Boston Celtics: How the Celtics can win the East in 2019

NBA Boston Celtics Marcus Smart (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
NBA Boston Celtics Marcus Smart (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

The Boston Celtics came within one win of a trip to the NBA Finals. What is it going to take to get them over the hump in 2018-19?

We are on the brink of the NBA Finals. A quadrilogy, because of course it is, between LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Golden State Warriors and their Hampton’s Five. For these teams, this is old news, yet for the first time in the past four years, the future seems uncertain.

The West is loaded with talent, obviously, and with free agency looming for the league’s best player – and a recruitment campaign by Chris Paul – could stack the conference even further. Meanwhile, in the East, the Raptors and Wizards appear ready to rebuild, and pave the way for a conference dominated by youth.

The Celtics and the 76ers have, through savvy draft strategy (read: “assets”) and “The Process” established themselves firmly as the future of the Eastern Conference. In Boston’s case, the assets worked so well they came within one win of the NBA Finals this year.

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It’s been a while since Boston was able to down LeBron. In fact, its been eight years. If I were a betting man (I am) my money would be on year nine to be the breakthrough.

Take a look at the Celtics roster in this years Eastern Conference Finals. They were able to take the Cavs to a Game 7 without a pure shooting isolation point guard, and lacking a true wing scorer with the ability to drive. Imagine if the Celtics could find two players like that this offseason… Oh wait!

Without lifting a finger, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge gets his teams two most glaring needs filled on Opening Night of 2018-19. The Celtics will open with what could be considered an East Coast equivalent of the Warriors’ Death Lineup.

Assuming Brad Stevens goes with the same lineup as he did on Opening Night of this past season, the C’s will start Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford. Cus Crise indeed.

The question facing Ainge is this. Despite the obvious improvements, how does this team improve enough to all-but guarantee an NBA Finals berth? The priorities will be retaining guard Marcus Smart, and center Aron Baynes.

Smart is coming off of a season where he firmly established his importance to the Celtics. His hustle plays, combat muscles, grit, and energetic play on defense backed up his claim that he’s a “pit bull.” And he has even admitted that he wants to stay in Boston.

The money will be the issue for Ainge, who of course wants to retain Smart, but also is in love with below-market-value contracts. In a league where guys like Otto Porter are signed to $100 million-plus deals (and top 30 players like Blake Griffin net $172M), it’s not at all unrealistic for Smart to believe he’s worth “more than $12-14 million.”

The leading issue for Ainge in keeping Smart will be the leagues extremely punishing luxury tax rules. Despite owner Wyc Grousbeck’s affirmations that the checkbook is open, the league’s “repeater tax” will make sure it remains difficult to retain all of his guys.

Ainge will likely aim to sign Smart to a one-year, $10 million deal. While Smart obviously believes he is worth more, his noted inability to shoot the basketball will drag down his free agency value, and $10 million is likely in the range of what other teams would offer him; especially considering the league is across-the-board punished by a salary cap that didn’t inflate quite as much as it was supposed to with all those flashy TV deals.

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Smart obviously wants to stay in Boston, and who wouldn’t? They will likely, on the ability of their starting lineup alone, open the season as favorites to win the East. If the likes of Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant are willing to take pay cuts to stay in the Bay and win, why not Smart?

The other priority is Aron Baynes. Okay, maybe this one is a little bit more personal. He didn’t have any flashy stats throughout the season (6/5/1), but he magically discovered a 3-point stroke in the playoffs, and he played with a broken nose, and he also showed his chops as a leader (and champion) following the Celtics heartbreaking game seven loss.

Baynes has another bonus: he’s cheap. Ainge could realistically get Baynes for 2-3 years for $4-7 million. The Celtics are going to need to stay as far underneath the luxury tax as possible, which will not be very far, and Baynes affords them that opportunity.

I would be remiss to not address the elephant in the room. Even I have floated the idea of trading Kyrie Irving, as has much of sports media. Yes, it’s true that Irving was not needed by either the Celtics or Cavs to make the Eastern Conference Finals, but it’s also true that with Irving the Celtics would undoubtedly have downed the Cavs.

Those three-minute stretches the Celtics endured of not making baskets, or relying on at-times iffy shot selection from Terry Rozier to dig themselves out of the hole, are the times where Irving’s talent in isolation offense would shine. Let alone Gordon Hayward’s ability on the wing.

Yes, of course the Celtics are poised for the future. But nothing is set in stone, as one tweet comically reminds us.

It will be on Ainge to sustain his free agency prowess. He has the assets to do it (the Celtics have four first round picks in the 2019 draft).

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The future is bright, but it is not without uncertainty. With that said, in Lord Ainge We Trust.