The Boston Celtics’ season finally came to an end on Thursday night, as the Cleveland Cavaliers wrapped up a 4-1 series win in the Eastern Conference Finals at TD Garden. The young Celtics reached their first conference finals since 2012 and were led by their second team All-NBA point guard Isaiah Thomas, whose breakout performance led to a discussion of his name being mentioned in the MVP race.
Some will look at this Celtics season for what happened in the conference finals against the Cavaliers. The team played their worst basketball at home, losing all three games at the TD Garden, and only played six competitive quarters of basketball (Game 3 and the first half of Game 4).
However, this season was more than a series loss, but rather the next step up the ladder for a return to NBA prominence.
Much is made about the number one overall pick the Celtics received just a couple of weeks ago. The team is likely to select top point guard prospect Markelle Fultz out of the University of Washington, and the hope is that he can add three-point shooting and offensive prowess to an already loaded guard position in Boston. Although, the most important thing to realize about the Celtics is not the potential of Fultz, but rather how well the franchise is set up.
This offseason, the Celtics have around $9 million in non-guaranteed contracts (Tyler Zeller and Jordan Mickey), multiple free agent deals that are up (Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, Kelly Olynyk, James Young and Gerald Green) and have four stashed prospects that could be brought up. It is likely the team will bring up just three stashed prospects: Guerschon Yabusele (2016 – 16th overall), Ante Zizic (2016 – 23rd overall) and Abdel Nader (2016 – 58th overall).
The team also has three additional second round picks this year’s draft at Nos.37, 53, 56. Adding Fultz along with these three selections, plus the stashed prospects to an already young core of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier, and the future looks remarkable.
On top of this youth movement, Boston has the flexibility to add a max contract player such as Gordon Hayward, who played under head coach Brad Stevens at Butler. While the team will have to make a tough decision on who to pay the following season (both Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley up for extensions), the team could still elect to sign Hayward to pair with Al Horford and their tremendous guard depth.
The potential signing of Hayward would also allow the Celtics to move Jae Crowder to the bench, where he could excel on both sides of the ball and guard the best offensive sixth man on every team in the Eastern Conference.
Looking at the progress of the Celtics makes one think of their growth as a “ladder” of some kind. They blew the team up in the 2013 offseason and took the first step into a rebuild with a dismal follow-up that saw former fan favorites Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green get dealt for draft picks (and Jae Crowder).
The following season, they overachieved and snuck into the playoffs, only to be blown out by Cleveland in 2014-15. After some more shuffling of the roster, they played a competitive series the following year as the fifth seed, where they lost 4-2 to the Atlanta Hawks. But stole Horford from Atlanta in the offseason. Now they have reached the conference finals and the only way to go for this team is up.
What is the next step? Some say it is to make a charge and beat LeBron James now and form your own “super-team” by cashing in on your assets.
Others say to do a minor tear down to prepare for LeBron’s eventual downfall. What is certain, though, is that the Celtics are poised to meet this Cavaliers team repeatedly in the coming years, armed with the potential to get infinitely better, along with a genius young coach and confident general manager.