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The Celtics maintain their awkward status quo

Boston failed to make a big splash again, annoying an antsy fanbase looking for payoff for their many assets. But the Celtics still have the luxury of patience.

The Boston Celtics have 12 players under contract from a 48-win team that posted a top-10 offense and a top-five defense. All of their core players are younger than 26 years old and are either on rookie contracts or team-friendly veteran deals. They have no cap problems, miles of flexibility and are well-stocked in future draft choices. Oh and they also had the third pick in the draft thanks to an Auerbachian swindle of the Brooklyn Nets that is only halfway through being paid off.

The Celtics used that third pick on Jaylen Brown, a 19-year-old freshman from Cal who was one of the most polarizing prospects in the draft. Brown has the kind of size and athleticism that translates well to the wing in the NBA, but not the shooting. At least not yet. He’s a projection pick in a draft that was described as mediocre and lacking in star talent.

(Brown is also really smart. He took graduate level courses at Cal and liked to play chess around Berkeley. Some teams supposedly saw his intelligence as a red flag. The Celtics clearly did not. You can read more about Brown in a Sunday Shootaround I wrote after the Chicago combine.)

What he’s not is Jimmy Butler or any other established young star that fans had been pinning their hopes on for the last year or so. The Celtics were involved in Butler talks but the cost has been described as prohibitive. A true accounting will reveal the details, but while there was a lot of smoke around Butler, he’s still with the Bulls so maybe he wasn’t as available as people want him to be.

Adding Brown and a couple of international prospects who are likely to be stashed won’t move the needle for the Celtics. Dealing a couple of second rounders for yet another future first rounder didn’t pacify the angry mob either. All this gritty overachieving and asset gathering is fine as far as it goes, but people want results and they want them yesterday.

Ah, yesterday. It was only three years ago that the Celtics had a capped-out, aging roster and a coach trying to get out of town. Now they have a young, competitive team and a rising star on the sidelines in Brad Stevens who just re-upped for the long term.

Go around the league and people rave about the job Ainge has done. When you get a Sam Hinkie shoutout for spinning Jordan Crawford into something tangible, you know you’re winning on the margins. Go around Boston and people are frustrated at the slow pace of Danny Ainge’s rebuild.

Both sides have a point.

Ainge has slow played this because he can. It’s one thing to hoard assets, it’s another to have so many of them that the timeline stretches out years while fielding a competitive team that doesn’t threaten their ability to cash in eventually. Probably. Maybe?

Even if they do nothing but draft Brown and add a rotation player or two, they are still in good shape for the future with a pick swap coming from Brooklyn in next year’s draft and the Nets’ pick in 2018. Those choices look even better after the Nets dealt Thaddeus Young to the Pacers.

There’s also a future Memphis choice to be conveyed in a few years that may look mighty good depending on what the Grizzlies do this offseason and now a pick from the Clippers coming by 2019 at the earliest. The worst thing Ainge can do isn’t maintaining the status quo, it’s blowing the haul on a mistake that sets the franchise back years.

But assets are only as valuable as what the market determines them to be, and so far it has determined that Ainge’s collection is more trash than treasure. He has a roster full of good players, but little in the way of potential stardom that would anchor a trade package. His draft record of late has been mixed.

Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk represented good value, but JaJuan Johnson and Fab Melo were busts of the highest order. Marcus Smart was a solid choice, but the jury is still way out on James Young, Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter.

The Brown choice will be the biggest determining factor on his record. A few years ago Ainge told me that the ones you can’t miss on are the high lottery choices. The third pick was the highest he’s ever made.

If Ainge had his way, he would have turned all those picks into something by now but it takes more than smarts and determination to make a franchise-changing move and here the Celtics have found themselves on the dark side of lady luck. Scoring the third pick in a two-player draft allowed them to control the board but not much else. The rising cap doesn’t help their leverage. Deals signed two and three years ago now look like bargains in the current environment, and those players have far greater value than they might have had under normal circumstances.

There have also been few, if any, franchise-worthy players up for auction since they started this process. The names that have been bandied about -- Butler, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Love -- may not be as available as one would think and the others like Paul George and Gordon Hayward are more fantasy than reality. Once again circumstances beyond their control have not helped.

To wit:

  • By trading Derrick Rose, the Bulls have set the stage for a re-tool around Butler that presumably doesn’t include free agents Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. There’s enough good stuff left on the roster to position Butler as the team’s marquee star and not fall too far in the pecking order. That they entertained offers again is interesting, but that there was no deal to be made indicates that they weren’t serious about moving him.
  • The pendulum on a prospective Kevin Love trade, which has swung between inevitable and out of reach, shifted again after Love’s gritty Game 7 performance in the Finals. With a championship in his back pocket, Cavs GM David Griffin is under no pressure to deal. Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder both make a ton of sense for the Cavs and Griff is well-positioned to ask for both.
  • Cousins is well, Cousins. The Celtics have long debated the merits of going after the mercurial big man and the Kings have been in a constant state of flux for so long that it’s impossible to gauge anyone’s true interest in pursuing a deal.

To be sure, the Celtics have put themselves in odd positions throughout this process. Few people blinked when they swung a three-way deal with the Cavs and Nets to take Tyler Zeller and a first-round pick (that was later used for Isaiah Thomas) and used cap space mechanisms to route Jarrett Jack to Brooklyn. That deal cleared enough space for LeBron James’ return and pushed the Cavs to the front of the line in the initial Love sweepstakes. They knew that was possible going in, but someone was going to do it so why not take advantage of the situation?

Adding Thomas for basically nothing at the 2015 trade deadline was a similar coup, but it also affected their trajectory. Their subsequent playoff run was fun and exciting until they got swept. That massive letdown was not nearly as damaging as draft night last June when they couldn’t swing a deal to take Justise Winslow, who happened to fall right into Pat Riley’s lap after the Heat conceded the postseason race.

And so the Celtics are stuck in a very unique kind of NBA limbo. They have everything going for them and very little to show for it. Another GM would feel the pressure but Ainge has long resisted the hue and cry from the gallery to do something -- anything! -- right this very instant. He waited years to pull the plug on the Big 3 and made out like a bandit. He kept Rajon Rondo long enough to get Jae Crowder and some dude named Guerschon Yabusele. He’ll keep playing this hand for as long as he can, too, but it’s fair to wonder if it was as strong as we might have thought.

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Why Bulls fans should like the Derrick Rose trade

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