At 3 PM Thursday afternoon, the trade deadline came around, and for the second straight year, the Celtics did nothing. They didn't trade for Jimmy Butler, Paul George, or Carmelo Anthony, and their endless stash of Brooklyn draft picks remains firmly intact. After being spoiled by the madness that was the Boogie-to-Pelicans trade, the NBA world was forced to sit through yet another dull deadline day, where all our tinkering with ESPN's trade machine tool ultimately proved to be a waste. So, did the Celtics make the right move by standing pat, or did they miss out on a big opportunity?
To get one thing out of the way, it's probably a good thing Boston didn't trade for Anthony. The Knicks star is in his 14th season, and there's no guaranteeing how many good years he has left. Furthermore, Melo and Isaiah Thomas are both ball-dominant players; the two of them together on the same team, each needing the ball, would likely ruin the chemistry the Celtics have been developing for the past three seasons.
But what about Butler and George? They're both younger than Melo, and they're better two-way players. Why not make a run for a guy who could turn an already-great team into an even scarier one? Either one would put the Celtics in a good position to be the first non-LeBron team to represent the East in the Finals since 2010 (when a drastically different-looking Celtics team lost to the Lakers). Why not make that move?
Of course, in and of itself, holding on to Brooklyn's pick in the 2017 draft isn't necessarily a bad idea. It'll be a high pick, maybe even the No. 1 pick, in a draft stacked with great players. The Celtics could draft Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball, team them up with Thomas, and have the scariest backcourt this side of Oakland. They could also opt to draft Jonathan Isaac or Jayson Tatum and put him next to Al Horford up front. All of these possibilities are pretty enticing.
There's just one problem: all of these players are teenagers. This draft is stocked with one-and-dones, and by the time they reach their full potential, Horford and Thomas (Horford, in particular) are likely to be past their primes. The Celtics could wind up in a situation similar to the one the Knicks find themselves in now, if not quite as bleak. Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis are both quality players, but the timing isn't right. One is on the way up, one is on the way down, and it just doesn't make sense. The Celtics are a far less dysfunctional team, so maybe there could be a sweet-spot year where whoever they draft has developed just enough, and their current stars have just enough left in the tank that they end up making a title run. Still, why wait for that potential future perfect storm when a fully formed player could vault the Celtics into legit contender status right now?
The Celtics are already a great team, second in the East, and on the precipice of something larger, but they've yet to win a playoff series in the Brad Stevens era, and they're the only contender in the East not to improve their roster. The Raptors traded for Serge Ibaka. The Cavs recently picked up Kyle Korver, and could get Deron Williams to fix their backup point guard problem. Even the Wizards helped their weak bench by acquiring Bojan Bogdanovic from the Nets. The Celtics had a chance to make a move that would be far greater than all of these, establishing them as the biggest threat to the Cavs, and maybe even the best team in the East. They also could have given themselves a core group that's young and talented enough to stay in contention for the foreseeable future. Even with a high pick in what appears to be a very strong draft, it's still perplexing that the Celtics would pass on an opportunity like that.
For whatever reason, however, that's the choice Danny Ainge made. It's possible he tried to make a move for Butler or George, and the details simply couldn't be worked out. It's hard to get a team to move on from a star player, even if it's the right move for that team's future. Ainge said after the deadline that he didn't feel anything offered was "good enough" to make a deal. With everything Ainge had to offer, he could have found a way to acquire Butler or George, but here's the key part: only if he really wanted to. For now, he is still smitten with the idea of What The Celtics Could Be. At some point, however, Ainge is going to have to turn that idea into a concrete reality. And with the trade deadline passing and zero moves in Boston, he's running out of time.