Wednesday night, on one day of rest, the Boston Celtics take on the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Cavs are prohibitive favorites, not only in Game 1 in Boston, but for the series as a whole — despite the fact that the Celtics are the higher-seeded team.
Boston knows that it doesn't have a roster capable of stopping LeBron James from going to his seventh straight NBA Finals. The Celtics knew it going into the season and halfway through it as well.
But despite having everything you need (and more) to go out and acquire another star player to bolster their 2017 title chances, the Celtics stood pat through the trade deadline.
Last night, we received an answer.
The Celtics won the NBA Draft lottery Tuesday and as a result will get the first pick of what is being called a generational draft class.
The Celtics, who, again, are the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, landed the No. 1 overall draft pick by virtue of one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history, which sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn and returned two first-round picks (2016, 2018) and a pick swap (2017) to Boston.
Given the Nets' futility, those three first-round picks have turned into three of the strongest assets in the NBA, but holding onto them involved risk.
Tuesday night, that risk paid off in a big way — it was the best-case scenario for the Celtics.
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Now that the Celtics have the No. 1 overall pick, trade rumors are going to start flying. Conjecture that the Celtics were looking to acquire Jimmy Butler and Paul George during the season was relentless, and talk of that kind of blockbuster will come back into the forefront over the next month.
But Boston would be well served to use the pick and select Markelle Fultz, the hyper-talented point guard out of Washington.
Believe it or not, Boston is currently in a title window — it's just jammed by LeBron (and the Warriors). But by holding onto the first overall pick, the Celtics have an incredible opportunity to extend that title window into the next decade.
That's an opportunity the Celtics have to take.
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When the Nets' 2017 draft pick was ambiguous, it was, again, a risk for GM Danny Ainge to hold — one (star) in the hand is better than two (draft picks that could land stars) in the bush, right?
But now that we know it's the No. 1 pick, the Celtics need to go all-in on the long game they've been playing.
It was, and remains, the prudent play for a simple reason: No one knows when LeBron James will start to decline, but such a downturn does not appear imminent.
While James might have taken off the second half of the season (perhaps a byproduct of a lack of serious competition in the Eastern Conference), no one could mistake that sandbagging for a decline in skills — The King is still at the peak of his powers.
So why did the Celtics not bolster their lineup to stop him this year? In retrospect, it's easy to see: The result of this season was always going to be losing in the Eastern Conference finals. (And if not, who needed Jimmy Butler anyway?)
But by playing the long game, the Celtics have the incredible chance to not only be LeBron's top competition now, but to also to be the best team standing when LeBron finally takes that step back.
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When that (presumably inevitable) downturn comes, the Cavaliers will not be in a position to overcome it. Yes, Kyrie Irving will likely be entering his peak, but the Cavs are currently deep in luxury tax hell and are only going to dive deeper into it when James signs his next massive contract with the team. There's no flexibility and that only further ionizes the bond between the Cavs' success and James' into the future.
Boston just needs to wait it out. The reward for doing so should be great because the Eastern Conference remains a mess.
The next-best team in the East, the Raptors, have their timing all wrong. If the Raptors re-sign Kyle Lowry, their title-contention window will extend by another two or three years — is LeBron going to stop being LeBron inside of this decade? That's a bold bet to put hundreds of millions of Loonies on.
As for the other teams in the East that could undercut the Celtics' long-con plan, there are the upstart Bucks, who will have a hard time attracting free agents but could turn into a true title contender around Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the 76ers, who are a projection at best, years into The Process.
Boston is already the second-best team in the East. The Celtics have the money to add another max-contract player this summer via free agency (Gordon Hayward?) or trade (that 2018 Nets pick is still available), and they will have two young, top-flight talents in Jaylen Brown and (presumably) Fultz come June.
No one is sitting prettier than the Celtics.
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It's fair to say that Boston's current title-contention window could run another three or four years — the Celtics will be right in it until 2020, as is. Al Horford is going to remain a viable NBA big man for that period of time and while Isaiah Thomas probably won't have a long peak, you can't dismiss the idea of him being a top-flight NBA scorer for the same period. Young role players will continue to improve as well.
Adding another star this summer strengthens the squad and perhaps adds another year or two to the Celtics' window. Still, you might not overcome LeBron in that period of time.
But adding Fultz could extend that contention window for more than a decade.
LeBron might not be mortal, but Fultz won't be 28 until 2026. James can't keep this up this level of play until age 42, right?
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The good fortune of landing a franchise-changing player like Fultz could bring about collateral damage in Boston, though.
But Celtics fans shouldn't view that as a bad thing.
Many teams are forced into big personnel decisions because political downside and market forces outweigh the logic of a situation. Look, again, at the Raptors — do they really want to give Kyle Lowry a five-year deal worth $200-plus million? Do they really think that the All-Star point guard is going to be worth more than $45 million a season at age 35? Of course not, but someone will give him a four-year max offer this summer and what's the alternative for Toronto, a rebuild? That'd be a bold play.
So Toronto will probably torpedo its chances of being competitive four, five, six, seven years from now in exchange for being competitive (see: the Raptors might take a game or two from the Cavs) over the next two or three seasons.
By playing the long game, Boston doesn't have to make that kind of decision — and make no mistake, one was looming:
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Isaiah Thomas' contract is up in the summer of 2018. With his performance this season, there's no question he is deserving of something close to a max contract, and some team is going to throw it his way when he hits the open market next offseason.
If Thomas is an All-NBA performer again in 2018 (he should be one this year), he will qualify as a Designated Veteran Player, meaning he can land a six-year deal from Boston, which in all likelihood would prove to be a franchise-sinking albatross deal under normal circumstances. Remember, the Celtics have to hide this guy on one end of the court now — will he be playable in three or four seasons?
But because the Celtics will have a stable of young players and/or another star to play with Horford, Boston won't feel so compelled to pay Thomas more than fair value. The Celtics can negotiate from a place of strength in a league that's dominated by star players.
That could mean Thomas leaves Boston, but because the Celtics played the long game, the team's best player leaving after next season isn't a death blow to the Celtics' short or long-term competitiveness.
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Had the Celtics found themselves picking No. 2 or No. 5, they'd be in a different situation — they'd be adding a solid prospect, one who could blossom in the right environment and perhaps be a star. But by picking No. 1, they get Fultz.
The Washington guard is, of course, the key to this whole thing. But in a deep draft, he's the clear-cut No. 1 pick. In a point-guard dominant, pick-and-roll NBA (that's not going away anytime soon, by the way), he's a franchise-defining prospect.
He can score at three levels, he can create offense in both transition and the half-court. He has a pure jump shot and elite athleticism that allows him to play off the ball, and the length and tenacity to be a top-flight on-ball defender. He's exactly what every team wants.
He could also be a bust.
While it seems highly unlikely that he's not a viable NBA player, no one really knows how Fultz will fare. The Celtics still carry some risk.
But this is a player who, like Giannis and Embiid, could turn a moribund franchise into a future title contender.
If Fultz comes even close to his prodigious ceiling in Boston, that same sentiment will apply to Boston's teams in the next decade — whatever the Celtics might look like.
And if they have any resemblance (in results, not necessarily personnel) to the team Brad Stevens is putting on the floor tonight, Boston should be in a perfect position to win titles.