who can be the best post presence the Celtics have had since Kevin Garnett is too good to pass up.

Hassan Whiteside The imposing Miami Heat center is the games most feared shot blocker and a defensive juggernaut. His season averages of 14+ PPG and 11+RPG dwarf anything the Celtics currently have in their frontcourt (not to mention his league leading blocked shot numbers). Whiteside isn’t the offensive threat Horford can be but will allow Boston’s perimeter defense to be stifling while not having to worry about rim protection. At 26-years-old, Whiteside is still young and a max deal with extra years is no reason for concern here.

Celtics Offseason Predictions:

I see two paths for the Celtics offseason that intertwine very closely. Neither is guaranteed and both have many 'if's' but if pulled off correctly, Boston can close the talent gap in the East and finally return to NBA Final aspirations.

The Durant Path

Danny Ainge gets a meeting with Kevin Durant. He slides a list of free agents in this year’s class over to him and asks “who do you want to play with?” Durant choses Al Horford and says “we’d need more,” which Ainge responds with “Jimmy Butler?” and Durant nods. Ainge calls the Bulls and sells them on a package for the Nets first round picks in 2016 and 2018 as well as Jae Crowder, and Avery Bradley. Durant returns with Al Horford and Snapchats a photo of him with Horford and Isaiah Thomas on a rooftop having dinner in the Seaport District (South Boston) to Jimmy Butler (alas Wade and Bosh to LeBron). The duo signs and the Butler deal is finalized on draft night. Boston now boasts a lineup of Isaiah Thomas, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, Al Horford, and Amir Johnson.

This route hurts by losing a pair of beloved dirt dogs in Crowder and Bradley but adds the vital piece to getting the prize of the 2016 Free Agent class, Kevin Durant. I’d give this scenario a 5-10-percent chance of happening…which may be insanely high, realistically.

Return of the Big Man Path

Ainge takes his cap space and targets the two best (most realistic) options in free agency in Al Horford and Hassan Whiteside and signs them both. Horford can move to the power forward and play in a market of diehard fans and Whiteside becomes a max deal guy who now is on a young team where he can flourish and be a leader. Ainge makes his pick at number three and gets the perimeter scoring help he needs with Buddy Hield. The team now stands with a lineup of Hassan Whiteside, Al Horford, Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, and Isaiah Thomas.

This route is less glamorous and would require Whiteside to want to be his own star in Boston but seems pretty realistic. The money should be there for both signings and the most likely pick the C’s are expected to end up with is third, where Hield should be there for the taking. I would expect this group to run with anyone in the East and push Cleveland to its limits. I’d give this scenario a 30-percent chance of happening (possibly higher depending on Miami’s advancement in the playoffs).

To put it bluntly, something needs to give. Ainge and the Celtics need a shake up and to make a move now. The resources are there…your move Mr. Ainge.

Zach Peloquin
Follow on Twitter: @ZAPSports508 & @OTWSportsRadio

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