- Chris Forsberg, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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By most informed opinions, the Boston Celtics did well for themselves in the 2014 NBA draft. Utilizing a pair of first-round selections, the Celtics emerged with Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart and Kentucky swingman James Young, two players with potential to be quality players at the next level.
Some will quibble with the idea of using a rare high-lottery pick to add depth at the only position on the team that currently boasts an All-Star-caliber player, but the Celtics maintained leading up to and after the event that beggars can't be choosers. The Celtics picked Smart at No. 6 because they believe he will have the best NBA career of those who were still available.
The biggest lingering complaint among Celtics fans is simply that no one knows exactly where the Celtics will go from here. In adding two more skilled, young players, Boston is constructing an intriguing, low-cost nucleus upon which to build, but the "draft and develop" path often requires the sort of patience that fans in this region don't own.
The Celtics still have the sort of assets that can help accelerate the rebuilding process, though to what extent is unclear at this point. Boston has the means to add some established talent this summer, but you can't help but wonder whether it's better to simply endure another lean season, heavy on development, rather than improve just enough to get stuck in the sort of low-seed, early-playoff exit rut that many middle-of-the-pack teams encounter.
For his part, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge didn't reveal his preferred GPS route on Thursday. Pressed after the draft on whether he envisions the 2014-15 season as one focused on the team's younger players, Ainge hesitated to offer a road map.
"We'll see. We'll see what happens the rest of the summer," he said. "I'm not sure yet. It's too early to say that. I mean, it's an emphasis always to develop young players, so we're always trying to do that. But how many of them we have and what our final roster is, I don't know. But we're very excited about these two guys and our young core right now."
When Kevin Love visited Boston earlier this month, his presence suggested a chance to immediately compete again. Armchair GMs crunched the numbers and submitted a simple, but viable, blueprint: Use picks and a young power forward to help land Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves; pluck defensive-minded center Omer Asik from the Houston Rockets using the $10.3 million trade exception generated from last year's blockbuster swap with the Brooklyn Nets; make a couple other complementary moves and -- bing, bang, boom -- instant Eastern Conference contender.
But Minnesota balked at Boston's offer for Love, Houston agreed to a deal that will soon send Asik to New Orleans and anything else that Ainge had up his sleeve leading to the draft fizzled when the team couldn't find a willing dance partner.
To be sure, there are players beyond the likes of Love and Asik who can help Boston sprint back toward the contender pack. But ponder this: What if another lean season meant an even better chance at reestablishing the Celtics' status as a contender next summer?
The truth is the Celtics don't have any cap space available this summer, at least not without renouncing the rights to many of the assets that give them an actual chance of adding (or maintaining) talent. A more captivating cap situation looms next summer, particularly if Boston can move the final year of Gerald Wallace's contract (and especially if Jeff Green performs well enough next season to opt out of the final year of his pact).
For the sake of this exercise, let's assume Keith Bogans and his nonguaranteed deal is moved this summer (and Chris Babb doesn't make the roster, either). Next summer, if the Celtics did not carry Wallace or Green, their current salary projection for the 2015-16 season would look something like this:
Marcus Smart - $3.4 million
Jared Sullinger - $2.3 million
Kelly Olynyk - $2.2 million
Vitor Faverani - $2.2 million (nonguaranteed)
James Young - $1.8 million
Chris Johnson - $981,000 (nonguaranteed)
Phil Pressey - $947,000 (nonguaranteed)
Even if you add roster hopeful Colton Iverson to that mix, it's still an eight-man group at a commitment of approximately $14 million. Early projections put the salary cap for the 2015-16 season at $66.5 million. Now, with salary-cap holds, it's not as simple as suggesting the Celtics would have $52.5 million to play with. That said, the team would likely have a sizable amount to work with on the free-agent market, all while figuring out what Rajon Rondo's future is here.
There's still an awful lot of work to get to that point, but the suggestion is this: If Boston can be fiscally responsible this offseason -- maybe splurging only to bring back Avery Bradley at a reasonable cost or only adding long-term contracts for players who can help down the road -- then the team could really position itself well to be a long-term contender starting next summer.
Is that ideal? Not in these parts, where one down year is too many.
Just remember, not only would the Celtics have that low-cost base to build around, but they could have as many as four picks in the top, say, 35 spots in next year's draft. Yes, only one -- their own -- would likely be in the high lottery. But Boston also stands to have the Los Angeles Clippers first-rounder (late 20s; thanks, Doc!), along with the Philadelphia 76ers' second-round pick (early 30s; thanks, Steez!) -- if the 76ers miss the playoffs -- and its own second-rounder (early 30s).
We're all shortsighted around here, but the big picture is worth your consideration.
Now, Ainge might find himself a deal that he likes in early July and navigate a different path that thrusts Boston back into the mix next season. Heck, a healthier Rondo, coupled with Boston's developing young nucleus, might just be enough to take a decent step forward in the East.
But if that doesn't happen, just keep the long-term vision in mind. The path is not clear and it might take longer than most prefer, but the Celtics can keep the finish line in sight with the right steps along the way.
The Celtics' race to rebuild could benefit from a slow and steady pace.