Premise 1: The NBA is such a star driven league that you can't win a championship without an MVP level talent.
If you've been reading this blog for a while, you should know that I am a strong supporter of this premise. Going back for decades, the only team to win an NBA Championship recently without an MVP level talent on their team has been the Detroit Pistons. If you'd like to read more about my justification for this premise you should check out this article.
Premise 2: The Celtics do not have an MVP level talent on this roster and are unlikely to acquire one with the season about to begin.
Some folks have a pretty high opinion of Rajon Rondo. Even his biggest fanboys like DP don't delude themselves into thinking he's an MVP caliber player. Even in his best years playing with multiple future hall of famers Rajon was never even close to an MVP award. He's been in the league for 8 full seasons at this point. He's not going to make some great leap in talent now. He is what he is. He's a very good player and a perennial all-star, but he'll never be more than that.
I don't mean to dismiss Marcus Smart before he's played a minute of actual NBA basketball. There are some cases of players selected around or after the 6th pick in the draft going on to have MVP level careers. Dirk Nowitzki was a 9th pick. Kobe Bryant was 13th. Steve Nash was 15th. Karl Malone was 13th. The Celtics media team was happy to point out that Larry Bird was a 6th pick. By all indications Smart is off to a good start, shows serious talent and still has room to develop. Even with all this cautious optimism we need to take a realistic approach to this. There are some caveats for those guys that got selected later. Dirk was an international when those were less common. Kobe Bryant was 17 years old and the first guard ever to be taken directly out of high school. Red Auerbach was operating on a completely different level from the other NBA franchises at the time in terms of talent evaluation. He was able to see Larry Bird for what he really was and knew exactly how to use him to his full potential. For all the teams that strike gold on some of these later picks, there are dozens of guys who are just good, solid players and some guys who are just complete busts. Even if we hit the lottery with Marcus Smart and he is the next big thing, he will probably need more time to develop and more time to assemble the right pieces around him.
Conclusion 1: The Celtics will not contend for a championship this year.
Even if things broke right for the Celtics, there is some serious competition out of the East this year. The Bulls with a healthy Derrick Rose look scary. Lebron has assembled a new big 3 in Cleveland with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Remember when we were talking about whether or not Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony and Rajon Rondo could be a contender? By comparison the Love/Lebron/Irving Big 3 is a juggernaut. That's not even getting into the quality teams out in the west. The deals weren't out there to make the Celtics a team that could compete with the likes of that, so Danny Ainge did the smart thing and made a tactical concession. He used his pick on a good developing player and continues to accumulate assets for when the time is right.
Going back to Premise 1, we need to find an MVP level talent. The highest hit rate on getting those guys comes at the top of the 1st round in the lottery picks. Many teams get caught "in the middle" where they qualify for the low playoff seeds and get crushed or get low percentage chances at the top pick and they never get that MVP level talent they need to truly compete. Even if you miss out on the very top of the round, you're getting your best chance by picking higher. It gives you the best trade assets to lure one of those top level talents.
Conclusion 2: If the Celtics can't win a championship this year and getting stuck in the middle will jeopardize future seasons, the best course of action is to tank the season.
Danny Ainge can't come right out and say that this is his plan for this season. The NBA competition committee would throw a fit. Ainge's actions speak louder than his words. He made no significant acquisitions of any kind and continued to stockpile draft picks, trade exceptions and expiring contracts.He couldn't set off the fireworks that he wanted, but the assets are still there. When the opportunity to add that MVP level talent comes he will have the trade chips and cap space he needs to make it happen. Wouldn't it be great if he had a lottery pick to barter with or a highly regarded talent acquired with that pick to lure in an MVP caliber player? It could be yours if you're willing to endure another embarrassing season on the bottom of the standings. I am certainly willing to swallow my Celtic pride for another season if it puts us in the best position to compete going forward. If you care more about raising banners than regular season wins you should embrace the tank job. We'll be back, but it's going to require patience and good timing.