Danny Ainge has a plan, or at least the foggy outlines of one.
We can see it in all the draft picks he's siphoned from the rest of the league, and the resulting surge of young talent on the Boston Celtics' roster. The plan is pouncing on the Suns' glut of point guards to pry loose Isaiah Thomas, the hare-sized scorer now finally getting his due as an impact player. It's scooping up David Lee for the pittance of Gerald Wallace's expiring deal when Golden State was forced to shed the two-time All-Star's salary. There's no telling which of these players wind up on Ainge's final roster, let alone how well they play together. For now, though, that's beside the point. What matters is that the Celtics' average age is dipping lower while its wage bill similarly shrinks; the rest can resolve itself later.
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Like a half-dozen or so other executives, Ainge, Boston's president of basketball operations, has concluded that his team's best course of action is to trawl for assets well downstream of the NBA's sharks. It's working even better than expected: after a 20-32 start last year, Boston doubled its season win total over their final 30 games to claw into the postseason. The explanation for that run is equal parts, "Well, someone had to make the playoffs in the East" and "Brad Stevens is a goddamn warlock."
Unsurprisingly, the whole operation has been met with critical acclaim. There's no room for anything else when the team is exceeding every imaginable expectation just two years after jettisoning the last of the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen core that brought Boston its first championship since the 1980s. The next title is years away still, but fans have every reason to believe that Ainge remains capable of delivering it.
Perhaps two-thirds of Boston's roster, if they're lucky, will develop into contender-caliber rotation players; a number of those display potential for much more. Thomas is unconventional, sure, but even the most ardent skeptics of his 5'9'' frame admit that his floor game makes him a premier sixth man. Marcus Smart, the yin to Thomas's yang, is a demon on defense and boasts every desirable measure for a point guard. Jared Sullinger's back is mostly held together by silly putty and prayer cards, but as long as that holds, he's a 23-year-old who can rebound, defend one-on-one, and stretch the floor a bit. Amir Johnson is your favorite analytics writer's favorite help defender—that's a compliment!—while Lee remains a scavenger so adept at rebounding and finishing that he's relevant even as players of his ilk are slowly grandfathered out. There's more: Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk, plus a trio of middle-probability lottery tickets in James Young, Terry Rozier, and R.J. Hunter. All, at the very least, are useful, whether it's on the floor or in trade negotiations.
Not a single one of those players is guaranteed a role on the next Celtics team to make a run at the title. This is a Wizard of Oz roster, with each player searching for a missing piece in their game that they may never locate, be it Smart and his jump shot, Sullinger and his health, Thomas and his defense—the litany goes on. Furthermore, unless Smart makes quantum leap in every facet of his offensive game, there is no keystone talent to construct a franchise around. Boston does not have the luxury of Minnesota, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee, who can rely on their young superstars—Andrew Wiggins, Jahlil Okafor, and Jabari Parker, respectively—to restore confidence whenever fan bases get antsy. It's easier to proselytize a religion that has already delivered an icon to worship.
Trusting Ainge, on the other hand, entails placing faith in an ephemeral idea. The 2004 Detroit Pistons notwithstanding, no team wins without a superstar; an endorsement of Ainge's plan assumes that, at some point, he'll acquire one. This, of course, is far easier said than done. One only has to look at Dallas, Phoenix, and Brooklyn to see how fruitless these chases can be: in a climate where first-round picks are hoarded like gold bars, all three teams forked them over in piecemeal transactions after failing to reel in a larger fish. No one takes Ainge at face value when he boasts of Young's "terrific upside"; they play along because Young is a presumed means to an end, a piece for packaging into an eventual mega-trade or a ready-made sidekick for whenever the real savior rides into town. They're waiting on Ainge to pilfer someone else's star the way Houston commandeered James Harden—or, for that matter, how Ainge first acquired Garnett eight years ago. They're expecting a once-in-a-half-decade transaction miracle.
Everything has gone well thus far, though, and so they're tapping their toes with smiles creasing their faces. There is optimism in Boston, at least for the time being. Until the next seminal Celtic arrives, there's little guaranteeing it holds. Feelings can change, especially in Boston, but Danny Ainge's plan will not. There's only one way to win in the NBA.