A Playoff Problem: If the Celtics Are Trying to Rebuild, Then Why the Postseason Push?

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It was just one game, but the Clippers’ annihilation of Boston on Sunday was a reminder that the playoff-chasing Celtics of 2015 are a cute feel-good story — and little more. The rebuild is moving faster than expected, with a surprise run at the no. 8 seed in a dreadful conference, but there is a giant chasm separating this plucky, starless group from what it aspires to be.

“The important thing to remember about us,” coach Brad Stevens said in a sit-down with Grantland last week, “is that we have a long, long way to go.”

It says everything about the difficulty of rebuilding that Boston has absolutely nailed Phase 1 and yet has no clear path to 50 wins. Multiple rival executives described Boston’s trading spree of the last two years as “a masterpiece” in rebuilding. Contract timetables, injuries, and other variables made it impossible for Boston to deal its aging stars at peak sell-high times, and yet Danny Ainge still nabbed great value for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo. The Celtics have as many as six extra first-round picks1 coming and oodles of cap space, they’ve drafted solid players across the first round, and they just acquired a dynamic young point guard — Isaiah Thomas — on the cheap.

But they have no stars and no clear path to getting one outside a major break in free agency or the trade market. The Celtics have made the leap to mediocrity so fast that they may have no easy way out. They’re still not good, but they’re not bad enough to get an early first-round pick — to get a clear shot at a star, in other words. Even if they lose this season’s slap fight for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, they will likely pick in the late lottery — a range that looks like their draft ceiling for the next few seasons. “That’s a concern for all 30 teams,” Ainge says of being stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity. “It’s the nature of our league. You definitely need good fortune.”

The Celtics discussed holding off on the Thomas deal to deflate their win total, but decided after some debate that they could lose out — or pay a higher price — if they waited until the summer. “Ideally, he might have been someone you pick up in the summer,” Ainge says. “But someone else might trade for him. You might be in a bidding war. You have to move while the iron is hot.”

Boston has a nice collection of talent, and Ainge has historically outperformed his peers picking in the middle and bottom of the first round. It’s just hard to find stars there. Ainge is good enough to hit solid singles around no. 15, but singles don’t change the course of a franchise. Hitting on Rondo at no. 21 or Rudy Gobert at no. 27 does.

Set aside the issue of the star vacancy, and ask yourself this: Does the current Celtics roster include a guy who could start for the next great Boston team? It probably does, since a league-average player can function as the fifth starter on a loaded contender, but it’s unclear if any of Boston’s guys project as anything more than that.

Even Stevens, an optimist on player development, talks about the current Boston roster in realistic terms. “Everyone knows that to win a title you need to have your no. 1, 2, and 3 guys who do everything well — who have basically no weaknesses,” he says. “But championship teams are filled with other guys. And they could be in a bigger role elsewhere. My thing with our guys is this: Maybe you can become better than that, but let’s start by being as good as we can be at the things that got us here.”

Kelly Olynyk is a shooting big man who struggles on defense and doesn’t shoot all that well yet. Jared Sullinger is chronically out of shape and hasn’t cracked 30 percent from deep. James Young is 19 and has barely played outside of the D-League. Avery Bradley is a ravenous defender with legit 3-point range, but he shoots too many long 2s early in the shot clock2 and needs a dynamic off-the-dribble guy to create shots for him. Ainge loves Bradley and has already answered the question of whether he thinks the 24-year-old will be in Boston when the Celtics rise again: Multiple teams offered low first-round picks and expiring contracts for Bradley at the trade deadline, and Ainge flatly refused, per several league sources.

Ainge rejects the idea that the current Celtics lack a key future starter. “I think we have a handful of guys that could be,” Ainge says. “And we certainly have guys who could play some role on a championship team.” Stevens holds out hope that someone can morph into a top-three player on a contender. “I won’t put a ceiling on any of them,” he says. “Maybe some of them hit that next level.”

The team adores Marcus Smart, the only surefire member of the long-term core picked in a place — no. 6 overall — in which it’s reasonable to hope for stardom. Smart is going to be an assassin on defense, but he has looked uncomfortable running the pick-and-roll; he doesn’t drive much, and Boston usually has at least one other ball handler on the floor to ease his workload. Smart has shot and passed better than some within the team expected, and he has shown a bit more drive-and-kick verve over the last month.

