This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.
For the last two seasons, Boston has been touted as a, and maybe the, NBA team of the future. The Celtics have a dynamic All-Star on a vastly under-market contract in Isaiah Thomas, an enticing collection of draft picks, and excellent defenders across the perimeter. Overseeing all this is a cagey GM in Danny Ainge and the heir-apparent to the NBA coaching throne in Brad Stevens. What's not to like?
After Boston's disappointing first-round playoff loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the future is still very much in the future. But if it's coming, it had better be right around the corner. Because for all the justified pride the Celtics can take in their swift rebuild, the franchise's window for creating a true contender already might be closing, albeit slowly. To understand how and why, it helps to compare Boston to another Eastern Conference reclamation project, the much-mocked Philadelphia 76ers.
In the summer of 2013, two once-proud franchises found themselves at a similar crossroads. Like the Celtics, the 76ers' aspirations of championship contention were dead, thanks to a combination of age, injuries, and previous moves gone awry.
Both clubs went into teardown mode: Boston general manager Danny Ainge shipped Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to win-now Brooklyn for a plethora of picks, and pulled off something of a coup by acquiring another first-round selection for a coach, allowing Doc Rivers to move to the Los Angeles Clippers. Meanwhile, then-Philadelphia general manager Sam Hinkie traded his best asset, All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday, to New Orleans for two first round picks; during the subsequent season, he dumped two more holdover starters, sending Spencer Hawes to Cleveland and Evan Turner to Indiana.
On the surface, that's where the similarities end. The architect of one process went out in a 13-page blaze of The Things We Think And Do Not Say. Ainge, on the other hand, didn't so much bottom out as bounce right back.
However, if Boston doesn't cash in this summer, will the Celtics really be that much closer to contention than the Sixers?
It can be dangerous to read too much about a team into a single playoff series loss. Against the Hawks, the Celtics were victims of both injuries and an unfortunate matchup. Banged-up contributors Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk played sparingly, while Jae Crowder was a shadow of his ball-hawking self after a late season high ankle sprain. Given the versatility and passing ability of Atlanta frontcourt stars Paul Millsap and Al Horford, few teams in the NBA were better equipped to adjust to Boston's high energy wing defense.
Still, especially as the series wore on, the limitations of Boston's roster design—lots of good players but not a single great one—became apparent. Without Bradley following his Game 1 hamstring pull, the Celtics' defense lost much of its bite, Marcus Smart's occasional heroics and/or hysterics aside. Meanwhile, the Celtics' offense became extremely stagnant, as either Thomas or Evan Turner attempted to slalom through multiple pick-and-rolls per possession into a decent look. By Game 5, the Hawks had settled into a strategy of making life as difficult as possible for Thomas while forcing his teammates into making plays. None could do so.
That Boston's chances were so damaged by an injury to Bradley, a good player on a great contract—something of a pattern on this roster—speaks volumes about the difficulties facing a superstar-less team attempting challenge for a title. Which, as it happens, is exactly why The Process in Philadelphia was all about tripling-down on acquiring a rare game-changer.
To his credit, Ainge understands this; he has simply been on a different page of the same hymnal. Every time a high-profile star has been rumored to be on the trade block, Boston has emerged as the most likely destination, because they have the best assets to offer in return: those young players, those reasonable contracts, those draft picks.
Thing is, it hasn't happened yet. And while Celtics supporters have rightly preached patience, time might be running out. Boston has done a terrific job of stockpiling future assets, but the thing about the future is that it quickly becomes the present—and draft picks, like cars, generally become less valuable the moment you drive them off the lot.
Indeed, some of Boston's future is already in the past, as is the case with mostly invisible 2014 first-round pick James Young. Despite flashes in these playoffs, 2015 first-round picks Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter are in danger of following suit. Having a deep roster without bad rotation players is a great way to win regular season games, but it also makes it harder for rookies—especially ones who need extra development—to get much of a look. If guys like Young and Rozier don't ever play, what benefit can the Celtics expect from stockpiling them?
The stockpiling issue will become all the more pressing in June, given that Boston has eight picks in the upcoming draft—including three first-rounders—and up to 14 players already with guaranteed contracts or under some degree of team control. Something has to give. Ideally, Ainge will be able to consolidate all of those players and picks into an established superstar talent on the verge of a franchise divorce (hello, DeMarcus Cousins!); as a backup plan, he can try to flip them for a young player with superstar potential or a higher pick. But neither option is a sure thing.
Case in point? Last summer, Boston reportedly offered a bushel of picks to Charlotte for the selection that eventually became Frank Kaminsky. Charlotte said no. And that's a potential problem for Boston: if the other guy won't take your money no matter how high the price you're willing to pay, well, no soup for you.
The Celtics arguably have done just about everything right during their rebuild, giving themselves assets and flexibility while remaining competitive. Unless they land a star (or two), however, that same competitiveness may become a trap. Recent NBA history hasn't been especially kind to teams that exceed expectations through the power of a collective, from the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns and Charlotte Bobcats, to this year's Milwaukee Bucks to, prospectively, next year's Charlotte Hornets. Good, underpaid players eventually become fairly-or-overpaid players elsewhere; tradable assets tend to depreciate over time; making the playoffs decreases a team's odds of landing a difference-maker through the draft. And, above all, the supply of superstars remains severely constrained. They just aren't making that many new Kevin Durants.
In a way, all of this illustrates one of the benefits of the Sixers' lose-and-lose-some-more approach: sure, the seasons themselves are painful to the point of being downright unwatchable, but at least your current roster doesn't impose any immediacy. Boston would never trade places with Philadelphia; however, the race for true contention between the organizations is still ultimately more about which team finds a star first, no matter how many more games the Celtics win in the interim.