Celtics’ Investment in Youth Has Built Pathway for Sustainable Success

by Marc D'Amico

BOSTON – Building a basketball team is like building a business. It’s all about creating sustainable success.

One of the keys to doing so on both fronts is investing in young talent.

The Golden State warriors set the precedent in that realm by drafting and grooming their original core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. All three of those players are now between the ages of 28 and 30 years old, and Kevin Durant, who joined forces with them through free agency two summers ago, is just 29.

Golden State’s path toward four straight Finals appearances and three titles paved the way for what the Boston Celtics are now building. The difference is that the Celtics are investing in youth through three different avenues, rather than two: the Draft, free agency, and trades.

The strategy that Danny Ainge is utilizing has built a level of expected sustainability that is unrivaled in recent NBA history. Boston’s roster now consists of young stars in their prime, and even younger, budding stars who have yet to reach their prime.

No other team in the league can claim that it has a similar roster layout.

The foundation of Boston’s investment in youth was its 2013 trade with the Brooklyn Nets. During those trade conversations, the Celtics put a heavy emphasis on future draft assets. They went on to acquire the rights to four future first-round picks (three outright, and one pick-swap) in a trade that was headlined by Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett heading to Brooklyn.

Three of those four picks have helped to build the base of the roster, as they directly turned into Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, and indirectly turned into Kyrie Irving. Boston selected Brown third overall in the 2016 NBA Draft, and then selected Tatum third overall in the 2018 NBA Draft. We’ll get into Irving later.

Now that Brown is two seasons into his career, and Tatum has wrapped up his rookie campaign, it is clear to the Celtics and to the league that both players are well on their way to becoming bona fide forces within the league. They are cornerstone-level talents who are under Boston’s contractual control for the next three to four years at the very least, and the next seven to eight years at most.

Meanwhile, the Celtics have also made sure to quietly acquire other talent through the second round of the Draft. These selections have allowed the team to fill out the end of a pricey roster with competitive and youthful talent such as Semi Ojeleye and Abdel Nader, and even more picks – up to three first-rounders next year (via Sacramento, Memphis and the LA Clippers) – are still on their way.

Now, back to Irving, whom the Celtics acquired last August from the Cavaliers. Boston was able to acquire the now five-time All-Star largely in part to its ownership of Brooklyn’s 2018 lottery pick. Cleveland yearned for the rights to that pick, and Boston was willing to part ways with the pick if it yielded a player of Irving’s stature and youth.

The Celtics chose to invest in Irving through trade rather than in Isaiah Thomas, their former point guard, through a new contract in large part due to Irving’s youth. Irving was only 25 years old when Boston acquired him, while Thomas was already 28. The same can be said for some of the other All-Stars who were on the trade market at the time. Irving was the youngest and most impactful of the bunch. The move was a no-brainer.

Irving, now 26, is just about to enter his “prime” years, as evidenced by his compiling the most efficient season of his career during his first year with Boston. If he stays healthy, Irving likely has five or more seasons of superstar-level play remaining in his body.

So, too, does the final return on Boston’s investment in youth: Gordon Hayward.

Boston went all-in on its recruitment of Hayward during the free-agency period of last offseason. Eventually, it secured his services via a max-level contract.

Hayward, a 2017 NBA All-Star who averaged at least 19.3 points per game during his previous three seasons, was only four months removed from his 27th birthday when he signed his contract with Boston.

While Hayward was lost for the season on Opening Night in 2017, he is expected to make a full recovery and is currently in the midst of his age-related prime seasons. His acquisition through free agency was the culmination of Boston’s three-pronged attack of investing in youth.

The Celtics prioritized youth through the NBA Draft, and that prioritization led to the drafting of two prized talents in Brown and Tatum, each of whom is 21 years old or younger.

They prioritized youth through trades, and that led to the acquisition of a 25-year-old superstar in Irving.

They prioritized youth through free agency, and that led to the signing of a 27-year-old All-Star in Hayward.

Now, with all of that work having been completed, Boston has a core of 28-and-under talent that is unmatched in the NBA. The Celtics are built for sustainable success thanks to their measured and precise investment in youth.

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