“Will Marcus Smart ever be Jeff Teague?” Stevens asks. “No — not in the sense of being someone who can fly 94 feet in four dribbles, jump from the foul line, and finger roll it in. So he has to be a different kind of player, and be good in a different way.”

There is real talent here. Skilled young players make unexpected leaps all the time. One of the picks still due from Brooklyn could land in the lottery, though the Nets will fight like hell to make sure that doesn’t happen.3

Boston is also neck and neck with Philly in the race to pile up the best treasure trove of trade assets should any superstar become available. The Celtics are fond of saying they didn’t tank, and while that’s technically true this time around, the big-picture process isn’t so different from the more blatant teardown happening in Philly. Both teams are concerned mostly with acquiring draft picks and tradable assets. Thomas filled a need in Boston, but the Celtics wouldn’t have dealt for him unless they believed his cheapo long-term contract represented a more liquid trade asset than the first-rounder they sent out. (Ainge informed Stevens of the potential move only an hour before it happened, says Stevens, who feels he has a voice in most key deals.) Boston also had pieces left over from the days when it was trying to win, and unlike the Sixers, the Celtics used first-round picks on guys who resided in America and had working appendages.

Searching for a Superstar

The pre–James Harden Rockets might be the most useful comparison to today’s Celtics. Boston would be a bottom-feeder in the West, but in the East it’s mediocre — just like Houston was before flipping a pile of goodies for Harden. It’s tempting to characterize that strategy as a pipe dream — as a low-odds bet that a foundational star, the rarest of players, will somehow become freely available on the trade market. Houston spent years building toward the Harden moment, but had the Thunder waited just one more season to move, it’s unclear whether Daryl Morey would be the GM of the Rockets today.

Still, superstars do move. Since June 2007, seven in-their-prime stars have switched teams via trade — about one per year: Kevin Garnett, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams,4 Dwight Howard, Kevin Love, and Harden. The bad news for Boston is that four of those seven players forced themselves to New York or Los Angeles, and it took two straight no. 1 overall picks to acquire a fifth (Love). That’s right: In the bizarro world of the NBA, Minnesota fell ass-backwards into what might be a better rebuilding situation than Boston by lowballing its star in extension talks, and then watching as the perfect LeBron storm engulfed Cleveland.

Trading for a superstar with the expectation he’ll agree to a long-term contract is not that different from signing one via free agency. You have to sell them on your market, your roster, your coach, and your culture.

The Celtics get that, even though they have zero history of attracting free-agent stars. (Sorry, ’Nique!) Stevens hasn’t enjoyed the constant roster churn of the last two seasons, but he knows it has given Boston a chance to spread a reputation as an incubator of talent — a place where players get better, have fun, and earn more money on their next contracts. “It’s great that players are playing well and helping their careers, even if they’re only here for a month,” Stevens says. “Hopefully, people look at that and see a good environment where players soar with their strengths and get what’s best for them.”

Boston might be winning more games than is ideal for a team early in rebuilding, but sniffing .500 builds the buzz of a team on the rise — a perception the Sixers cannot hope to sell. And hitting more singles in the middle of the first round would at least provide Ainge more trade chips.

It’s just hard to see the next gettable superstar trade targets beyond Love and DeMarcus Cousins — if those guys become available at all. The Celtics will work every tactic on those guys, but if they come up empty, it’s uncertain where they might look next. The starry players on rookie deals, including Anthony Davis, can only enter restricted free agency. Their teams can match and exceed any rival offer, and if they do, it could be at least a half-decade from now until those players get close enough to the end of their next contracts to agitate for a trade. (Such players could in theory sign one-year qualifying offers and hit free agency the next season, but no superstar has ever done so.)

The league’s other young stars are just starting those second contracts. Stephen Curry plays for a title contender in a great city. Ditto for Harden and Blake Griffin. Howard is past his prime. The coming cap boom means that no team will have to slough off a star for financial reasons, which factored into the Thunder’s decision on Harden.

“We don’t have any master plan,” Ainge says. “You just hope you have the assets when a deal comes along.”

