If Boston Celtics fans were disappointed with the lack of a big-splash trade on draft night, it was maybe for this reason only: By not adding more established NBA talent, the Celtics seemingly failed to bolster their recruiting pitch for potential free agents looking for a surefire championship contender.
But make no mistake, there's no shortage of positives surrounding this Celtics team. And part of the reason that Boston was hesitant to make a move on draft night was to maintain the sort of financial flexibility that would allow the team to make the strongest pitch possible to free agents like Kevin Durant.
ESPN's Marc Stein reported Saturday that the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and incumbent Oklahoma City Thunder would be the first three teams to meet with Durant when free agency opens on July 1. The Vertical reported that Durant's reps were working to solidify invitations from other teams, including the Celtics.
Boston president of basketball operations Danny Ainge wouldn't take the bait when asked about free agency on Friday. Ainge said he couldn't talk specifics, but pressed on what his team needs, Ainge said, "Good players. We need help. We need some good players. And we have a lot of really good players. But, yeah, some more good players."
Durant is the obvious prize of an otherwise underwhelming 2016 free-agent class. The Celtics might not necessarily be the sort of obvious title contender that teams like the Warriors, Spurs, and Thunder are at the moment, but adding Durant would definitely move Boston neck-and-neck with the champion Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference.
Boston's sales pitch to Durant could include:
• Up-and-coming team: With 39-year-old Brad Stevens and his new long-term deal at the controls, these Celtics won 48 games and competed for a top spot in the East last season. Isaiah Thomas elevated to All-Star status, and Boston thrived behind an affordable and intriguing young core that includes the likes of Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Marcus Smart. Players like Thomas remain adamant that Boston is just one player away from being a legitimate contender.
• Cap space: The Celtics have a nine-man core signed to less than $34 million in guaranteed salary for next season. Thanks to draft-and-stash possibilities, Boston is unlikely to dent too much salary despite making six picks in Thursday's draft, and that leaves Boston with enough cap space to pursue two max-contract free agents this summer. The biggest part of Boston's pitch would be: Pick a friend to join you here. If Durant wants to play with fellow free agent Al Horford, the Celtics can sign both (and still have enough cash left to fill out their roster with the sort of capable role players that every title contender needs). If Durant prefers a star already on another roster, the Celtics have the assets to try to pry that player free.
• Sustainability: Some of the surefire title contenders might be able to create enough room to add Durant this summer, but their ability to continue adding talent -- or simply keep their stars -- further down the road would be compromised by their salary bloat. The Celtics have positioned themselves for long-term flexibility. And that's further aided by Boston's ridiculous draft-pick treasure chest. The Celtics can pitch Durant that, not only would Boston be an immediate title contender with him, but that they might also have the No. 1 pick in each of the next two drafts (if the Brooklyn Nets are slow to rebuild). There will be a steady influx of talent -- or at least tradable assets -- to ensure Boston remains competitive throughout the length of Durant's next contract.
• The tradition: Durant already gushed about the Celtics' tradition when the Thunder played here in March. Bringing banner No. 18 to Boston would cement his legacy as a player and make him a legend in these parts. If the Celtics were smart, they'd get other area sports stars like Tom Brady and David Ortiz to relay what it's like to have this city in the palm of your hand. If nothing else, he's got all those free crab legs promised by Legal Sea Foods.
Is that enough to compete with the likes of the Spurs or Warriors? That depends on what makes Durant tick. But Thomas, who has raved about playing in Boston, is adamant that the Celtics have a real chance to land Durant.
"We definitely have a shot [at recruiting Durant]. I know that for sure," Thomas said earlier this week on Sirius XM NBA radio. "And I’m just trying to reach out when I can and stay in his ear a little bit here and there. I know it’s a tough time for him because everybody’s probably trying to reach out and get him to go where they want him to go. But my relationship with him is real genuine, and hopefully I can get him to come to Boston and we can bring banner 18 here."
Truth be told, just getting a meeting with Durant would be a win for the Celtics. That would be the surest sign yet that star players are taking notice of what's happening in Boston. And even if Durant ultimately elects to stay in Oklahoma City or pursue a different challenge elsewhere, then other star players might think, "If Kevin Durant is considering Boston, maybe I should, too."