Celtics general manager and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge faced a conundrum on Thursday as the NBA's trade deadline approached. It was a familiar one for him and his team, but one made more urgent by the looming deadline and other, more ominous loomings further out in the distance. Is it wise to sacrifice the future in order to have a better chance in the present?By standing pat, and holding onto his team's impressive collection of draft picks, Ainge gave his answer. It might be a frustrating one for fans wondering what all those picks are for if not using them to land superstars like Paul George or Jimmy Butler when they're available. Al Horford, the team's biggest import in recent seasons, is 30 and not getting any younger; if the Celtics had landed either of those two stars, they'd have their own big three to compete against Cleveland during the spring these next two years. There are reasonable reasons to be frustrated, here.
And yet, based off what Indiana and Chicago actually wanted in exchange for their franchise players, a deal might well have narrowed Boston's window to compete for a title while doing nothing to change their status as underdogs to come out of the East. When you look at all the variables in play, it wasn't worth mortgaging so much of the future, and a bit of the present, for a better chance to beat LeBron and the Cavs, let alone the Warriors—or whoever in the West might somehow upset them—in the Finals this year.
What would Ainge have had to give away in order to better compete this season and next? Both Indy and Chicago wanted Jae Crowder, who is—incredibly—making less than the mid-level exception for three years after this one. That contract my have the best ROI of any in the NBA outside of Steph Curry's deal, but Chicago and Indianapolis wanted even more for their stars. They wanted another solid starter, Avery Bradley, as well as an integral rotation player or possible future star such as Marcus Smart or Jaylen Brown. Plus, and this was the biggie, they wanted the Celtics' right to swap picks with the Nets in the 2017 draft; that pick would almost certainly land in the top four. Superstar players demand superstar prices, and that's as it should be. But there's no guarantee that what Boston would get in return for all that cheap talent and that high draft pick would be worth it.
Butler is seriously good. He's likely a top-10 player right now, if only just barely. He can defend insanely athletic wings like LeBron and also act as a first option on offense. But does a team with Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford, and Jimmy Butler knock off even a Cavs team that's been battling injuries all year with a possibly worn down LeBron? Would Isaiah and Butler be able to share the ball enough for both to remain effective? On top of that, Butler's contract—with a max deal looming for Isaiah after next season, when Bradley also hits free agency—would mean the Celtics lacked the cap room to go after another max contract star this summer, such as coach Brad Stevens' former Butler star Gordon Hayward. And let's not forget that the Raptors and Wizards both improved at the deadline, too. Let's also not forget that LeBron James is LeBron James. Nothing is guaranteed this year.
Most reports also had Paul George in play around the deadline, and he fits better than Jimmy with the C's as presently constructed. He can be a secondary scorer and doesn't need the ball in his hands to do so. He's also a rangy defender who has played well against LeBron in past playoffs. But it's unclear how serious Larry Bird and the Pacers were about trading him, because they still might be able to offer him a gargantuan extension when the new CBA's "designated player exception" kicks in this summer, if he qualifies. They could have just been testing the waters to see if any offer knocked their socks off. On top of that, George is reportedly "hell-bent" on joining his hometown Lakers in the summer of 2018 if Bird and company can't build a title contender around him in Indiana.
It's also not really clear what, exactly, was on the table for Indiana or Chicago. Asking for both the 2017 Nets pick AND the 2018 one, plus Crowder and Smart was probably asking too much; except, The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that dealing both picks was a possibility. Yes, the Celtics would still have some picks in the can, but once those Brooklyn picks are gone Ainge lacks any similarly tasty trade-bait.
Ainge didn't think compiling the NBA's newest superstar Cerberus would be enough to overtake LeBron this year. And so he held onto the picks, and kept open the possibility of signing a max player to go with the potential stars those picks could bring. This is precisely why the Celtics are the envy of just about every organization in the NBA right now. Given that he's the one that got them here, why is anyone all of a sudden doubting Ainge's judgment?
The Celtics didn't miss their window to compete for a title. Eventually, Ainge is going to have to make a move, but his past brilliance is the reason they've even got a move to make, and the reason they're as close to contention as they are. This time, not making a move may well have been the correct move to make.