Something will pop on the superstar trade market. It always does. The Thunder stand as a potential wild card over the next two years, though there is no indication at this point — repeat, no indication! — that they’d think about trading Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant. But recent history suggests some superstar we’re not even thinking about today will become available for some unexpected reason. When that happens, Boston will be in position to strike. But it could take years.

And that’s why Boston is looking hard at another team-construction model: the 2014-15 Hawks, built largely through smart draft picks outside the lottery and killer free-agency signings that fit Mike Budenholzer’s system. You need a great coach to win big without a top-10 player; the Hawks aren’t 56-18 if Larry Drew is still on the sideline. Stevens was Boston’s first key free-agent signing.

The Hawks pitched superstar free agents before pivoting to the next tier of Budenholzer-friendly players, and Boston has the flexibility to do the same. The Celtics will have about $20 million in room this summer, and even if they burn through it all, they could have even more than that during the magical summer of 2016. They can essentially retain their own guys, including the feisty Jae Crowder,5 and still chase whomever they’d like. “We will be very active in free agency,” Ainge says. They could even pitch the 29-and-over stars, like LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol, just for the hell of it.

The unprecedented cap environment unlocks new tools, even if it will also provide just about everyone with the kind of cap space in 2016 that Boston carved out so carefully. If Love opts out of his contract this summer, Boston could offer him a one-year deal that would allow Love to test out Boston and reenter free agency in the summer of 2016 — when max salaries will leap with the cap.6

If it whiffs on the obvious stars, Boston will (duh) want players who outproduce their contracts. In the past, that meant avoiding a drunken splurge on a non-superstar who might draw a max-level offer anyway — Greg Monroe today, and guys like Josh Smith and Al Jefferson in previous summers. All bets are off this summer. The Celtics have a bundle of big men who don’t protect the rim, but if they think Monroe7 is an upgrade who would be movable on max contract, they might pursue him anyway.

A win-now move like that could boost Boston’s appeal among the next wave of star players who become available, with Charlotte either a cautionary tale or an inspiration. Charlotte overpaid for Al Jefferson, goosed its win total, and emerged as a more powerful player on the free-agency market — and leveraged that into a calculated bet on what turned out to be the wrong guy in Lance Stephenson.8

It looks slightly more likely that Boston will eschew Monroe types and search for cheaper value plays. The Celtics don’t want DeMarre Carroll; they want the next DeMarre Carroll — the under-the-radar free agent who pops. They’ll trawl for players producing intriguing numbers in limited minutes; once-prized youngsters who failed on rookie deals; and midcareer vets with one reliable skill that fits Boston’s needs. It will be fascinating to see how Crowder and Tyler Zeller, up for an extension this summer, fit into that equation after thriving in Boston.

“You might overpay a guy because you can get him without giving up any assets,” Ainge says. “And there’s another time when you find a different kind of value in free agency. There’s hunting on July 1, and hunting in August.”

It’s clear listening to Stevens, and just watching Boston play, that the Celtics admire both Atlanta and Golden State — the passing, spacing, and selfless team ethos. Here’s the best compliment you can give Stevens: When you watch the Celtics, it looks like they have a ton of shooting on the floor. But then you go player by player and realize Boston doesn’t have much shooting at all. Stevens maximizes what he has with a fast-paced system in which at least four players set up around the 3-point arc and the ball flies around the floor:

Stevens will always adapt to his players, but he enjoys coaching this kind of offense. “I’d love to play that way all the time,” he says. He also prizes versatility and has noticed how tough it is to penetrate Golden State’s defense when the Warriors switch at almost every position. “Defensive versatility is such a big deal,” Stevens says. “When the going gets tough for the Warriors, they put Draymond Green at [center]. You have to have that. If you can guard 2s, 3s, and 4s,9 you’ll play more, as long as you don’t upset the applecart on offense.”

Green is a free agent, and Boston can toss offer sheets at any of the Green/Kawhi Leonard/Jimmy Butler trio of restricted free-agent studs. That’s a low-percentage play that would tie up Boston’s cap space for three days plus, but the Celtics could fire away at 12:01 a.m. on July 1 with confidence other targets would still be around on July 5.

A post-up brute like Monroe — who stops the ball, can’t shoot, and has slow feet on defense — doesn’t fit the versatility template. It’s easy to tick off the free agents at all salary levels who might. Sign enough of them, and you could win 45 games in the pathetic East. Do that for one or two seasons and you might attract more guys who fit that style — players who could inch that win total up into the 50s.

