In the immediate aftermath of the 2015 NBA trade deadline, the Boston Celtics huddled in Sacramento for an off-day practice. Boston had just swung a couple of buzzer-beating deals that delivered Isaiah Thomas and Jonas Jerebko -- two key players in Boston's impending second-half surge to the playoffs -- but coach Brad Stevens hardly looked like a man thrilled with another roster overhaul.
Those deadline deals brought the Celtics to 11 trades involving 25 different players since the start of the league year. It also brought Boston to seven in-season trades and 40 total roster players. What's more, Stevens would divulge at that same practice that the Celtics were losing Jared Sullinger for the rest of the season due to a foot injury.
"The constant change, it’s certainly a challenge," Stevens said.
The second-year coach certainly knew that these moves had potential to help his team, though Stevens probably couldn't have known just how much of a jolt Thomas would provide. The more immediate challenge was integrating three new faces on the fly and replacing a key starting big man, all while trying to build off what Boston had done before the break in winning four of its final five games, including a thriller over the Eastern Conference-leading Hawks right before the recess.
For a coach that craves stability and consistency, it was hard to stomach the idea of more change when his team finally seemed to be headed in the right direction.
Fast forward to this season. The Celtics find themselves at 32-23 overall -- 12 wins better than this time a year ago -- and owning the third best record in the Eastern Conference. After Boston closed out the first half with a thrilling overtime win over the Los Angeles Clippers, Stevens was asked about the looming trade deadline.
"I trust our front office to make the right recommendations and the right calls to help our team," he said. "I think it would have to be something unique to continue to help our team. I think that we’ve got a lot of future flexibility and, at the same time, we've got a hard-playing group of guys. There’s a lot of room to improve with the group that’s in there. My focus will be on that."
The Celtics, armed with the war chest of assets built through all the change that Stevens has endured during the past 32 months, find themselves in a unique position at this year's deadline. Boston has enough desirable parts that it has cropped up in just about every trade rumble -- regardless of its veracity -- and yet you can easily make the case that Boston's best play this week is to sit things out.
That's an unpopular option in Boston where some see a wide-open Eastern Conference and want Boston to splurge with its assets, even if that short-sighted philosophy runs counter to how the Celtics put themselves in this position to begin with.
Should Boston, which hasn't made a trade since July and has the same 15-man roster it started the season with, mess with its chemistry? The simple answer is that the team ought to let last year be its guide. The Celtics should make a move only if the price is reasonable and it helps the team both now and into the future.
The Celtics were fortunate to find that sort of deal last year. It doesn't happen often. And it might not happen this year. As hard as it is to remember amid the deadline hysteria, the Celtics have put themselves in great position now and in the future, regardless of whether they make a deal.
"I'm excited about what's going on here"
Maybe it was just the afterglow of an overtime win over one of the best teams in the Western Conference, but there was an undeniable energy in the Celtics' locker room after Wednesday's win and it wasn't just the looming week's vacation the team was set to enjoy at the All-Star break.
"We're at a solid area right now," All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas said. "The scary thing about it is we know we can do better. I'm excited about what's going on here and we have to continue to put our foot on the pedal."
Asked if he senses something big looming for the Celtics, Jae Crowder said, "We see it’s happening." He later added about the deadline, "Guys in the locker room, we’re sticking together and we’re fighting. Let the other stuff -- the talk and all that -- take care of itself. We have no control over that."
Just because the players in the locker room like the chemistry and potential of this squad, doesn't mean that Boston shouldn't explore moves. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has reaffirmed numerous times that, as currently constituted, the Celtics do not have the talent to compete for a title and it's unclear if they could even make a true charge at winning the East.
So Ainge must be diligent in exploring ways to add another impact player, something that could also help the team recruit more free-agent talent this summer. But the cost at this time of season is typically high and Ainge shouldn't overpay just because Boston has so many assets.
What Celtics brass is likely to keep in mind is that the team is in a pretty good spot with 27 games remaining in the regular season. The Celtics sit seventh overall in ESPN's Basketball Power Index and project at 48.8 wins and the third seed in the East (what's more, the nearby Hawks project at 2.5 fewer wins, giving Boston a bit of a cushion in its quest to land a top-three spot, and the opportunity to avoid the Cavaliers until the conference finals).
BPI projects Boston with a 61.6 percent chance at a top-three seed, including a 55 percent at No. 3. Staying there would mean that Boston's path to the East finals would be: A home-court series versus a bottom-three seed in the East and a 2-3 matchup against the Toronto Raptors.
That's still daunting for a young team low on star power, but, as former Celtics coach Doc Rivers said Wednesday, "Listen, [these Celtics are] not scared of anybody."
What's more, Boston would enter the summer with all of its assets preserved -- including that glitzy unprotected Brooklyn pick (currently 44.8 percent chance at top three and 91 percent top five) -- and could start the process of building a more surefire contender without disrupting this season's squad or sacrificing assets.
Make no mistake: The Celtics should consider moves at the deadline. There's still too many big men and Boston should consider any move in which a team is willing to take on David Lee's contract (as unlikely as that might be outside of a bigger deal). The Celtics could also use some wing depth as they got to the first-half finish line with Crowder being held together by rubber bands (and it's obvious their depth behind him is inexperienced at best).
But these blockbusters for the likes of Dwight Howard, Al Horford and Kevin Love? They're fun to fantasize about, though much harder to make a reality. There's little harm in waiting until the summer to explore the next step. Between now and then, the Celtics can enjoy seeing how far this scrappy team can go and find out exactly where that Brooklyn pick lands.
The Celtics have been patient in getting this far in their rebuild and there's no deadline on taking the final leap to true contender status.