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NBA PM: Why The Celtics Were Smart To Wait

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You Have To Understand Your Window

At this year’s trade deadline, there was a lot of talk about how aggressive the Boston Celtics should have been in pursuing an All-Star talent like Chicago’s Jimmy Butler or Indiana’s Paul George. While the Celtics did not end up obtaining either player, the idea that the Celtics should have emptied the piggy bank for either player is an interesting case study in timing. At what point should the Celtics go “all-in”?

It’s true that at some point the Celtics need to do something with all of those assets because they are running out of roster spots for one thing. It’s also true that their window to compete won’t exist forever, but that same window of opportunity is why the Celtics were smart to stand pat and wait out this season.

During last week’s Sloan Analytics Conference in Boston, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made a profound and absolutely true statement: “It’s irrational to run your team as if the only thing that matters is a championship.”

While the goal of every team should be to build toward the chance for a championship, there is also truth to the notion that not every team is ready to compete for one, at least not yet. The Celtics are one of those teams.

There is little question that the Celtics are having a great season and are poised to possibly be the second seed in the East when the season ends. However, the gap between the Celtics and say the Cleveland Cavaliers is not just one more player. In fact, it’s likely one more player and a lot more experience. Experience the young guys on the Celtics’ roster will get this postseason and with another offseason of development. Say what you want, but rookie Jaylen Brown isn’t any more ready for a run through the NBA postseason than second-year guard Terry Rozier. Both play a significant role in the Celtics’ second-unit, and both need time. They are not the only ones.

So, let’s say the Celtics landed Butler or George at the deadline. Would that have been enough to beat the Cavaliers in a seven-game series? Maybe not. It would have surely closed the gap considerably, but would it have been enough to dethrone LeBron and company?

Consider also that the Celtics would have had to part with possibly two current core pieces and future draft assets to get either player mentioned at the deadline, so the math on a deal might not have been a net positive outcome. The Celtics might have gotten another All-Star but they might have lost some of their depth, which is what’s made them so special this season, and they still would not be guaranteed a chance to advance past Cleveland — let alone whoever comes out of the West.

So, is it smart to blow up a rising young team for the chance to get to a game seven in the Eastern Conference Finals?

As things stand right now, the Celtics might be that same team without parting with draft picks or depth. They might end the season in the same place at season’s end regardless of a possible Butler or George trade; going home from Cleveland.

So, if you can’t win a championship this season, why is it wrong to understand that your window [in the Celtics’ case] likely starts next season? Especially after picking a player at the top of the draft board in June and maybe landing Butler or George in an offseason trade for future picks or parts that may not fit after another postseason and offseason?

As Silver said, not every NBA team is trying to win right now. General Managers joke about this concept a lot. Managing a roster is a game of chess, not checkers. It’s not about countering your move today; it’s about seeing how the whole board will play out today and tomorrow and being ready with the right roster when your window opens.

Some teams do not have the luxury of being patient. Toronto is a perfect example. They had to sell off a little bit of the future to bolster the present because their roster isn’t getting younger and any less expensive. Boston does not have that problem. The core of their team is under contract. The age of their roster is such that they can let things simmer together and that’s not a bad thing. It’s about knowing when it’s your time to strike.

This concept couldn’t be any truer in the West. The Warriors are not going anywhere. The age of their stars and the way the salary cap system is constructed in the NBA is going to allow that team to stay together [if they all want to] for at least another five years.

If you are the Suns, Lakers, Kings or Nuggets, you’d be foolish to try and chase the Warriors. It’s smarter to tool with young guys and be ready when the Warriors start to age or injuries start to set in. Going all-in on Butler or George now wouldn’t have made any more difference in the grand scheme of a championship than the current players on the roster. The flip side is giving up youth or draft picks for either guy at the deadline likely sets up a scenario where those guys walk as free agents when their contracts are up because they can’t win in a new situation either.

As fans, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea of trading for a star or leveraging the future for a chance at more playoff games, but there is a reality that not every team should be trying for a championship today. Some teams should be aiming for the draft. Some teams should be mindful of the experience and growth process young players have to undergo, which includes a trip or two through the bottom of the playoff bracket. A lot of teams get that. In fact, a lot of teams are practicing that.

The challenge is for fans to accept that not trying to win a championship right now is not a bad thing as long as a championship is part of the roadmap. Where teams get into trouble is when they don’t have a very thoughtful roadmap, and that’s a different problem.

While no one is going to concede the East or the West to either the Cavaliers or the Warriors, some teams have to try for the Finals because the age and construct of their rosters almost require it. But, just like the Warriors had a unique window to add Kevin Durant last summer, the Celtics have a unique window this summer where they could add the top overall pick and a quality free agent to a core that’s as good as anyone in the East.

Not every season has to be about a championship to be a successful season. For Boston, they are almost in position to be great for a decade, so being patient with their window was not a bad thing.

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About Steve Kyler

Steve Kyler

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.