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Celtics still waiting for their dynasty to begin

Boston piled up assets for years and has gotten some key returns on it. But will it ever result in the dynasty it hoped for?

All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are two of the players Boston unearthed thanks to its stockpile of assets.

Not long after tipoff in a Celtics game last week, Kyrie Irving was a blur. He dribbled through and around defenders, dropped fadeaway jumpers and pulled up for 3-pointers to finish with 40 points. He was true to the prevailing theory in Boston that, if Irving played this way most nights, the Celtics would rarely lose.

Well, they lost last Thursday and it was mainly because Irving was on the other team — the one he left Boston to join. The cruel coincidence was how the other team was the Brooklyn Nets, who were fleeced by the Celtics in a trade eight years ago that was designed to give the Celtics the look of a dynasty in the near future — right about now, actually.

Instead, the Nets of all teams have passed by the Celtics — in the standings, in the number of superstars in uniform, in terms of a contender’s gleam — while Boston is left to wonder what happened to their golden opportunity … and whether it’s gone for good.

Irving lights up Celtics

Kyrie Irving was a force to be reckoned with in last week's Celtics-Nets game.

From 2013-18, the Celtics were hauling a motherlode of treasures that left most of the league jealous: lottery picks, mid-first-round picks, salary cap space and good players already on the roster. They had enough foundation-building wealth to take ownership of the Eastern Conference, and perhaps the NBA, provided they used those goodies wisely.

And why wouldn’t they? The man in charge was Danny Ainge, a proven talent-evaluator and slick negotiator whose reasonable risks mostly paid off even before the Brooklyn trade. Plus, this was the Celtics: a destination franchise, thick with glorious history, championship banners and money to spend.

Yet as they prepare to host the Utah Jazz, the 20-18 Celtics are merely a good team (perhaps no more than that) with a pair of All-Stars (neither of whom are Kia MVP material right now). After starting 2020-21 at 8-3, they went 7-14 from Jan. 17 to Feb. 24, generating fuss from a disgruntled fan base. Some of it was directed at coach Brad Stevens, who just a season ago was hailed as an ideal steward and final piece of the puzzle because of his smooth temperament and handling of the clipboard.

Since the famous trade on July 12, 2013 that dumped the aging Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and others on a desperate Brooklyn team and gifted the Celtics four first-round picks, Boston reached the conference finals three times, losing all three. That’s not exactly a shameful showing, and two of those defeats came to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

However, the big picture hints at a possible lost chance. All the Celtics have to show for their picks and cap space, in terms of impact players, is All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. It’s also about what they don’t have to show for it: Losing Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and Terry Rozier over the last two years, four crucial rotational players (and in the case of Irving, a superstar), and getting nothing of equal value in return.

Here’s what transpired and conspired to prevent a dynasty, in a nutshell: Isaiah Thomas got hurt (and traded), Hayward got hurt, Irving soured on the team (and vice versa), Hayward recovered but bolted for a bigger role and Horford chased long-term security elsewhere. Irving fled and his replacement, Kemba Walker, has fallen a level since arriving. And only two of those four Brooklyn picks (Tatum and Brown) are currently on the roster.

Again: Good team still … just not dynastic. Not even close. And right now, not even top-three in the East. Meanwhile, all those assets are spent.

While speaking to 98.5’s Toucher and Rich last Thursday, Ainge was realistic when he dismissed the Celtics as a title contender— to be fair, they were dealing with injuries then to Walker and Marcus Smart — said:

“Our roster obviously is not good. I mean, we are a 14-14 team. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. That’s who we are. This team, where we are, 14-14, if there’s somebody to blame, this is Danny Ainge to blame. This is not Brad Stevens. It’s not Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown. It’s not good enough right now. And we all know that. And, you know, we need to get better.”

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In hindsight, Ainge didn’t do a poor job, nor was he wasteful with those assets. This will sound strange, but a franchise that touts a shamrock and leprechaun was a bit unlucky, especially with injuries. The cap space was understandably used on Horford, Hayward and Irving — three stars who, for separate reasons, didn’t work out.

Here is a look back at the key moments in Boston’s timeline since the Pierce-Garnett trade:

The 2014 pick: It was 17th overall because Brooklyn hadn’t yet fallen off a cliff. Ainge drafted James Young, a 19-year-old shooter from Kentucky. It was a reasonable risk as Young had the present-day NBA skills that were supposed to be transferable … but they weren’t. He played 95 career games, shot 27.7% on 3-pointers in his career and is out of the NBA.