But that’s a long slog that requires both front-office skill and a generous amount of luck. One free-agency misstep — one Stephenson, one Josh Smith — can derail the whole project. Every path to title contention — the Philly way, the Houston way, the Atlanta way — is a low-odds proposition filled with lucky breaks and moves that play out much differently than the people who make them anticipate.

Boston has to navigate its path without the best team-building tool available: a top-five pick. Heck, the Hawks are nowhere today without Al Horford — the no. 3 pick in 2007. This season’s Celtics are a nice story, and Ainge has amassed an arsenal of picks. But big-time success is never a sure thing. Boston’s front office has run circles around the Lakers, Knicks, Nets, and other teams with big dreams, but that doesn’t guarantee a way out of the middle class.

10 Things I Like and Don’t Like

1. Sauce Castillo

The bards will sing songs of Sauce Castillo. Our generation’s Homers and Virgils will craft epic tales trumpeting Sauce’s glorious origin story and the wise hand with which he ruled the NBA. Generations from now, when aliens discover Earth and plot to enslave us, they will pause upon all the mentions of Sauce in our historical records and assume Nik Stauskas was our greatest leader — the one man who carried all the secrets and virtues of humanity within his soul.

Sauce Castillo is a reminder of just how badly generic nicknames suck. Sauce exposes the emptiness of D-Wade, D-Will, D-Faves (the worst), and all the pseudo-nicknames that are really just shortenings of a person’s actual name. The best nicknames arise organically, in random moments of inspiration, and sometimes by complete accident.

The only worry here is that Stauskas is not worthy of the burden of Sauce — that it will consume him. That everywhere Stauskas goes, people will shout “HEY, SAUCE!” and then demand photos and call him Mr. Castillo. Right now, some despicable corporate branding guru is crafting a plan for Castillo — whoops, Stauskas — to develop a local line of pasta sauces. There is a nonzero chance Stauskas ends up in an asylum, wearing a battered Kings jersey and muttering, “I’m not Sauce” over and over. #Pray4Sauce

2. Nerlens Noel, Speeding to Offensive Rebounds

Noel has been solid on defense all season, piling up blocks and steals at a historic rate, but it took a late surge of competence on offense for him to butt his way into a suddenly competitive rookie of the year race.

Let’s not go too crazy here. There is a 4-of-12 clunker for almost every night of rim-rattling efficiency; Noel has minimal range, and he remains shaky with the ball and occasionally turnover prone. He also gets more minutes than any other candidate in garbage time, and against opponents resting key players.

But Noel has undeniably made a mini leap. His face-up drives are smoother, he’s catching the ball cleanly on his rolls to the rim, and he’ll even make a midrange jumper now and then. He’s also gotten better at using his speed to dart around ground-bound centers and into good offensive rebounding position:

That’s a risky play, since rushing to the rim can compromise Philly’s transition defense. It’s also an interesting window into Philly’s broader basketball philosophy. Only two teams, the Nuggets and Wolves, have had more chances at offensive rebounds this season, per SportVU data provided to Grantland.10 But Philly has snagged rebounds on only 49 percent of those chances, the second-lowest mark in the league — ahead of only the Grizz, who have fallen apart on the offensive glass during their February and March malaise.

The same phenomenon has popped up in Philly’s shooting metrics since the Tank began: They take a ton of 3s and shots at the rim but finish poorly from both places. Philly is a really good theoretical basketball team, without the talent to execute the theory.

3. George Hill, Through the Elevator Doors

Everyone runs some version of this now, but I don’t think any team precedes the elevator fun with as much misdirection as the Pacers do on this action for George Hill:

This is nearly 10 full seconds of NBA vanilla, with George clearing to the corner and then going through ho-hum screening action before he hits the gas and squeezes through the closing doors. Great stuff from Frank Vogel.

4. Tiago Splitter, Actually Scoring in the Post

Splitter isn’t strong enough to barrel all the way to the basket, and he’s not an explosive leaper. His post game is all tricky flips and hooks he launches from awkward angles. He shot just 29-of-70 on post-ups last season, per Synergy Sports, and his back-to-the-basket game is so nonthreatening that smart teams have been unafraid to go small against the Spurs and stick a wing player on Splitter.

