The Boston Celtics should’ve traded for Paul George. At least that’s the argument against president of basketball operations Danny Ainge’s grand plan to create a team that’ll make LeBron James squirm.
But suppose the Celtics already have the future Paul George on the roster?
That’s what Ainge is banking on, apparently. Instead of sending multiple assets to the Indiana Pacers for the four-time All-Star George (who eventually was traded to Oklahoma City Thunder), Ainge chose to put his faith in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, a pair of young and versatile swingmen who may prove him right at some point.
Their play in the Summer League is dropping favorable hints. Brown and Tatum are clearly above the level of competition here and are showing the traits you want to see: athleticism, speed, aggressiveness and the ability to play multiple positions.
Yet how much will this translate into meaningful minutes, roles and production during the regular season and playoffs?
As the Celtics await the arrival of Gordon Hayward and figure out how to fill the holes left behind by the salary-dumping (Kelly Olynyk) necessary to clear salary cap space to sign him, the team is exploring how to remake themselves in light of the changes. In a sense, the Celtics are “rebuilding” in that this team will be different (and maybe better) than the one that reached the 2017 Eastern Conference finals.
Much of that might depend on whether Brown and Tatum are ready to contribute in 2017-18. Brown, 20, was in and out of the Celtics’ lineup last season but did secure a spot late in the season and throughout the playoffs. Tatum, 19, hasn’t played in actual NBA game yet.
That could be a lot to ask for a team that hopes to challenge LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers, and why the better option could’ve been creating a trade package good enough to get George and pair him with Hayward and star guard Isaiah Thomas.
The Celtics tried and there were trade conversations with the Pacers. So how did Ainge, armed with multiple first-round picks and young talent to use as bait, fail to out-bid OKC (which surrendered only Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis)? Was Ainge far too stubborn for his own good, and did he blow a golden chance to pair George with Hayward and put greater pressure on the Cavs?
Only Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard and Ainge know for sure. George might’ve been a one-year rental, and re-signing him and Thomas next summer would’ve been a challenge for a team with Hayward and Al Horford already making $25 million-plus per season.
You can’t pay everyone. And that’s why Ainge sees value in his young players and future No. 1 picks. They’re cheap talent that can be developed while keeping the payroll manageable. When it’s time to pay those young players in three or four seasons, the contracts of Horford and the others will be ready to come off the books.
In the meantime, those young players must contribute for the Celtics to stay among the top title-contenders. Which brings us back to Tatum and Brown. From his vantage point, coach Brad Stevens likes what he sees so far.
“It’s been fun to watch,” he said. “Certainly encouraged by a lot.”
Ainge traded down from the No. 1 spot in the 2017 Draft to get Tatum and also add another future first-rounder to the Celtics’ kitty. Tatum was solid in the Utah Summer League and there’s a carryover so far in Las Vegas. He averaged 18.7 points and 9.7 rebounds in Utah and is at 17.7 and eight rebounds in Vegas. His shooting has been sporadic (41 percent) but the signs are mainly positive.
“He knows how to play,” Stevens said. “He can put the ball in the basket. He’s also had something that have been eye openers for him, too. This league is tough, whether it’s people playing him physically, figuring out which shot is the best to take, that’s something you learn over time. I’ve been encouraged by his defensive play. As he builds strength, it will be a positive.”
Brown has taken on a mentor role in Vegas with Tatum by sharing what he experienced as a rookie. The two have developed a relationship and Brown is impressed.
“He’s transitioning well,” Brown said. “The sky’s the limit for him. He’s going to be a key part of our team. His story is going to write itself. he’s going to be alright. But I told him about the difference between summer league and the season and it’s drastic. There’s not going to be a lot of chances to make mistakes when the season starts. I think he knows that. He’s also got to complement Al and Isaiah and the other guys. It’ll be a transition.”
Brown has been more polished in Summer League, averaging 13.9 ppg combined in Utah and Las Vegas while dazzling with highlight-worthy plays. The Celtics’ offseason trade of Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons could give Brown extended minutes at that position come 2017-18.
“He’s a guy who can do that, and the more positions he can guard, the ore flexible we can be,” Stevens said. “He guarded lots of `twos’ as the season went on, and he had that stretch when he was starting and we were throwing him on guys to give him experience. He’s a good enough athlete to guard more than one position.”
Brown said: “I’m comfortable at any position. Wherever Brad wants me, that’s where I’ll be. I’ll do whatever it takes to get on the floor and help the team. My goal is to be ready and get better every day.”
Brown, Thomas, Horford, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier return from last season’s rotation, with Hayward soon joining the mix. That leaves a few extra spots and unless Ainge makes another move or two before training camp, Tatum will see time at the end of the rotation – and perhaps a bigger role if he’s a serious Kia Rookie of the Year contender.
“It’s going to be competitive and a lot of guys want to get on the floor,” said Brown. “There’s going to be a lot of matchup and position changes. After everything that has happened, this will challenge some guys to step out of their comfort zone.”
Ultimately, the Celtics will learn this season if they can step out of their comfort zone, which is right behind the Cavs. George would’ve given them a major step forward. By relying on young players instead, that step might be a baby one initially.