As of this writing, the Boston Celtics are halfway to their first Eastern Conference Finals since the 2011-2012 season. They currently have a commanding 2-1 lead versus the Washington Wizards in the conference semifinals and are on a collision course with the defending champions Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Celtics have been on full rebuilding mode since the official end of the “Big Three” era in July 2013 when Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were traded to the Brooklyn Nets. Boston started with a clean slate with only Rajon Rondo the significant holdover from their 2008 championship team. They likewise signed college coach Brad Stevens to a six-year contract ensuring stability during this transition period. While relatively unknown, Stevens is considered a prodigy within coaching circles.
After one year of not making the playoffs in 2013-2014, the rebuilding Celtics managed to reach the playoffs the next two years before finishing this season as the No. 1 seed in the East. This turnaround is quite fast given that most rebuilding teams take a few seasons before they contend again. The Celtics took the long route and instead of signing big name stars, parlayed the Pierce/Garnett trade for high draft picks. While they haven’t gotten the luck of the draw, the Celtics have been able to slowly build from the draft and prudent trades. Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Jae Crowder (acquired from the Rajon Rondo trade) are solid rotation players and form a young nucleus to support All-Stars Al Horford and Isaiah Thomas.
This year, despite being No. 1 in the East, the Celtics have the best chance of landing the No. 1 draft pick courtesy of the Brooklyn Nets. Among this year’s bevy of youngsters, two or three are probable franchise players. Projected No. 1 pick point guard Markelle Fultz is only 18 years old, a combo guard who is already being touted as the next James Harden. Another interesting prospect is forward Josh Jackson, a versatile forward with a great offensive game but is also aggressive on the defensive end. The Celtics could easily trade their draft pick to get another All-Star such as Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Blake Griffin, and Gordon Hayward.
The Celtics definitely have the luxury of time since they have a lot of young players and draft picks they can use. They are also the envy of a lot of teams since they have salary cap flexibility moving forward. Next year, outside of Al Horford, no Celtic will earn more than $8.8 million and they will be $30 million under the projected 2017-2018 salary cap of $103 million. This means that they can actually take in their high draft pick and still afford to get a superstar without breaking the bank. Boston doesn’t have any bad contracts and this is great for a team that is already built to have 50-win seasons.
The future definitely looks bright for the Celtics and you can expect them to be contenders over the next few years. They are now the model for rebuilding teams – build through the draft, sign high IQ players at reasonable prices, ensure management stability, and be patient and prudent.