The 2016 pick: With the third overall selection, Ainge took Brown. At the time, Brown was somewhat of a questionable pick because he didn’t stand out in his only year in California. He has gradually improved and was named an All-Star reserve in 2021.

Thomas hurt in 2017, gets traded: The 5-foot-9 guard was acquired by Ainge from the Phoenix Suns at the 2015 trade deadline. He instantly became a TD Garden folk hero for his shooting, clutch play and showmanship. He went 43 straight games with 20 or more points, breaking John Havlicek’s club record. After mourning the death of his sister in the 2017 playoffs, he eventually returned and scored 53 points in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semis. He later suffered a serious hip injury that, to this day, haunts his career, which is being spent out of the NBA.

The 2017 pick: The Nets had reached rock bottom, which was great for the Celtics because it turned into the No. 1 overall pick. And Ainge deftly spun it into even more gold, trading down with the Sixers to take Tatum and also get an extra No. 1. Tatum is now a two-time All-Star and rates among the league’s best swingmen. But the Celtics were a bit unlucky here: The extra pick belonged to the Kings, traditionally a fixture in the Draft lottery. Yet they played reasonably well in 2019 and the pick dropped to No. 14. Ainge took Romeo Langford, a high school phenom who hasn’t grown since and had wrist surgery last fall. Just before the Celtics took Langford, Miami took Tyler Herro.

Hayward arrives in 2017, gets injured and then leaves: Ainge used a chunk of cap space on signing Hayward in 2017 at four years and $128 million, reuniting him with Stevens (his college coach). It was a universally hailed move, but Hayward sadly suffered a broken tibia and dislocated ankle in his Celtics debut. That ended his 2017-18 and his next season was an inconsistent one. By the time he began having flashbacks to his good years with the Utah Jazz, he was sharing time with Brown and Tatum. Anxious to start anew and carve a meatier role for himself, he headed to Charlotte via a sign-and-trade last offseason.

Irving and the 2018 pick: Seizing the chance to grab a disgruntled superstar — who wouldn’t? — Ainge packaged his final pick from the Brooklyn deal, along with some filler, to grab Irving. From a talent standpoint, this easily swung in Boston’s favor. Irving was not long removed from his championship-winning shot against the Golden State Warriors. He was the savior the Celtics lacked and the move was widely celebrated in Boston. After first saying he wanted to stay in Boston, Irving waffled about signing long-term after his debut season, quickly wore on his teammates and the city with his various moods and questionable comments, before finally signing with Brooklyn in 2019. As for that 2018 pick? It became Collin Sexton, a budding star in Cleveland.

In a less impactful event, Horford opted out and signed with the Sixers two summers ago. It was yet another defection in a short time span that caused stress within the Boston organization and dealt the Celtics a setback.

Ainge might have done a few things differently if given the chance. Instead of protecting those picks, he could’ve dealt them for immediate help, much like he did to get Irving. At various times, Ainge was in play for Anthony Davis and Paul George, although in each case, signing those players to long-term deals wasn’t guaranteed (and both wanted to go to Los Angeles, where they eventually landed). Plus, the best of those picks became Brown and Tatum.

And so, the Celtics have arrived here: squarely in the East playoff mix and still aspiring for so much more. Tatum and Brown are young, healthy and signed long term while rest of the roster isn’t so secure.

Walker has suffered from nagging injuries and sub-par shooting in his time with Boston. Friendly and team-oriented, he was a welcome change from Irving in that regard, yet Irving is the better player. Marcus Smart is a solid defender and improving shooter, but may never be good offensively. Everyone else is either developing or maxed out and beyond their prime.

This is what Boston is bringing against Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and the Sixers, and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks … and Kyrie, Kevin Durant and James Harden and the Nets. Those teams boast game-changing superstars and MVP candidates, exactly the level of talent Boston figured to flaunt by now.

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The dynasty projected for the Celtics years ago has yet to materialize, and that bounty they received from Brooklyn is gone. In an interesting twist, a handful of other teams have since followed Boston’s example and began hoarding picks over the last few years.

That strategy may pay off eventually for Oklahoma City and New Orleans and Houston. However, the Celtics are proof that nothing is for certain. In a 2013 lopsided trade that shook the league, the Celtics were initially celebrated … yet in Brooklyn right now, it’s the losing team that’s plotting a dynasty.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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