But something fun has happened this season, and especially since Gregg Popovich put Splitter back into the starting lineup late last month: Splitter is lighting it up down low. He’s 36-of-63 on post-ups this season, per Synergy, and 14-of-21 since his promotion from the bench.

Splitter post-ups will never be a heavy feature of San Antonio’s motion offense, and he can’t do this consistently against solid post defenders. But it helps to have as many one-on-one options as possible when the shot clock dwindles against elite defenses, and it’s comforting to know Splitter might be able to provide another release valve in some matchups.

5. Mascot Birthday Parties

I mean, what’s not to like about this?

This starts off like a normal mascot party, to the degree a party involving humans dressed as furry animals can be normal, but quickly devolves into what I can only assume is a cocaine-fueled present-opening orgy. You don’t ride a motorbike down arena stairs without ingesting some powdered courage first.

The mascots need this right now. It is a moment of joy and sweet relief from Robin Lopez’s endless reign of terror over the mascot world — kind of like the Fleur Delacour–Bill Weasley wedding celebration amid Voldemort’s rise. Unfortunately, Lopez went full Death Eater at a local mascot birthday party over the weekend. He knows no mercy.

6. The Amar’e/Dirk Partnership

The Mavs have been scrambling to figure out their big-man rotation ever since dealing Brandan Wright in the Rondo trade — a gamble that hasn’t worked out the way Dallas hoped. They cycled through Greg Smith and Dwight Powell, flirted with Jermaine O’Neal, revived Charlie Villanueva, brought back Bernard James, tried Dirk Nowitzki at center, and finally signed Amar’e Stoudemire off the buyout scrap heap.

Given the dearth of reliable options, the Mavs have had almost no choice but to pair Stoudemire and Nowitzki for segments of every game, and the results have been predictably disastrous on defense. Dallas has coughed up 111 points per 100 possessions with those two manning the front line, a higher number than Minnesota’s league-worst defense, per NBA.com.

The Dirk-Amar’e pairing mostly plays against second units, and they can survive small segments against opposing benches on some nights. But on others, they’ll surrender a killer run that takes Dallas out of a game.

7. Pushing Michael Carter-Williams Into the Post

It’s not an ideal configuration, given MCW often shares the floor with at least two other non-shooters, but coaxing him into the post should be a good way to maximize his size and minimize the damage from his broken jumper:

Jason Kidd is a creative coach willing to search for strengths in unconventional places; he had Kendall Marshall working dudes on the block before a knee injury ended Marshall’s season. He’s smart to test out Carter-Williams’s post game, even if the lane is already a bit crowded in Milwaukee.

8. Off-the-Ass Self-Assists on Inbounds Plays

It’s gold, every time.

Will Barton has made the Nuggets approximately 72 percent more entertaining since the trade deadline.

9. Jeff Green, Power Forward

Classic Jeff Green: The small-ball lineups Dave Joerger is using more, with Green at power forward, look tremendous but don’t actually produce. With Green at a big-man spot, the slowpoke bullies transform into a speedy outfit that whips the ball around the floor:

It looks great! But dig into the numbers and you’ll find that the Grizz are a combined minus-19 in the 110 minutes featuring the five small-ball lineups that have logged at least 10 minutes together, per NBA.com. Most of the issues come on offense, which isn’t surprising, since Green in these units often plays alongside three complete non-shooters in Kosta Koufos, Tony Allen, and Nick Calathes.

This is where Memphis really feels the pain of Vince Carter’s bricky season and the loss (via trade) of Quincy Pondexter — who was just as bricky for Memphis before perking up in New Orleans. But these groups have the foundation of something productive, and if Joerger can put the right pieces around Green at power forward, this could work.

10. TV Broadcasts Missing Game Action

You have one job: Show the basketball game. We don’t care about commercials that run long, extended replays of some innocuous play, or whatever point the talking heads are making on my TV screen as the game happens off camera. The flagship NBA TV might be the worst about this, but some local broadcasts are frequent offenders. We want to watch the game. Please show the game.

Filed Under: NBA, Boston Celtics, Marcus Smart, Brad Stevens, Danny Ainge, Isaiah Thomas, Kelly Olynyk

Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA